Some of you are aware that Jen Hofmann and I have been planning our recently launched Work Party for a few weeks now. One of the things Jen was really excited about covering is “Dead Stuff,” by which she means stuff that you haven’t physically touched in over a year. She’s found that many people have a tendency to gather up a bunch of dead stuff that ultimately clutters up their offices and work spaces, and after a while that clutter jams up their creative and productive mojo.
We riffed about that for a bit until she mentioned that one of her client had given her some feedback along the lines that Jen made her realize that everything we own is on its way to the trash. Sure, it may be at different stages of the process of heading to the trash, but it’s all going that way.
And then I had an Eureka! moment, which I must say have happened fairly frequently since we’ve been hanging out and planning this thing. The Eureka! came from a crystallization of a new way to express some stuff I’ve been thinking about in the work that I do.
This post is a great example of the cross-pollination that has been working so well for us. We both help small businesses become more productive and creative, but we focus on different “domains”: Jen helps people get some peace and clarity with their physical workspaces so that they can become more productive and creative, and I help people work with their intangible workspaces so that they can become more productive and creative. What’s fascinated us both is that we’re using similar ideas, frameworks, and techniques to help our clients; the domains are different, but the problems and solutions are remarkably similar.
Trash Goes to the Curb
Let’s talk about trash for a second. Most of us recognize the smartest thing to do with a full trash bin is to bag it up and move it to the place where it’ll be picked up by sanitation workers. It may rest in a trash can before it hits the curb, but we recognize that it’s going that way.
No one would suggest bagging up your trash, taking it halfway down the stairs, and leaving it there. That’s not where it goes. If you leave it there, you’ll just have to pick it up again later. And you will have to pick it up again – it’ll start stinking and clogging up your stairs if you don’t.
Dead Stuff Needs to Go To The Trash
Dead stuff has a tendency to get out of the natural flow of things and eddies up in places like the back of closets, garages, or that third desk drawer that only gets used when you’re tired of feeling guilty about the mess on your desk and start getting rid of the things that “shouldn’t” be on your desk – because we all know that all good, creative, and productive people have clean, ordered desks. Anything less is just subhuman, right?
And like eddies in creeks, once dead stuff starts to accumulate, it starts grabbing other dead stuff, too. Rarely do you find one dried-up pen in a drawer by itself; there are others in there – or paired with it may be that janky stapler, dull scissors, unprocessed business cards from past conferences, or wires to devices you don’t even own anymore. I suspect that these piles and eddies grow because we unconsciously sort similar things together; dead stuff is similar because it all needs to go.
When I say “it needs to go,” I don’t mean that you have to bear down and force yourself to get rid of it. Rather, it’s just time let it go. As with all dead things, holding onto it won’t keep it alive or change the fact that it’s useful time has come and gone. Hanging onto dead stuff has a higher psychic cost than most of us realize; in time, dead stuff does what trash and dead things do – it stinks.
Intangible Stuff Can Be Dead Stuff, Too
Dead stuff exists in your intangible workspaces, too. Half-done projects that you haven’t touched in the last few months are dead stuff. Most of the resolutions we come up with at the beginning of the year are dead stuff before the frost melts. Those email messages that have been sitting in your Inbox for a month or so?…dead stuff. That domain you bought three years ago and have been meaning to flesh into a niche website?…dead stuff.
Intangible dead stuff is even more problematic not because we don’t recognize that it’s dead stuff but because we accumulate it so much faster than we do tangible stuff. The very thing that makes creative people thrive – idea generation – is what creates so much of the cognitive noise that accompanies dead stuff, and it’s hard for us to realize that all ideas are not equal and some just need to be let go. We end up keeping so many ideas running through our heads that it’s hard to separate the best from the rest. Noise, noise, noise; stench, stench, stench.
