Overcoming Resistance: Paper Clutter

I’ve been journaling  off and on since middle school, far more off than on until a few years ago. Looking back at the collective experience, I can identify three major perks of putting my pen, pencil, or Sharpie to paper. First, journaling is a fabulous way to explore my feelings. I’ve written my way through all manner of crises through the years, things that were all jumbled up in my head but seemed to make sense on paper (eventually).

Also, regular journaling is a fabulous way to document experiences that might otherwise slip right out of memory banks. For example, I have the most magical archives from my pregnancies and early motherhood. There are thoughts and experiences that otherwise would have long ago slipped from my mind.

The third thing is by far the most transformative, or at least it has been to me. It’s the exposure of something of a dark side, that which I affectionately refer to as the bullshit factor. There is something undeniably concrete about writing down the things you say you are going to do and then following up in writing about how it’s going from day to day. How many days can you write, “I didn’t do it again today because blah, blah, blah…,” before you start to want to pitch yourself out the window? It turns out, for me, it’s not that long.

Ironically, the writing trick even worked with the writing. When I committed to Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” program, it meant writing morning pages every day. I wrote a couple of days, then something “came up” and I missed a day. Then, it was a few days, and before I knew it almost every entry started with, “Well, I haven’t written in a while…” Blah. It only took a few weeks before I got sick of watching my hand write the excuses. I couldn’t not notice how I wasn’t doing what I said I was going to do, that which would result in something I claimed to want. It was like shining a light on my promise, and it kept me from wandering off.

When we experience resistance, it’s easy to move on to something else. There is always something willing to take my attention when the task at hand cultivates even the least bit of discomfort. Working out, cleaning the house, writing the book, and sometimes even answering emails. If you show me an activity that causes alarm, overwhelm, anxiety, sadness, really any uncomfortable emotion at all, I can show you something I’d be willing to push to the back burner.

If the task is something we already did well, then the change would already be made. If all of me wanted to lose this weight, it would already be off. If all of the parts of me wanted to be doing yoga every day when the sun comes up, I would already be doing it. The resistance comes from the conflict between the different parts of me, one that wants to do the new thing and one that thinks the old way is just fine (safe, easy, familiar, etc.)

Sometimes the “want to” part of me has to corner the “don’t want to” part of me long enough to reason with it, “We want this… remember?” The thinking me really needs the feeling me to be willing to just stay put. Stay. My mind reassures my feelings, “We want to make the change. This is good. Stay with it. Don’t run away because you feel a little (or a lot) alarmed. It’s going to be okay.”

This is how we face and move forward through resistance. We stay.

It turns out resistance is a big, huge, hairy deal when we’re clearing clutter. During Sick of Being Stuck September, it came on early and strong. I heard people saying, “I’m making progress here but the paper… What’s up with the paper? It seems like the more I do, the more I notice needs to be done.” Ahhh, yes, this is the way of clutter clearing and especially with paper. The stuff in your physical environment is so deeply tied to your emotional state, your chaos, your pain, your whatever, your overwhelm, that there isn’t a harder, more therapeutic task to be done in your home. This is you facing your stuff. Count on this process to bring on the resistance.

So, let’s say you have different types of paper spread in 12 piles in different areas of your house. You go to one and start to feel the resistance. It’s inevitable. You’re going to feel the resistance or the pile wouldn’t be there to start with. And you’re going to feel the desire to stand up and walk away, or perhaps run, because it is overwhelming. When we have that kind of dispersal of a project that’s not so comfortable, it’s easy to not make progress because we’re bouncing around from one pile to the next.

There’s something very empowering about putting everything in one spot–whether that’s a bag or a box, or a stack of boxes, or a table where you just take all your piles and stack them side by side on a big table or on the floor. Move all of the piles of backlog paper (or whatever other backlog zone you’re working on) to one place. It doesn’t matter to me where you put it, but this is equivalent to telling this particular stuff, “You’re not in charge here, I am. And before this is over, every single one of you will be where you belong or you’ll be out of here.”

