Clutter-Creator #3: Stuff I’m Avoiding

If you find your workspace overwhelmed with clutter to the point where you really can’t work in it, then you don’t just have a storage-space problem. The clutter is telling you something about yourself, and it’s probably something you don’t really want to hear. But hearing it out is the first step to reclaiming your space from the clutter. So I’ve learned from Tracy McCubbin’s book Making Space, Clutter Free, which has inspired this series of blog posts.

According to McCubbin, one big reason people allow clutter to invade their space is that it is covering up things they are avoiding. Whether it’s a stack of notices from the IRS or an e-mail that demands an answer, it’s all too easy let things just pile up on top of them until you can’t see them anymore. We know that ignoring problems doesn’t actually solve them, but we convince ourselves that if we ignore them long enough, they will just go away.

The Problem I Don’t Want to Face

I’m going to open with a personal example that sent me into a near-panic just last week. I had piled up a bunch of rough-sawn wood for spoons on top of some logs I had intended to saw up, which were in front of still more boards and other scraps I had set aside. As I began sorting and rearranging this lumber hoard, I uncovered a problem that (to be totally honest) I had suspected but ignored.

Termites. The woodworker’s worst enemy (besides himself). I thought I had taken enough precautions by storing everything up on concrete blocks, but a few weeks ago I had noticed insect trails near this pile of rough-sawn wood. But I did nothing. I didn’t want to take the time to deal with it. I piled more wood on top of it instead.

Finally I disassembled the stack. I pulled out several boards that had been stacked closely together, and there were hundreds of termites swarming between them. The insects had come through the damp floor and up into a bunch of scraps I had saved. By the end of a long day taking apart a large pile of wood, I had a bunch of heavily damaged pieces of wood laying out in the lawn.

Now, before anybody freaks out about termites on my behalf, just know that termite damage is universal where I live. Every house has some termite damage–the only issue is how much, and whether it’s ongoing. (Local realtors and insurance agents alike know this.) My house is fine. And after I got everything sorted out, I found that I had been spared the worst. I lost a few pieces of plywood, as well as a some good pine boards, but almost none of my hardwood damaged. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief at that–after I treated the whole area heavily for insects.

It could have been far worse. And I’m learning a valuable lesson. I need to be much more selective in the wood that I try to salvage. Better to let it go into the dumpster immediately than to pile it up to attract rot and insect damage to my storage space–and then let it go into the dumpster along with a bunch of other material that has gotten ruined along with it.

The Project I Can’t Finish

Another version of Clutter Creator #3 is the Project I Started but Can’t Finish. Perhaps we started on a really ambitious project, but at some point we got stuck or overwhelmed, or we screwed something up, and we walked away and never came back to it. Every time we come back into our workspace, there it is—reminding us of our inadequacy. So instead of dealing with it, we allow other things to cover it until we can’t see it anymore. At some level we still know it’s there, but we can become terrified of uncovering it again.

I’ve read enough forums and social media threads to know that this is a pretty common experience. If there’s an unfinished project that you’re avoiding, the good news is that it’s probably not as bad as you think. Problems tend to grow in our minds whenever we are avoiding them, so forcing yourself (maybe with somebody else there with you) to uncover the unfinished project can be liberating.

You might find that the part you got stuck on wasn’t really so difficult after all, or that it’s possible to finish the project if you just simplify the design somewhat. Maybe those ball-and-claw feet can just be cabriole legs instead. Maybe the top doesn’t have to be bookmatched crotch figure, and you can settle for more workable quarter-sawn stock instead. Or maybe you will just have to accept that the finished product will have a visible patch somewhere, that it won’t be as perfect as it looked in your head when you started. And that’s okay.

As McCubbin reminds her own clients, “Done is better than perfect.” Or, as I might say in the workshop, “Actually done is better than potentially perfect.”

I Don’t Have Time

As I admitted above, I tend to avoid things by saying “I don’t have time right now.” And that is often at least partially true. Although I am blessed to have more free time than the average person employed full-time (my teaching schedule leaves my summers fairly free), my woodworking time is still limited.

Fortunately, most woodworking is not time-sensitive, but there are some tasks that really are urgent. The longer I wait to do them, the more I create problems for myself–even if termites aren’t an immediate threat.

If you’re into green woodworking, you know that you’re always fighting the clock. Wood harvested green will soon dry out, becoming less workable—even cracking and becoming useless. Since I do cut up sections of logs into boards and billets for making wooden spoons, I am often working under a time-crunch.

That means I find it all too easy to avoid unpleasant tasks under the guise of taking care of something urgent. So if I’m faced with a project that needs to be done, but that I know I have the tendency to avoid, I will schedule it in. I put it on the calendar. On this date, starting at 9 a.m., I do this thing—no more avoiding.

Turning this pile of cherry logs into usable boards took a lot of work. Because the wood was wet, and the weather was rapidly warming up, it was a race against mold, fungus, and insects to get these processed and under cover.

My habit of salvaging logs sometimes gets me into other kinds of trouble, however. It’s all too easy to bring home more wood than I can process and store in a timely manner. I have let logs sit until they are punky and bug-eaten and growing fungus. Sometimes that can’t be avoided, but I have realized that I often go through a process of avoidance that feeds itself.

