‘Leave No Trace’: A simple Mindfulness Exercise in Awareness and Cleaning up your Sh*t!

Do you often find yourself rushing from one task to the next without thinking about the transition?

Do you often find yourself leaving rooms or spaces a bit untidier than before you arrived?

If you are anything like me you might be able to relate to this predicament. No doubt you might be saying: “I will clean the mess up later.” However later never comes.

  • It’s easy to wash the dishes, then leave them on the side
  • It’s easy to leave the dirty gym bag unattended in the hall
  • It’s easy to skip meditation when life becomes a bit too busy

How much easier would it be if we took the time to take care of things now -not later?

For me my neglectful bad habits have nearly driven my wife insane. So to start 2021 on a positive note I decided to invest some time and energy into exploring a way I could easily change this habit.

The Cause of the Problem

I have this tendency to multi-task jobs and this is where the problem starts. I strive to complete as many things as I can in the shortest space of time possible.  However, not all tasks get completed before moving on. When I’m doing one thing I’m already thinking about the next. There’s a sense of urgency and an anxiety to get things moving.

Typically for me it showed up in a number of ways:

  • Leaving books, papers and other objects lying around.
  • Not straighten the cushions on the couch after sitting there
  • Leaving cups and dishes in sink after I’ve eaten.
  • Not putting my clothes and shoes away.
  • Not always making the bed after I wake up.
  • Unstacking the dishwasher after its cleaning cycle.

The problem was that I was living surrounded by half-finished tasks. I was constantly leaning into the future, and away from the present.

The solution to the problem: ‘Leave no trace’

In the lead up to the New Year I was re-reading a book called ‘How to Train a Wild Elephant: & other adventures in mindfulness’. The author, Jan Chozen Bays, MD, describes some simple, interesting exercises you can commit to doing weekly to increase your mindfulness habit.

The one that grab my attention was called “Leave no trace.” 

As a mindfulness practice, it’s about choosing 1 room or space in your house and committing to leaving the space in a way that you can’t tell you’ve been there after you’re finished.

This could be the bedroom, kitchen, office or bathroom. The goal is for one week to try and leave no trace that you’ve used that space. Before you change tasks you make sure that space is clean and tidy. 

You clean the coffee cup, wipe the counter, or put away your files and tidy the desk.

What is the deeper lesson of ‘Leave no trace?

 In practice, this exercise is encouraging us to become more mindful of what we’re doing.  It’s about becoming aware when we are moving from one task to another.

It’s about bringing tasks to an end before we move on with present moment awareness.

 For example:

  • Putting the toothbrush away,
  • Replacing the top on the toothpaste tube,
  • Rinsing out and cleaning the sink,
  • Emptying the dishwasher,
  • Putting shoes away
  • Putting laundry away
  • Tidying your desk
  • Unpacking bags
  • clearing the trail of tea cups
  • Taking out and changing a full rubbish bin

We are “leaving a trace” of tidiness!  We are making sure we attend to finalise tasks we have started in some manner. There is a trail that has been started but not finished. It’s visible for everyone to see.

This is where the problem starts. We live surrounded by the traces of half-finished tasks, and we take these traces for granted.

What I learned practicing ‘leave no trace’

The exercise made me aware of how unaware I can be.

I realized how I can be my own worst enemy as I get angry for having to unload the dishwasher first thing in the morning, because I didn’t do it the night before.

For the week I choose the kitchen bench tops as my mindfulness practice space. Working from home I get to see the kitchen a lot. It’s a high traffic area. Previously, every time I find clutter or mess on the countertops it leaves me feeling slightly anxious and annoyed.

So instead, I started repeating to myself, “Leave no trace! Leave no trace!” and made sure I got to work.

The benefits I gained after 1 week of this simple habit;

1.        I don’t get frustrated having to clean up a huge mess later.

2.        I gained peace of mind which allows me to think clearer.

3.        My life became uncluttered and calm.

4.         I have a sense of control and clarity.

5.         I feel less anxiety about moving on to the next thing.

How to make ‘leave no trace’ a new habit in your life 

Here’s how to make ‘leave no trace’ a new habit in your life:

  1. Put reminders “LEAVE NO TRACE” where you’ll see them. These can serve to help you remember to clean up after yourself.
  2. For the first day, put all your focus on noticing when you’re finished with a task.
  3. At the end of the task pause. Become aware of how you’re doing with the task. Were you mindful during the task? Was there any resentment?
  4. After 1 week start to spread ‘leave no trace’ to other areas of your life. This might mean putting things away, wiping things down, or just filing away a document and crossing a task off your to-do list.

You’ll forget often in the early stages, but that’s ok. Just try to remember as often as possible.

Eventually, you’ll start remembering more often, after a few days. You’ll get better and better at the habit, and in the process learn a lot about habits and mindfulness.

Take home message

This task of ‘leave no trace’ brings awareness to the many small things that support our life all day long.

When we take the time to clean the spaces around us I found there’s a sense of satisfaction and achievement of ‘leaving no trace’. 

Our minds are cleaner. Our life becomes less complicated.

This mindfulness exercise is great at cultivating present moment awareness. There’s less leaning forward into the future, and more just being present in the here and now. The outcome is a reduced anxiety and more calmness about moving on to the next task.

Something as simple as wiping down the bench top after I’ve used it is like taking care of the present moment. Through doing this exercise I have realized that I often see the present moment as an inconvenient obstacle that I have to rush through to get onto more interesting fun future events. Now I’m finding that I like whatever the present moment offers!

You might want to take up the practice of ‘leaving no trace.’

Maybe try it for a week and let us know how you went it goes!

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