This article first appeared in my newsletter December 29, 2016. Click here to sign up to receive my online newsletter.
Click here if you prefer to listen to the article.
It’s the last few days of 2016. Lots of us (including me) are thinking about new things we’d like to experience in 2017. I’ve learned to ask a key question: Does my life have space for anything new?
Last year I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo.
The book inspired me to give away about one-third of what was in my closet, and also to tackle a storage and junk-filled area (formerly known as “guest bedroom”) that had bothered me for a year.
A key point in the book was not to ask, “What do I need to get rid of?” but rather to ask, “What am I willing to keep in my life?” For each item, the criteria was, “Does this make me feel a spark of joy?” If so, it was a keeper. If not, it was time to let it go. After the first few “let it go” decisions, the process got easier. I started looking forward to how much I could unload.
Many recycle and giveaway bags later, I was amazed at how different I felt. When I opened my closet, I felt spacious and organized. The guest bedroom could now welcome a guest! More importantly, I felt like my mind and emotions and spirit were cleared and expanded. I now had room for new possibilities in my mind, and happier emotions.
A friend’s story told of a different kind of “making space.” Earlier in 2016, she and her team came to the conclusion they would no longer work with a major client.
At the beginning of the project, it looked good. The work was within their expertise, would increase their profile, and would be a profitable revenue anchor for the year. But as the project progressed, the client became more and more demanding and difficult.
The team concluded that, even though the project was an income-generator, they just did not want to work with this client any longer. My friend said, “It took us a day to write the resignation letter.”
And then? My friend said, “I’m not making this up.” She went on to say, “Within an hour of clicking the Send button on our resignation letter, six new opportunities landed in my inbox.”
They had made space.
Lately I’ve been keenly aware that I need to make “mental space” for some of the new things I want to experience, by letting go of some habits and beliefs that no longer serve. I was encouraged to read “Your Brain Has a Delete Button – Here’s How to Use It” by Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane.
The authors explain that when we do or think something repeatedly, we build pathways in our brain (“neuro-circuits”). The more you run a neuro-circuit in your brain, the stronger that circuit becomes. That’s why practice makes perfect. The more you practice piano, or speak a new language, or shoot baskets, the stronger those circuits get.
But there’s more to learning than strengthening neural connections. Even more important is our ability to break down old ones. It’s called (I love this term!) “synaptic pruning.” Special cells in our brain have the job of seeking out less-used neural pathways and “pruning” them away. The authors say, “This is how your brain makes the physical space for you to build new and stronger connections so you can learn more.”
When does this happen? When we sleep. That old adage to “sleep on it” was even wiser than we knew.
Here’s a sobering point. Those repeated dark thoughts are creating strong brain pathways. We’re undoubtedly going to keep having dark thoughts – it’s knee-jerk. What we can do is be better at noticing them more quickly and switching them to happier thoughts. Personally, I’d like all my “strong neural pathways” to be happy ones!
In the meantime, the next time I decide to stop working and have a nap, I’ll say, “I’m activating my ‘synaptic pruner’ so I can think more clearly.” It will even be true!