Re-thinking the right stuff

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
May 1st, 2010

The last time I changed jobs I thought I had found the best way to sort, pack and move important stuff from my old workplace to the new office. That was a time of volatility in the job market for psychologists much like today and the likelihood of a short stay at the new institution made me reluctant to unpack. So, after moving the really important things, I drove around with enough heavy boxes in my trunk to rack up a hefty repair bill for new rear shock absorbers. The experience held a valuable lesson – since we carry the really important things within us, we might as well travel light. You’ll notice I wrote that the experience held a valuable lesson, not that I learned it.

Now, almost two decades later, I am transitioning from one assignment to another – two days a week assuming the responsibilities of a unit psychologist at the new venue and the rest of my time attending to the details of closing the old. Along with the important work of helping to discharge our patients, these details inevitably include sorting, packing and moving my stuff. Unlike the last time I faced this challenge, I have many more years of experience to guide me, but these same years that could have brought me more wisdom also brought a lot more stuff.

As melancholy as closing your workplace can be, there is a great deal of comfort in doing this with all of your colleagues. The administration placed enormous wheeled bins in strategic locations throughout the hospital, some for confidential information to be burned and others for paper products to be recycled. The question is always what to throw away and what to keep and, because we all faced the same challenge, we all had our own ideas that we freely shared. One colleague placed all of her belongings into three categories: the “definitely keep,” the “definitely discard” and the “undecided.” The trick there is to make sure the third category isn’t bigger than the sum of the first two.

Another co-worker, who had been in her office longer than most of us, resolved to bring no more than two small boxes of the essentials to her new workplace. An inspiration to us all, she achieved her goal by discarding most of her papers and bringing only her “smart books” to keep on her new desk. We all have our “smart books” and we know they are the ones we display prominently when we host APA site visitors in our offices or someone we want to impress in our homes.

Not only did I have the benefit of my peers’ good example, but one fellow even backed up his advice with a story about Winston Churchill. He said that Churchill kept his papers in two boxes in his office. When he filled the first, he started the second and, when that was full, he discarded the first. His strategy makes perfect sense based on the idea that if he did not need the contents of the first box by the time he had filled the second, then they were not important enough to keep. Sir Winston could have moved easily but what about those of us who have been accumulating stuff for years without the benefit of continual sorting provided by the two box strategy? What do we keep and what do we throw away?

I discovered that for myself the answer depends on a lot more than the logical consideration of what we are likely to need in the future. Time of day influenced my decision as did the place where I chose to do my sorting. I was more likely to discard something at the end of the day when I was tired of the task and impatient to get on with what I hoped would be my new, lighter, more streamlined way of life. Likewise, if I sorted a large pile of papers in front of the bins, I threw more away than if I made the same decisions in my office next door.

In the end, I threw away as much or more than I kept. Sheets of paper sometimes containing no more than a single name or a telephone number; pages of notes from continuing education lectures; clinical reports; lists of patients, students, assignments, almost never lists of things to do; poems, essays and short stories by noted authors and patients in creative writing groups; cartoons; photographs; postcards; check stubs; documents; newspaper clippings – all of these things found their way into both categories.

There were my “smart” books and my “other books,” some destined for my reduced shelf space in the new office, some for boxes in the closet, and others for the “take and leave” section of our local recycling center. There was a bag of paper clips, staples and pens and, as an afterthought, a few ragged dolls from my long ago days as a child therapist.

As I settle into my new office, I feel the exhilaration of starting over, unencumbered by more stuff than I can handle, but still surrounded by the choice items that made the cut. There are no regrets about missing the lesson of my earlier insight that we carry the really important things within us. I still believe that is true but it is not the whole story. Whatever our intellectual gifts or spiritual aspirations, we are material creatures who express ourselves in material ways. And that is why we need our stuff.

 Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is the Co-Director of Psychology Training at Westborough State Hospital, Mass. and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

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