Just like tangible stuff, all projects, ideas, and such are moving to their resting point – they are all on their way to completion. Completion may be an intentionally completed project, or it may be a project that is for all purposes dead because it has it lay fallow for too long. Completion could be an idea that is used and helps us move from one level of awareness or application to another, or it may be an idea that’s so distant that it has no hope of ever being useful. It could be an effectively processed email message, or it could be an email that gets delayed and deferred until it’s no longer relevant. When something is completed, whether intentionally or not, it needs to be let go.
When we process and move along the intangible stuff in the right way, we take the trash to the curb. However, when we continue to hang onto the intangible dead stuff, we’re leaving trash on the stairs.
Pruning away the dead stuff can be hard, but doing so helps you put energy into the living stuff that matters. I’ll end by asking you to do two small things today: 1) let go of one tangible dead thing, and 2) let go of one intangible dead thing.
And if need some more help letting dead stuff go, check out our Work Party. (There are only ten seats, so don’t think too long about it.)
Great topic, Charlie. I have a LOT of dead stuff lying around, mostly because I have always been great at generating ideas, and terrible at seeing them through to fruition. I like your point about realizing that not all ideas are keepers – I don’t think I fully understand that yet, but I think that might be the key to me being able to keep only what’s just right, and scrap the rest.
The problem with the dead-stuff drawer is that if you accidentally leave something keep-able in there, it blends in with the dead stuff. 😉
.-= Rachael´s last blog ..Five Things I Learned About Myself During My Working Vacation =-.
Sarah Bray says
I am so familiar with dead stuff! Of course, I didn’t know it was dead, but now I’m realizing the baggage that it really does bring. (“Bag”gage. Get it? Heh.) Unused domain names? Check. Old websites that were *a great idea* but were really not something I had time for? Check. Not wanting to let go because of the initial investment of time, creativity, and money? Double check.
Sigh. It is hard to let go. And to learn not to generate all that stuff in the first place.
.-= Sarah Bray´s last blog ..John Bray: The man behind the curtain =-.
Interesting point. And, for a while there, I was nodding and going along with it. Then, I began thinking about it. Uh oh.
Not to be Debbie Downer – actually, I’m worse, more of a “Devil’s Advocate” — we’re all going to die. This is really a one-way trip. And then, when that spark of life leaves our bodies, our remains molder and crumble in a box. Or burn, depending upon our funeral arrangements. Cheery, huh?
We can choose to think, “then we’re garbage, too,” or reframe it as a rather zen approach to avoiding energy-draining “attachments.”
My point is, all that “dead stuff” mattered and had meaning, at one time. Or it wouldn’t be part of our lives.
.-= RhondaL´s last blog ..Twitter Roundup =-.
Linda Farley says
Darn! Made me think about all the “dead stuff” hanging around in my life. Guess I’d better get to work clearing it out.
.-= Linda Farley´s last blog ..Why Do They Keep Asking for Training? =-.
@Rachael: There’s a balance here when it comes to idea generation. Most ideas aren’t keepers, but the trick is you still have to get them out of your head or else they’ll keep tugging. The basic idea is to “let go” of an idea by putting it in an idea garden and letting it sit there. Review the Idea Garden occasionally, and if that idea never grows, it’s okay; it’s out of your head, but not being worked on.
The trouble becomes when we work on ideas that shouldn’t be worked on, because we’re working on them at the expense of an idea we should be working on.
@Sarah: “Bag”gage – heh. You’re a nut, and I like that. As I was telling Rachael, the problem isn’t generating ideas, it’s working on the wrong ones. Of course, the worry that we put on ideas that we’ve started and aren’t doing anything with still should count as “work,” but that’s just learning to accept that what seemed to be a good idea at the time doesn’t fit what you’re trying to do now, and letting it go. It’s not easy, I know – my closets, psychic and physical, are full of stuff that I need to let go, too. But the more I do, the better I feel.
@RhondaL: I agree with you completely, actually. I didn’t want to dwell on our mortality although I hinted at it. We all here but a short while, and we all have a “use,” but at a certain point, we too will be dead stuff. And all the stuff we spent our whole lives chasing after will become dead stuff, too.
