by Susan McCarthy
Do you find your thoughts and emotions pulling you in too many directions when you’re cleaning out your deceased parent’s house? This one simple technique can bring your awareness back to the task you are working on.
My parents had so much stuff in their 800-square-foot ranch-style house that no matter what work I’d done the day before, when I entered the house, my thoughts started spinning. All the stuff seemed endless and for weeks, I didn’t feel like my efforts were making much of a difference.
I’d walk through the five small rooms, trying to decide what to work on. “I should empty the dresser.” “Wait, maybe I could find out what’s packed into the hutch.” “And there’s so much stuff up in the attic that I’ve been avoiding!”
After finally deciding to work in my parents’ bedroom, I’d fill a trash bag with old underwear and socks and walk it out to the Dumpster. On the way back into the house, I’d stop for a drink of water in the kitchen and start looking around.
Glancing under the sink at all the partially filled bottles of cleaning supplies, I’d start to pull them out, wondering if there were some things that I could bring home to use. The next thing I knew, I’d pulled out everything in the cabinets beneath the double sink.
I mean, there was a bunch of stuff under there – rags and brittle sponges that snapped in half – that could just get tossed into the trash. It was such a quick task to do, why bother to put it off?
Because I kept doing this. Empty a cabinet here, a drawer there. I was getting things done, but it didn’t look like I was accomplishing anything. I never finished a space before moving onto the next. I allowed in distractions and then felt discouraged by my lack of progress.
If you find your thoughts and emotions pulling you in multiple directions as you sort through your parent’s things, bringing your attention back to the task you planned to work through will help you accomplish this difficult task.
Add Awareness to the Task You’re Working On
To limit the distractions, you’ll need to add awareness to your actions.
It’s easy to get distracted when you aren’t really paying attention to what you are doing. You may get caught up in memories or in planning what needs to get done in some aspect of your life. Let’s face it, most of the stuff in our parents’ home is just stuff – pens and notepads, bottles of shampoo, stretched out socks, catalogs, and bedsheets. It makes sense that our minds will wander.
And while it isn’t necessary to hyperfocus on every task, you do want some techniques that can help you bring your attention back to what you’re doing so you don’t miss something important or get pulled in another direction.
Point Out What You’re Doing
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the Japanese railway system’s use of a safety procedure called Pointing-and-Calling. Basically, the train operators point at objects and say what they see, that a signal is green or the speed on the speedometer.
Other staff on the platform tend to their own series of observations. “Every detail is identified, pointed at, and named aloud.”
This system reduces mistakes because it makes the participants much more aware of what’s going on by using their “eyes, hands, mouth, and ears.” Instead of simply glancing over a situation they stare at all day, and not registering that there’s a problem; looking, listening, pointing, and stating aloud what they are observing gets them to pay attention on multiple levels.
Let’s face it, you can’t engage in all that activity while running your grocery list through your mind.
To try this technique, try naming what you see. “Okay, this dresser has six drawers, four are filled with clothing and two seem to contain old greeting cards. There’s a bunch of knickknacks on top of the dresser. There are rolls of gift wrap under the dresser. Nothing is hidden behind it.”
The focus here is observation. You see greeting cards, but you don’t know if these are connected to special memories or if you’re mother kept them because that seemed the polite thing to do. By limiting yourself to sensory details (what you see, hear, touch, smell), you create a space where you are simply looking at this task without getting entangled in emotions that could prompt you to look for something else to do.
Call Things to Your Attention
You can use Pointing-and-Calling to bring more awareness to your activity. If you feel ridiculous pointing out the things in front of you while essentially talking to yourself, then try this technique when others aren’t around. Chances are that you’ll find other situations where you can point-and-call even with others around and they won’t raise an eyebrow.
Even though I hadn’t heard about pointing-and-calling when I was cleaning out my parents’ house, I do tend to talk out loud to myself. Since I found myself pushing myself and ignoring the time, I started reciting the time aloud whenever I looked at the clock.
Before, I’d glance at the clock and promptly forget the time. Saying the time brought it more to my attention. It was much more difficult to ignore how long I’d been working when I heard myself say the time.
I even found that calling bodily needs to attention, got me to act where previously I would have ignored a thought. “I’m thirsty,” encouraged me to stop and get something to drink. “I’m moving slower. I probably need to stop for lunch,” helped me notice that, yes, it was time to wrap up the day. (I’d have started around 6:30 a.m.).
Why did hearing the thought spoken make it more real? I'm not certain. Perhaps the words were more tangible than a passing thought.
Add Awareness While Cleaning Out a Parent’s House
Pointing-and-calling isn’t a complicated technique. And it’s not like you need to practice it throughout the day.
However, if you find yourself getting distracted and losing your focus on the task at hand, saying aloud what you can experience with your senses can bring you back to what you are doing.
What other techniques do you use to eliminate distractions while cleaning out your parent’s house? Leave a comment.
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Hi, I'm Susan
While cleaning out my parents' house, I kept rolling my eyes at all the crazy stuff they kept. Then I looked at my own stuff!