To be clear (in case you haven’t been reading long enough to figure this one out), if you cannot bring yourself to gather up all of those pieces of paper, then just work on them one at a time. But sit down, face one at a time, and do not surrender to the need to get up and wander off to something else. I’ve said it again and again:  I don’t care how we go, let’s just go. And if you’re struggling with anything on this path, do whatever you have to do…manipulate yourself in some way to make it so you can continue to move forward. Who am I to judge the method that works for you?

I suspect for most of us, gathering up all the papers is a power move. Because it’s just impossible to be fooled by them if they’re all in one place. So, gather them up, and then you’re going to sit down and you’re going to work. You’re going to take breaks–for work or sleep or food or whatever you need to do to take care of yourself–but then, you’re going to come right back to work at the next chance you get. By moving them to even a central location, you have moved them. You’re beginning. You will be shifting the energy in your home and in your body. So, I really honor the anxiety you might be experiencing, but take charge. It works.

It works because when the want to you backs the don’t want to you into a corner for this respectful little chat, it’s easier to stay put and dig in and get this done so you can move on with your life. This change will be behind you. What was once incredibly stuck will be moving again, and you’ll be back in the flow.


.5 months ago

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Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener4 years ago

Ouch...working on it, it is a lot of work but very rewarding!

Linda H.
Linda h.4 years ago

piles of Antiques magazines.lol Now they are the antiques. Maybe I should just forget some of the stuff on those lists? We'll see how it goes. I have found that living a simpler life with less stuff has made me feel better. I didn't even realize that I was not so happy.Curious?!

Linda H.
Linda h.4 years ago

I keep coming back to this article because this is where I am now most stuck. In the past year I've learned to give up clothes that don't fit or are no longer attractive on me by first selling and then giving them away. These are nice clothes so it was easier than I thought. I also sold off all the sterling and gold useless stuff ( mostly broken or unused for years) and not only made good money but treated myself to a few nicer things I liked better. It was good to get a little reward for my good behavior! I then started having stoop sales after Unstuck in September with a friend around the corner and got rid of bulky furniture and decorations and home wares that no longer benefit us and what didn't sell for a quarter or a dollar or two we left out or took to the thrift store. Then my son and his wife moved in to his old room(my room now) for a week because their apartment needed work done. So in spite of all the work I did decluttering I had to move out more stuff so they could bring clothes for work and be comfortable. When they leave tonight I'll have a truly empty room to move into again. Just like your dream TV show! In any case the scariest thing left is those piles of paper and to do lists some of them years old! When the kids moved back I bought some boxes and threw the piles in and carried them to storage so I wouldn't be embarrassed by my mess and procrastination so now it's time to drag the boxes back and do some more recycling. I did find a home for those pile

Elle B.
Elle B.4 years ago


Kirsten B.
Kirsten B.4 years ago

Sam - I keep a selection of my daughter's works. If she has had a very creative burst then I get her to help me choose. The ones which don't make her 'keepsake file' she can keep in her room until they get damaged, then they get thrown out. She was OK with that. Maybe it could work for you?

Kirsten B.
Kirsten B.4 years ago

Linda - there are lots of resources on the internet to let you know how long you need to keep papers. Each country is different, so just punch in words and your country and you'll come up with a list somewhere. Also, even a small free standing filing rack is good - we got one and can move it around at will.

Shirley E.
Shirley E.4 years ago

I have items on my 'to do' lists that have been there for years, including clearing just such a paper pile as described here. I agree the problem is conflict between the bit of me that wants to do it and the bit that resists.There is ALWAYS something else that can be moved further up in the urgency stakes. If I had to move house tomorrow that pile (or group of piles) would be sorted or recycled in minutes. Nothing motivates quite like an imperative. But guess what? When you do get to tick off an item that's been on the list that long there's no better feeling in the world!

Anne Brabson
Anne B.4 years ago

Good suggestions! I need to especially keep in mind the clutter tips on page 2. Decluttering needs to be a priority but I usually find that something else is a higher need job!

Chinmayee Jog
Chinmayee Jog4 years ago

I loved this article, especially the first page! I have SO much I have to get through, and clutter is actually the least of my worries - however with all the clutter around me I won't accomplish everything I need to, and so maybe I should be worried about the clutter...hmmm...anyway thanks for sharing!