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Etymology of a Decision

The act of deciding what to retain and what to let go is one of the biggest hurdles my clients face. Difficulty with making a decision is not unique to my clients, however. One of the most interesting things about organizing for others is the space that it creates for my own self-reflection. How do I have the authority to ask someone to part with clearly out-dated technology that hasn't been used since 1984, when I myself am hanging onto unfinished art projects from 2004?

Well, the cobbler's son has no shoes, the mechanic is driving a beater, and the psychologist needs therapy....

The verb decide comes from the Latin decidere, which literally meant to "cut off" (from: de = off and caedere = to cut). A later definition states that something decided is resolute, determined, and absolute. Conversely, to be undecided is to be unsettled, not peaceful or firmly established.*

So, what on earth does this have to do with an old canvas in storage, a pair of pants that is two sizes too small, a decorative knick-knack from Aunt Sally sitting under the bed, or taxes that have yet to be filed? Well, all of these things represent different kinds of clutter:

Physical Clutter - Things we keep because they were once or might again be useful

Emotional Clutter - Items we keep because of nostalgia, a memory, a person, the past

Regrets Clutter - Things that represent past aspirations or former sense of identity

Guilt Clutter - Money or energy was spent, someone important gave it to us

These things also represent a different kind of clutter that ultimately have one thing in common: A decision is needed and it has been put off again and again. We didn't sell that painting, start that exercise plan, hang the knick-knack that we didn't like in the first place, or get 2011 taxes filed on time. Clutter in this sense becomes changing priorities, poor time management, to do list overload, or guilt about letting go. Clutter keeps us trapped in the past and unable to live in the present.

When we keep clutter, we are effectively delaying making a decision. We defer making decisions about our the items in our overstuffed basement, the memorabilia under our bed, and clothing we no longer wear. Why?

Let's take the large paintings that I have had in storage since I completed my MFA in 2004. To give you the full history of your organizer's own foibles, I have several mural scale canvases from grad school that I have stored in Montana, shipped to shows, UHauled cross country, moved, restored, sent to a gallery, moved again, and restored again for the last nine years. They currently reside at an EZ Storage off I-95 in Baltimore.

It had been my intention to find homes for these paintings and drawings. Ideally, to sell them and make some income from them. That would certify me a a "real" artist in the eyes of others and myself. Instead, I have spent ridiculous sums to store these works, as well as untold labor to move them around, so much so, that to not sell one now feels like an even bigger failure. At least I should make my money back and break even, right?

Back to etymology. What would it mean to sell the paintings? It would mean that I have to actively decide to promote this work, to decide to prioritize a time to send queries to galleries or art competitions, to decide to place work that may or may not be well received, and therefore to risk rejection. It means that I have to decide to believe in a painting that I completed about ten years ago.

If we return to our 16th c. Latin definition of decide, I am given two very different clues about the act of deciding and what that might mean. Our first clue indicates that to decide means that I must cut something off. In this case, if I decide to actively promote the paintings, that will mean that I cut off time and energy that I could spend making new work. It will mean that I cut off funds that I continue to pay in storage from being used for a new computer or table saw. It will mean that I cut off new ideas as I try to reengage with old ones.

Or, I could decide which paintings I still believe in, and cut off the ones that are no longer significant. A decision doesn't have to be all or nothing. I could decide to give away some of the work for free, and cut off the space that I need for storage. I could decide to reuse the old stretcher bars of the paintings I no longer care for, and literally cut away the old canvas.

Our second definition offers further insight. Here we find that to arrive at a decision means that something is resolute, absolute, or determined. In essence, resolved and clear. It is here that I think that most of us get stuck, we defer decisions about clutter because we are not resolved. Clearly, I have not been resolved about these paintings, in either deciding to promote them or deciding to let them go.

If we look back at the definitions, we see that to be undecided is to be unsettled or not peaceful. Something is left hanging, or we are afraid we will make the wrong decision. With this in mind, I've developed a simple tool for my clients struggling with a decision. When we stumble across clutter and items left unresolved, I ask my clients if the item makes them feel positive and excited for the present and the future, or guilty and heavy about the past? Ask yourself this question and then let your emotional reaction guide your decision.

If I take my own advice, I find that the paintings mostly represent guilt and things left undone, money not well spent, and work to which I no longer feel connected. If I take it further, I am absolute in my total distaste for one painting in particular, and still feel the strength of two or three many years later. I feel excited when I think about re-purposing the stretcher bars for new canvasses, and perhaps donating the other pieces. I feel REALLY excited when I think of no longer having a storage unit full of old artwork.

An expiration date is a nice complementary tool for this process. In an effort to shoe my own feet, I have decided that I will no longer be paying for a storage unit by this July. I am resolute in that there are a few paintings I would like to find homes for or promote, a few to give away, one that is definitely being cut up, and several stretchers that will be stretched with fresh new canvas. Finally, I am determined that I am cutting off EZ Storage from my monthly bills!

* Definitions courtesy of Online Etymology Dictionary

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About the Author

Alison Spain, The Organizing Assistant
2711 Arlington Blvd. #202
Arlington, VA 22201

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