If you or your kids have grown up in the U.S.A. in the last thirty years or so, you may remember a Saturday morning educational program called Schoolhouse Rock. This series of animated musical films covered subjects such as math, English grammar, science, and history. One of the episodes that I remember was called "Elbow Room", and it was all about westward expansion in the U.S. The main idea of the song was about how our need for more space drove us to explore new areas and push our national boundaries farther. It is an idea that is very familiar in our culture: We crave spaciousness.
What is it about spaciousness that is so appealing to us? It seems that there is something about the expansiveness of "wide open spaces" that invites creativity and possibility. Conversely, when we feel cramped or crowded, we may feel inhibited and limited. The desire for more spaciousness can show up in the kinds of workspaces we seek, the neighborhoods we choose, or the homes and vehicles we buy.
Another value common to our culture is the desire for freedom. We long to make our own choices and are excited about having options! I would venture to say that a sense of spaciousness is closely linked to our sense of freedom.
There are times when values of freedom and spaciousness may be in conflict – especially when we do not develop healthy self-care practices. Having more freedom means that we have to make more choices, and sometimes we get tired of choosing. Choosing takes effort, and when we have too many choices, we can feel overwhelmed.
In his research on self-control and willpower, Roy Baumeister describes the "ego depletion" that occurs with every decision we make. Self-control is a finite resource and when we have too many choices to make, we have a hard time maintaining our willpower.
What happens when we are too tired or overwhelmed to choose? We delay decisions. "I'll get to that later", we think, or maybe we deliberately decide that we want to keep our options open – hang on to that email, piece of paper, clothing, furniture, etc. Soon, our delayed decisions are encroaching on our space – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
When we feel cramped, we may be tempted to just seek more "Elbow Room." Sooner or later, though, expansion becomes unsustainable. Then what? To maintain our sense of spaciousness, we must increase our clarity about what is most important to us, and create rules about what we will keep and what we will let go. Then, we must cultivate our ability to "let go".
The idea of increasing our clarity and learning to let go may sound simple – but it is not necessarily easy. Nonetheless, if we want "elbow room" in our lives, these are practices that are worth nurturing.
This month on "The Nudge", we'll be exploring the domain of Physical Environment with a discussion about "Clearing the Clutter." I hope you'll join me and guest expert, Elisabeth Galperin at noon on May 23 as we discuss this important part of self-care!
"Elbow Room" From Schoolhouse Rock