What it means to let go, and how to do it

Hello there, happy Fat Tuesday and sixth week of 2018. This post has been floating around in my mind for a while, loose and seemingly random ideas that I've now realized are closely connected.

Wes and I started the year of less as a way to eliminate activities and things that weren't adding value in order to refocus our resources and energy on what truly matters to us. In the original post, I gave a lot of examples that centered on impulse shopping and eating out because those were the major activities that wasted our money, prevented us from appreciating what we already had, and kept us from planning, creating and enjoying healthy meals in our own kitchen.

After that post, I received a lot of comments, email and direct messages on Instagram about this idea of 'letting go,' asking if I'd considered expanding the definition beyond tangible things like shopping and eating to cover arguably more important topics such as how we spend our time and where we focus our attention.

The truth is, I hadn't gone very deep on what I really meant by 'letting go' as it related to the year of less. It was more of a reaction to all the stuff and Amazon boxes and overstuffed closets and overwhelm that came with a tough, disorganized year and wanting to get back to a simpler, more manageable and enjoyable life.

Thanks largely to all your comments and suggestions on how to expand the concept, I've been putting a lot of thought into what we mean when we say we're going to 'let go' of something. In a world where we're encouraged to always be adding more to improve our lives (more clothes, more things, more workouts, more progress, more connections, more responsibilities, etc.), it's sort of countercultural to shift your focus to letting go and having less in order to improve your life.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that I'm a big proponent of taking control of your own mind and thoughts, and actively redirecting them to drive better outcomes. While the year of less is certainly about stopping the flow of 'more' and letting go of things and activities that aren't adding value, many of you have helped me to realize that I'd been missing the bigger purpose behind it. Yes, it's a challenge for Wes and I to create a better life for ourselves, improve our savings, and refocus on what matters - but at its core, this year is an effort to permanently shift my mindset, to train myself to identify areas of my life that are sucking time, killing energy, sapping joy and committing to do what it takes to drop them for good in order to live my best life.

Thinking about the year of less from this perspective has expanded the challenge beyond just dialing back my home, and has shifted the frame of how I was thinking about it. After mulling this over, I realized that to get the most out of the year of less, I needed to structure my thinking about 'letting go' according to the areas of my life with the most opportunity for improvement. I landed on five basic categories, and outlined them below along with some of the decisions I've made according to each category. Without further ado...

#1 Letting go of things

Although this has been covered at length in the original year of less post along with the basic rules for how we're stopping the flow of new, the things we already own that I've decided to let go of this year have been any material item in my home or life that isn't serving a purpose, clouding my ability to appreciate and use the things that are value-added. I've been purging my wardrobe and donating / consigning clothing, shoes and accessories. We've gone through our garage and gotten rid of an astronomical amount of clutter that has built up in that space in the year-and-a-half we've lived in our home (think old paint cans, broken appliances, the fluorescent light bulbs that I hate and hide from Wes in there, lawn games we'll never use, etc.). I've been slowly working through our kitchen, starting with the dry goods and spices, to get rid of expired labels and items not aligned to our diet and reorganized those cabinets to put the commonly used items in easily accessible places to support our meal planning goals.

The tangible and measurable progress that comes with letting go of things is incredibly fulfilling, an exercise that it going to take many more months for us. (Even the thought of attacking my bathroom cabinet and drawers terrifies me…) It's been kind of fun to take stock of what we have in our possession, and put it to use in the way we intended to when we bought it. Rescuing an old bookshelf from the garage that formerly held clutter and placing it in our loft has allowed us to go through our paperbacks and bring them back out into the daylight to be read and enjoyed.

Rearranging the furniture and décor around the house has given me fresh ideas on how to design rooms to better support how we're using them, like hanging old shelves sitting in the back of our garage in the office to provide desperately needed storage. Opening my newly organized spice cabinet has inspired me to create new recipes and allowed us to stick to our meal planning goals, and we've been enjoying long homemade Sunday brunches at home and improving our communication as we discuss the week ahead and what meals we'd like to eat and what we need to get at the grocery store to create them.

