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The Elephant in the Room

Making a plan for the days after decluttering

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Photography by Bench Accounting

Too often I’ve caught myself deep in thought, wondering how to transform my life. I’ll decide I want to banish everything that gets in the way of productivity. And to do this, I’ll need a blueprint—something immediate and foolproof.

I’ve drawn up many such plans in the past, driven by books, blogs, and videos that dangle a vague but enticing image of minimalist perfection. Life can be beautifully simple, they say, if only we declutter, do less, want less, and say no. We need only to subtract from our lives to be free from stress and discontent.

Unfortunately, my plans were always scribbled out and thrown away because subtraction is only half the answer.

When I began minimizing my possessions and commitments, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was working towards. I purged more and more, thinking that one day, I would uncover a simple and happy life.

Of course, this never happened. I had less stuff and more time but I wasn’t happier. The elephant in the room—what I actually wanted in life—looked on as I tidied up around it. I kept decluttering so I didn’t have to confront my ambitions.

And then Naomi, my long-suffering partner, came along with an amusing yet very useful phrase: “It’s like eating an elephant. You’ve got to take it one bite at a time.”

Not only did this fit with my elephant-in-the-room analogy but it also reminded me to take things slowly. Big life changes don’t happen overnight. First I had to face up to the elephant, figure out what it represented, and then move forward.

I began with a “Life Audit”—a format gleaned from Robert Wringham's book Escape Everything—in which I listed the four or five areas of my life that I wanted to prioritize, plus the activities that came with them. Using this list, I started experimenting with tiny changes to steer myself in the right direction.

For example, reading and writing are priorities for me. Last month I tried to read at least one page of a book each day, and this month, I’m trying to write for twenty minutes each day. Mindfulness is another priority so, in March, I started meditating for five minutes in the morning. Health is an obvious priority so I try to leave the house every day and get around on foot or by bicycle.

Not everything has worked, however. I tried journaling in January but gave up. I tried waking up at eight o’clock every day but didn’t stick to it. And the habits that do stick are enforced lightly. If I miss a day of writing, it’s not a disaster; I just try again the next day.

It took time to master this relaxed attitude to building habits. My instinct was to impose them rigorously and beat myself up if things didn’t work out. For me, what helps the most is making the habits small, achievable, and treating them as experiments rather than a test I can fail. Over time, they’ve become more fun to play around with, and more successful.

It now feels like I’m making progress. A life audit and tiny habits have become the backbone of my plan to tackle the elephant in the room. We’ll just have to see if this plan sticks.

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