Get the most out of it, love it, and let it go when its time is done. Our lives, our stuff, our moments – they are all passing in surprisingly similar ways.
Coming full circle, the reason “dead stuff” is dead is because it hasn’t been used (hasn’t been meaningful) for a good while. That it did matter and did have meaning doesn’t mean that we should keep it.
@Linda: It’s hard to tell from your tone, but I worry about “I’d better get to work clearing it out.” It sounds like you’re guiltifying the process, which will make it harder to let stuff go. If I may suggest a strategy: start by letting go of those things that are actually bugging you first. You’ll generate some momentum and hopefully “I better get to work clearing it out” while become closer to “I get to make room for important stuff”; it may take awhile, but it does happen.
Megan M. says
What a great post! This:
The very thing that makes creative people thrive – idea generation – is what creates so much of the cognitive noise that accompanies dead stuff, and it’s hard for us to realize that all ideas are not equal and some just need to be let go. We end up keeping so many ideas running through our heads that it’s hard to separate the best from the rest.
This is one of the reasons I ended up starting That Idea Blueprint Girl — because I felt that the unused ideas were weighing me down. While they were great ideas, I wasn’t going to do them — I KNEW I wasn’t going to do them. And it was BECAUSE they were such great ideas that I was unwilling to let them go. That Idea Blueprint Girl let me have a place to put them where I could add to them as thoughts came up and they could benefit other people, but I no longer had some self-created responsibility to pay attention to them instead of doing the Good Work I wanted to be doing. It was really sort of a relief to launch, for lots of other reasons, but also very much for this reason.
.-= Megan M.´s last blog ..Idea Free-For-All #1 (Happy Tuesday!) =-.
Every time I get out of school for break, you can bet that I have a lot of dead stuff lying around. Letting trash pile up is a bad habit. It effectively clutters your life and makes it more difficult to progress in the long run.
I still have some leftover college papers; I’ll throw those out. 🙂
.-= John´s last blog ..How to Kiss Your Boredom Goodbye =-.
J.D. Meier says
I like “dead stuff.” It works well with my favorite saying, “cut the dead wood.”
.-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..How To Prioritize with Criteria and Weight =-.
Jenny Ryan says
Thanks for the great post-I’m in the middle of a “clearing of the intangibles” right now, and I love how much lighter I am feeling.
.-= Jenny Ryan´s last blog ..Seriously? =-.
Emma McCreary says
Thanks for the reminder. This is always hard for me. To ease into it, I decided to start with writing down a list of “Might be…dead stuff”. Kind of sidling up to it sideways. I’m not saying it’s not a good idea…just it might be…dead.
That helped a lot to free me up to just write down things, and I thought of a lot of things that I wouldn’t have if I’d started writing a list of “Things to let go of”.
Then, seeing it on the list, I can let the idea of letting go of it seep slowly into my brain, avoiding the clutching response of “BUT BUT, IT WAS A GOOD IDEA!” panic. I managed to move a few things to the intangible trash that way.
I have come to the conclusion lately that I keep these dead projects around sort of as energetic anchors. I get comfy with their weight, and then I am not sure I will be OK if they are gone.
I recognize the pattern from my parents, they both are very creative and always had half-finished projects laying around. I could see them routinely struggle with whether to finish them or move on. And I seem to do the same thing (sigh).
I think at the heart of it there is a fear of the unknown, of change. What if the change is bad? What if I never have another good idea? WHAT IF???
(taking a breathe)
.-= Emma McCreary´s last blog ..Back to Basics: Feel Your Feelings =-.
Dinah Sanders says
Yes! I’ve been writing about this exact thing for quite a while under the umbrella of the holiday I invented: Discardia. It’s all about letting go of stuff that is no longer beautiful or useful. You can find out more by visiting discardia.com or the Discardia Facebook group. I’m also finishing up a book on the topic about which more later.
Linda, don’t weigh yourself down with “guess I better…” looming to-do’s; think of it instead as making room for more awesomeness. Discardia isn’t just chucking the crud, it’s welcoming in the things that improve your life.