#2 Letting go of habits

Although the original year of less post touched on some of the habits we needed to break (e.g., shopping mindlessly, eating out at restaurants multiple times a week, etc.), it didn't address the fact that there are plenty of habits we have that suck time and energy, sap joy, and don't add value. Things like spending too much time on our phones, drinking too much, spending too much time in front of the TV, throwing our things around our homes instead of putting them in their place, eating out of boredom, gossiping about coworkers, friends or family members, saying judgmental or negative things that make other people feel bad about themselves, avoiding paying bills, etc.

It can be kind of painful to recognize your own bad habits, and super uncomfortable to break them. However, it's necessary if you want to carve out the time and space to build better habits that serve you and help you to realize the outcomes you want in your life. For me personally, I've recognized that I need to let go of my habit of checking my email and social media on my phone during downtime. It's a distraction that limits me from fully enjoying time with my husband when we're hanging out at home, and sucks time and attention when I'm bored and might really need to be alone with my thoughts rather than looking at #fitspo on Instagram. So I've been considering putting some rules around it, including having off hours where I set my alarm for the next day, plug it in next to my bed, and don't touch it after a certain time of the evening, or implementing off days where I avoid use of my phone entirely except for text messages and phone calls.

Another habit that I've decided to let go of is throwing things around my home instead of putting them where they belong. Wes and I had gotten in to this habit when I was traveling and we relied on our cleaning lady to put everything back in its place only to have our house fall to disarray a couple of days later. It simply wasn't working, and it caused a lot of stress and fights. We decided to do daily and weekly chores and forego the cleaning lady altogether! Now we make our bed and straighten our master bedroom daily, clean our kitchen nightly, follow the 'one minute' rule for picking up around the house (if it takes a minute or less, just do it) and take a little time to divide and conquer bigger chores (e.g., vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, etc.) every weekend. It's not perfect, but has definitely gotten rid of the cluttering habit since we know we'll have to deal with it!

#3 Letting go of thoughts

We hear a lot about 'negative self-talk' these days, and regardless of what you may think about it or the approaches to overcoming it, I think we all have certain mental loops that suck our time, damper our happiness and crowd out more productive thoughts. I'm going to put myself out there and share some of the mental loops that I get stuck in that I've decided to let go as part of this year of less:

· "Everyone has figured out what they want in life except me"

· "At this point in my life, I should have achieved more"

· "I'm unqualified to be doing this job"

· "Why is she so much more successful?"

· "I should weigh 120 pounds and wear a size 0"

· "The time I have to do this is running out"

I've realized that I have several mental loops that focus on defining success / achievement, comparing myself to others, and obsessing over weight / dress size and they are almost like background noise, thoughts that pop up often without me even realizing it. They're crazy and 0% value-added, they sap my joy, and they're totally fixable if I am willing to take control of my own mind and stamp them out.

Practically speaking, I've been attempting to recognize and catch these thoughts as they come, and redirect them to a more positive, productive place. Instead of allowing my mind to focus on weight or dress size, I will catch that thought and make myself consider if I've been eating clean, healthy foods that nourish my body. Instead of letting my thoughts center on comparing myself to someone and thinking about where I am falling short, I will catch that thought and redirect it to acknowledge all of the hard work I've done and support I've had to get to the place I am today. Instead of permitting my mind to stress about a false life clock that dictates when we need to do certain things (ahem, have a baby), I will catch that thought and refocus my attention on appreciating my life at the present moment. It sounds so crazy to type this out, but it has helped me to feel lighter, more free, and more grateful.

#4 Letting go of people

Honestly, I debated putting this one in here, but decided it needed to be said. We all have those coworkers, family members, long term acquaintances, childhood friends, etc. who are balls of drama and negativity. They're the people who take, but don't give; who complain, but don't listen; who judge, but don't reflect - and being around them always seems to sap your energy. As they say, ain't no one got time for that! They also say that you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so if you want to be an amazing, positive person who brings light to the world, your inner circle cannot include Debbie Downer who you've known since preschool.

