At the very end of last year I started an epic decluttering quest, and fully intended to keep it up all through January. Unfortunately, those plans were derailed a few days into 2017 by MAGFest and the double-virus I got at the very end of it, which knocked me out for a full week.

Since then I’ve been sorting through the eliminated books (I finally took a count: there were 195 unique titles in the pile, not counting the duplicate copies of some books) and taking out the ones my friends have expressed interest in. Once I do a last call I’m going to donate the rest to a nearby book exchange; they’re recovering from a recent disaster and are in need of donations, and I think they’ll find the books good homes.

Other than that, I’ve been having trouble getting my energy back up to where it was before MAGFest. It reminded me of how important staying motivated in a process like this can be, which brings me to a topic I’d already wanted to write about: finding the right motivation for such a big project.

What do you mean, the “right” motivation?

Well, I don’t necessarily mean that there’s a “wrong” way to be motivated to declutter or otherwise try to improve your life (unless the motivation is hurting people or something). But I do think that some motivations are more likely to succeed than others.

For instance, let’s take a common reason for self-improvement: the New Year’s Resolution. While I can’t speak for anyone else, my New Year’s Resolutions have never really stuck. Maybe I’m just lazy, but eventually whatever burst of energy first inspired the resolution tends to run out for me. That always leaves me stuck doing something I don’t particularly enjoy for what I eventually decide is a pretty arbitrary reason. I mean, let’s be real: name me one time that the calendar rolling over into a new year has really, truly changed something significant. (Remember how excited everyone was about the “new millennium” starting in 2000? I do. It didn’t turn out so well.)

External vs. internal motivations

This might be because things like New Year’s Resolutions are, ultimately, external motivations. You didn’t just suddenly get the idea in your head to do a thing; something outside your control happened and you used it as a reason to do a thing. Another good example of an external motivation would be all the times my mom has tried to convince me to clean out my stuff before; it always ended in me cleaning everything off my bedroom floor, calling it a victory, then watching as the floor filled up with stuff once again. Repeat. It never stuck because it was never my idea to do it – it was my mother’s. And while I want to make my mom happy, in the end that’s just not enough to make me fundamentally change my outlook.

What I think works better are internal motivations. As the name might imply, these are the things that come from inside, the deep personal desires we have to do things. An example of this would be when I decided to finally finish the first draft of a book. I wasn’t writing it because other people might have expected it from me or because I wanted an external result or because of NaNoWriMo. I wrote the book for the sake of writing the book; yes, I hope something might come of it someday, but deep down I just wanted the book to exist. Likewise, I started this decluttering quest for myself, because of a fundamental shift in my thinking.

Digging the motivation back out

Blogger Zbyhnev once wrote, “Screw motivation, what you need is discipline.” They were right that discipline, not motivation, is what you really need to get any serious work done. But I’ve found that motivation is quite helpful when you’re first starting a project. Cultivating discipline takes time, and a little motivational push in the beginning can really help you get going.

For instance, there were times while writing that first draft that I couldn’t convince myself that it was worth doing at all, but by then I’d already made a habit of writing during the half-hour stretches between my community college classes and the arrival/departure of the (notoriously unreliable) buses I rode. But if I’d started doing that without any motivation at all, getting into that habit would have been a lot more difficult.

Because I’m trying to resume the decluttering process after a week of being too sick to do it, I feel a need to rediscover the motivation that helped me start in the first place. I’m still not entirely sure how to do that, but if I can find the motivation to just do it for a couple days in a row, hopefully I’ll build up enough momentum to keep going.

More in the Decluttering Quest series:

Part 1: The Quest Begins
Part 3: School Paper Trail
Part 4: Tackling Collections
Part 5: The First Roadblock
Part 6: Letting Go of Old Writing
Part 7: Sacred Spaces
Part 8: Breaking the Rules
Part 9: A Matter of Life, Not Death
Part 10: Cataloging a Personal Library

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