Busting logs apart with a sledge and wedges is hard work, especially in the summer heat. So I avoid it, hoping for a cooler day. (“Not going to happen in late July, pal,” I have to remind myself.) Then school is starting back, and I’m super-busy, so maybe I’ll get to it on a weekend. By this time, I’m not only avoiding the work because it’s tiring; I’m also avoiding it because I’m afraid the wood might be too far gone, and I’ll have to drag it over to the trash pile to be hauled away.

Inevitably, avoidance fed by fear of what might happen turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The wood deteriorates, and I’m beating myself up over letting it go to waste.

Looking back, I could have halted this downward spiral at several points:

1. I could have been more selective in what I brought home. I’ve gotten better about this lately. Just because it’s available doesn’t mean I have to bring home everything I can fit in the back of my van. And it is okay not to bring home anything at all.

2. I could have set aside time to process the logs when fresh. That would have meant pushing back other tasks, or letting other things go. But I’ve noticed that I usually have time for things that are actually important to me.

3. I could have discarded them when I realized I would not take the time to process them. Wood does grow on trees, after all. And my workspace cannot accommodate every log that comes down in the neighborhood. I don’t have to let things sit there until they have rotted away; I can get rid of them before they become clutter.  

As I have been reflecting on my own habits of thinking that lead to clutter, I have been able to talk myself into doing more preventive maintenance. I know I have a tendency to let bits and scraps of things take over my workspace, so when I see it begin to happen, I can head it off instead of letting it all pile up again.

When I’m digging through my storage space, I sometimes come upon some item that I now recognize as clutter—it’s Stuff for Someday, or Stuff I Convinced Myself Was Valuable. And when I hear what it’s telling me, I can let it go—give it away, recycle it, or just toss it in the trash.

In my next post, I will deal with clutter-creator #4: Stuff of the Past.

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9 Responses to Clutter-Creator #3: Stuff I’m Avoiding

  1. Jim Dillon says:

    These posts are fantastic. And you haven’t made it explicit, but as I read it has become clear: the problem isn’t our physical organizing systems or our space. The problem is us. Mental clutter is the real issue. I’m walking through my workspace with a different mindset. Now to hang onto it! Thanks!

  2. I have long pondered the appropriate amount of wood to have around to accommodate 2-3 future projects ahead without becoming a wood hoarder. I have heard too many horror stories of widows selling off garage or storage unit sized collections of old cherry boards that have become warped or were substandard to begin with but they were probably a “cheap” find at the time. I’m only 51 but I don’t want my wife and kids sending lumber to the dumpster 40 years from now that I accumulated over the years but never got around to. Currently I may have a few too many boards so I need to finish some projects until I’m back down to the comfortable level.

    • Same here! I’m only in my 40s, so I hope I’ve still got a few more decades of furniture building in my. But I’m already thinking that, as I approach retirement age, I’m going to need to keep less and less stock on hand. I’ll probably be working at a slower, more deliberate pace by then, so I shouldn’t need to keep massive quantities of miscellaneous wood around. I’m already starting to pass duplicate tools on to friends and family who have shown an interest in woodworking. When I was first getting started, a number of woodworkers were very generous to me–handing on their duplicate tools for cheap or free. It’s only reasonable that I do the same for others.

  3. On termites – we lived in Hawaii when I was still in the Navy and every house there had termite damage, it just depended on how bad as you say. If teh house was built properly with metal pans facing down everywhere there was a post contacting the concrete pad it was fine. i.e. if you are storing wood on concrete blocks you might try putting a cheap metal pie pan upside down on top of each concrete block before you lay your first horizontal supports for your stack. Similar to the link below. Any metal interference helps.

    Our Hawaii house had an addition added by a previous homeowner and the Formosan termites got right in and they can eat a pound a day! There are some great whole house “systems” to prevent termites and after we installed one we had no further problems, but they will do a lot of damage fast in areas where they live.

  4. Yep, works the same

  5. Gav says:

    Light, air circulation, keeping it dry, elevation, isolation and inspection. If any of these are compromised then nine times out of ten they find a way. Chemicals work too, some are just nastier then others. The life span of the ones used here now are supposed to be around ten years, the old stuff apparently was good for fifty. I am still amazed by the ability of termites to find a way into the timber structure of a house, even bypassing timbers they can eat for ones they really want to eat. It makes for some challenging repair work sometimes (part of my job).

  6. Joe says:

    I’ve been very much enjoying these posts. Thank you. Because of this series I have been going through one box a week of unpacked moving boxes that were last packed up in 2004. I hate to say this, part of what stopped me was thinking I should take most of these items to a thrift store. After trying to take some of the items from the first box to the thrift store or selling it on eBay. , I realized they are really fussy about what they will and won’t take. My mental release was just realizing I can could toss the items out in either my recycling can or trash can. It’s not perfect but I have now gotten rid of three boxes. I literally kept just one item. On Monday I’m calling the trash collector and getting a larger size can. I want the stuff gone asap. Have about 6 large box that haven’t been unpacked in 17 years. Can’t imagine I will find anything worth keeping but I should at least check.

  7. William Schuler says:

    I found that a kerosene soak or 2 kills termites with good penatration. Dad used a boom sprayer on the jeep to get hornets that had nests on the creek banks. The odor does not persist long.

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