The good news is, letting go of people is an actual solution. Really! Although for family members it is more about limiting your time, for almost everyone else it is actually quite simple and easy to do. You know who they are, they may know who they are, and you know the situations where you encounter them regularly. If it's a colleague you're trying to let go from your life, you'll need to find a way to change desks, or projects, or invest in a great pair of headphones or find other reasons to limit your interactions. If it's a family member, you'll need to figure out the events where they'll be and choose not to attend, or influence the seating chart to avoid interaction. If it’s a friend, you'll need to either fade away with noncommittal text messages or have an awkward conversation with them where you explain that you feel you're going in different directions. If it's a romantic relationship, you'll probably need to have the awkward conversation.

My point is, just make the decision to let them go and then do it. We all have these people in our lives, and while some of them may be worth the time investment to help them see the light and change, most aren't worth the cost of your time, energy and joy. We so often keep these people in our lives because it seems somehow easier than committing to one of the tactics I described above but the reality is that we end up just delaying the inevitable and wasting our precious time in the process.

#5 Letting go of obligations

Do you feel it, too? That pressure to say yes, to do all the right things, to be everything to everyone at every moment, to bite off more than you can chew, to be as overwhelmingly busy as everyone else? The truth is, so much of what we think we need to do (and define as 'obligations') are spreading us so thin that we're basically making no impact at all. We're not progressing, generating the outcomes we want, or pleasing anyone - especially not ourselves.

A few years ago, I read Greg McKeown's "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less" where he articulates that relentless need to say yes so poignantly, and offers perspective on how to pare back to find meaning and purpose in what you do on a daily basis. It changed the way that I approached my work, made me so much more protective of my time, and in general improved my effectiveness. It also led me down a years-long reading wormhole (is that why they call us bookworms?) on the topic of how we spend our time relative to what we're trying to achieve. After rethinking the letting go process, I went back through my 'books to buy' note in my iPhone and downloaded Cal Newport's "Deep Work" that covers this topic from the lens of creative output and how to maximize it in a distracted world. 

The concept has been blowing my mind lately, and is the reason I've been giving impassioned speeches on conference calls that could be titled "What the heck is this meeting for, anyway?" It also helped me to define 'letting go of obligations' as a category to evaluate as part of the year of less and consider the areas of my life where I feel obligated to do certain 'otherwise optional' things. We do things like attend weddings we don't really care about, accept invitations we don't really want, say yes to requests for help that we'd prefer to avoid, etc. There are two reasons to let go of almost everything you feel obligated to do, but would prefer to avoid. The first is because time is literally our only limited resource, and there simply isn't enough of it to spend doing those things that should be optional but you feel some innate sense of pressure to say yes. The second is because it is sort of dishonest to do those things that you wish you'd avoided. Personally, I don't want someone agreeing to have lunch with me because they felt they had to, but wanted to be somewhere else the entire time. So I've started taking the approach of, "if it's not a hell yes, it's a no" to optional requests of my time, time that could be better spent doing practically anything else - including providing the necessary downtime to sit on my couch in my pajamas for a full day to recharge.

I hope you found 'things, habits, thoughts, people and obligations' framework to be helpful when considering where you have opportunities to let go and refocus on what matters in your life. Would love to hear your thoughts on this post, and if you're going to be doing any dialing back yourself. As a Catholic, with the 40-days-of-less that is Lent starting tomorrow, this post was helpful in choosing what to give up for it. I'm toying with using Lent to change one of the most difficult areas to let go in my life and resolve it for good: my addiction to SkinnyPop. No, really. I hit rock bottom lately after Wes purchased a bag from Costco that was almost as tall as me and I cannot admit on the internet how quickly I consumed it. (See picture below.)

Anyway, that's all I have - thank you as always for reading and please let me know what you thought of this post in the comments!

Colleen