Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Clutter Series #1: Deconstructing "Clutter"

I've been thinking about clutter lately.

I'm still working on getting my home office together, and it has been suggested that it is "messy." (References available upon request!)

After years of not hearing from clients about clutter troubles, I am again.

Marie Kondo, the 34-year old author of the 2014 bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, may have something to do with this.  Besides her four books, she is now a Netflix star and has an estimated net worth of 8 million dollars.

And that led me to think about why the KonMari approach does not seem to be for me.

And so this series on clutter was born.

We'll start by exploring the meaning and causes of clutter and pose questions you can use to analyze your own "clutter profile."  In future posts, we'll delve into ideas for clearing up specific types of clutter, like your office desk, to-do lists, email and so on.

Before we get to deconstructing, take this test:


1. Which desk more closely resembles yours?

2. Which desk would you prefer?


I've done this in workshops hundreds of times, and the results are always the same:

  • A few people pick the "neat" desk as both preferred and current state.  (Although some are unhappy with the stack on the desk and the full inbox!)
  • The rest pick the "messy" desk as their current state. Only a few prefer it, with the rest aspiring to neatness - although, perhaps like you, they want something in between the two.
This simple test confirms the first "clutter truth:" Each person has their own definition of clutter.

The second truth emerged from my coaching experience: Productivity cannot be predicted based on the state of the desk.   Some clients whose offices are extremely cluttered by most peoples standards are extremely productive.  Others, who are "perfectly neat" are not.

And the third truth: your clutter standards may be consistent throughout all parts of your life, or, situational. For me, my preferences differ depending on the space. I like my desk and my kitchen counter cooking space uncluttered, and don't care so much about anywhere else.

Four factors that affect your personal meaning of clutter.

Personal aesthetic.  This is your internal sense of what feels right.  The clutter aesthetic is very powerful: some of us can't work - or even live - in an environment that is misaligned.

Your personal aesthetic may have an unpleasant side effect: judging others who don't share yours.  The belief that our personal aesthetic should be universal underlines arguments about when the dishes should be washed after a dinner party - that night, or the next morning.  (Perhaps you will guess that I'm a next morning fan.)

Impact on function.  The definition of clutter as a verb is "to fill or cover with scattered or disordered things that impede movement (this is fire marshall territory), or reduce effectiveness."  

Evidence supports the effect of clutter on stress and reduced productivity at work and at home.

(In the interests of full disclosure, workspace clutter can be associated with higher creativity or genius.  Check out this photo of Einstein's desk on the day after he died.)

Impact on professional image.  "Clutter" can adversely affect other's impressions of your credibility, competence, or leadership potential.

The standards of others, in three flavors.
  • Informal.  When co-workers, friends, or family members tell you that you are messy, but you are not by your own standards.
  • Inferred (projected).  You believe that others are judging you for being messy.  This dynamic underlies, for some, frantic cleaning up before having guests.
  • Formal.  Your employer or supervisor has rules about the appearance of workspaces, such as "no family photos."

Five clutter antecedents: let us count the ways!

Failure to separate done from undone.  Let's do a thought experiment.  (I would ask you to close your eyes, but then you can't read the instructions!)

Imagine your job requires the completing of many forms.

Now, imagine a tall stack of forms sitting on your desk that includes a random mix of completed and uncompleted forms.  You have no way to know how many are uncompleted.  If you are like me, every time you look at that stack you will be filled with anxiety because you can't tell what needs to be done.

Now imagine separating these forms into two stacks, "done" and "undone. The effect for me would be an immediate reduction in stress and a restored focus on the work.

You are following me if you are thinking, "I don't have a randomly mixed stack of forms, but I do have an email inbox just like that."

Not putting things away after using them.  Enough said.

Delaying decisions about what to do with "stuff."  Do any of these sound familiar?
  • Should I keep or get rid of this college biology textbook?
  • Where should the copy paper be stored?
  • Should I keep a hard or a digital copy of this receipt?
  • Do I want to fix this clock?
  • How many pens do I really need?
Postponed decisions are stressful.  The stress is magnified every time you see the "undecided" objects.

FODI.  You may have heard of FOMO - fear of missing out.  It's blamed for our addition to frequent checking of email and social media.

FODI  is my just-made-up acronym for "fear of discarding information."  Some of us can discard willy-nilly, and others of us feel a need to keep everything.  FODI can but does not have to lead to clutter as long as you follow this rule: "If I have a place to store it, I can keep it."

Entropy.  Once you have solved all these factors that can lead to clutter, you have one more challenge to face: entropy.  The original meaning of entropy is all about thermodynamics, which thankfully does not concern us here.

Here's the relevant spin-off definition: "in day-to-day life [entropy] manifests in the state of chaos in a household or office when effort is not made to keep things in order."

You already knew this: you have to continually stay on top of clutter.  Clear your desktop at the end of the day. Sweep your whole office once a month. Purge your folders once a year, or individually each time you access.  Experiment to find what works best for you.
Once you have mastered entropy, you can be clutter-free forever! 😉

Analyze your clutter profile

  • What is your clutter aesthetic?  Is this really your preference, or is it the result of outside influences?  Is this aesthetic consistent or situational?
  • Do you have clutter that causes functional problems? Be specific: is it the pile of papers on your desk that is the problem, or the knick-knacks and photos, or both? Exactly what problems are you having: distraction, trouble finding things, or something else?
  • Are there external standards that matter to you? Should you give up some of your personal standards at home to reduce conflict with family members? Does your place of work have aesthetic requirements? Would your aspirations (promotion, leadership) be enhanced by a move to a more standard "uncluttered" look?

Make a draft plan to address the areas you want to change.

Make the plan in writing!

ONE.  Make a list of "cluttered" areas, using your personal profile.

TWO.  Prioritize the list.

THREE.  For each area of clutter:
  • What is your ideal outcome?
  • What positive impacts would come from achieving that outcome?
  • What obstacles, internal and external, might you encounter as you pursue your plan?
  • For each obstacle, think of one way you might overcome it.
(If you are wondering, you would be correct if you thought this sounds like a WOOP exercise.)

FOUR.  Pick a date to start working on the first area on your list.  (And yes, this is an implementation intention technique.)

FIVE.  Hackneyed, but true, "rinse and repeat" with each area on your list.

Now get started, and good luck! Let me know if you have comments or what to share your results.

Next up:  decluttering your desk.