What I Learned from Forcing Myself to be Neat

Since I was a little boy, I’ve had a lot of energy. Some teachers believed it to be “too much” energy. Attempts were made at ADHD medication, which my loving parents prevented from coming to fruition, thank god. Like most millennials, I was raised on pure sensory chaos. TV. Video games. Refined sugars. The modern mind is messy. We constantly jump from thing to thing and rarely have time to properly work through concepts, let alone living spaces.

I’ve had numerous spaces as an adult, having gone to college in NYC and moved from apartment to apartment each year. My current house is my longest residence, and also my place of business. It’s a small room in a large apartment shared with four disciplined friends. We all save money and conserve resources by living here, and it’s all a surprisingly amicable arrangement. Still, my room is literally 12 x 12'. That’s a small enough space to make any trustafarian or Silicon Valley libertine balk with terror.

During the year following college, I did not utilize my space in an efficient manner. About 9 months ago, I was given no choice but to overhaul my room, since I began running a small business from it. I needed space to both live and work— with 144 square feet— half the size of my childhood bedroom. NYC is some shit.

Contrary to this being restrictive in a counterproductive way, it was restrictive in a remarkably liberating way. I’ve learned the art of space. I’ve finally put my Zen money where my Zen mouth is, investing in proper organization for all of my stuff (shouts out to The Container Store— wanna sponsor me?). Most importantly, I’ve given a huge amount of stuff away. I’ve thrown even more useless stuff out.

We are a remarkably privileged generation. Even the poorest Americans today live in spaces that allow for a superior standard of living compared to the upper classes of yesteryear. This is not an exaggeration. As such, we’ve accumulated lots of stuff. As humans do, we’ve overcomplicated what could be pleasant simple spaces. You have electricity, you have plumbing, you have refrigeration, heat, and gas appliances. To someone from 1750, you’re an alien king. Why is your space full of junk?

I remind myself of this perspective whenever I get down on my space. If I don’t acquire needless items, I both save money and keep it clear. I’ve learned that spending money on a few good things instead of a bunch of shoddy things is a wonderful strategy. This investment, which only needs to be initiated once or twice a year, is an excellent psychological incentive to keep a space clean. It’s the rich dad vs. poor dad mentality: buy one jacket than lasts ten years instead of 10 jackets that each last a year.

Once you see your living space looking so good that you want to hire a photographer to take pictures of it for a fictional magazine article you’ve written in your head, you will work diligently to keep it that way. The initial problem is getting there. But I can’t emphasize enough how much getting there has changed the way I function in both my work life and personal life.

People spend so much time working, socializing, and accumulating things. It’s a rare luxury to be able to spend an equal amount of time ruminating, reconfiguring, and getting rid of things that we don’t need. Yet, oddly, these are all antidotes to modern anxieties. I am a chronically anxious person and besides exercise, healthy eating, and quitting smoking, nothing has done as much good for my peace of mind as properly structuring my living space.

Let us return to the remembrance of classic Zen monks, who worked ceaselessly to keep their spaces immaculate. They were the ruminators. They knew that a clear space is obviously more conducive to a clear mind, the same way they knew not to constantly gorge themselves on rich foods or acquire meaningless material possessions. They got a lot of things right. I’ve learned a lot from their writings, which have encouraged me to make the most of my limited space.

I hope you’ll take this as a lesson to rethink your own space, regardless of how confident you are in its effectiveness. Whether you own a home or pay to live in a little metropolitan rentcube like I do, you have full power over how you utilize space. Properly navigating this power is a wonderful philosophical exercise in mindfulness, logic, and self-discipline. The best part is that the journey never stops.

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