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.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Nobody's Perfect: What I learned making Turkish Bride Soup.

Productivity advisors often give the impression that we follow our own advice perfectly.  The implication is that you, dear readers, are expected to do so as well.

Neither is true. Nobody’s perfect.

Although this message is usually unintended, the consequences for readers can be real.

A reader who does not use the advice perfectly may feel like a failure. She may become discouraged about continuing to work on the desired change.  Or worse, he may believe that because the advice is not working for him, the situation is hopeless.

Needless to say, this is not an ideal state of affairs.

So from now on,  I promise to be more be realistic about the advice I give.

That includes:
  • Acknowledging the learning curve needed for new tools and processes.
  • How to get back on track when you get behind. 
  • Options for tweaking strategies make them your own.
  • Identifying \situations in which the advice might not work.

I'll also occasionally share my own “time management mistakes,” and show you how I analyzed them to minimize re-occurrences. As there is an unlimited supply of these mistakes, content ideas will not be a problem!

The first “mistake post.”

Let's start with an incident that occurred recently while I was making Turkish Bride Soup.

Dateline: Iowa, a dreary late afternoon in early March 

Iowa's winter has been the worst in a decade. Single digit temps, too much snow, and two stints of minus 40  wind chill courtesy of the polar vortex. Many of you live in places with the same distinction.

The day was perfect for soup, the weather was miserable, and I had just returned the night before from a long trip. Neither a complicated dish or a trip to the grocery store was appealing.  I found a trusted recipe, Turkish Bride Soup, and after finding all the ingredients in my pantry, was ready to go.

But, I was in a time crunch. I had ninety minutes to both make dinner and have an hour-long call with a coaching client. 

In other words, I was double-booked.

You can guess my solution: I would make the soup while taking the call! 

As I finishing pulling ingredients off the shelf, the phone rang. I switched to speakerphone, and the call began...

(If you are wondering, I did mention that I would be making soup while we talked!)

What ensued is more proof that multi-tasking does not work.

Turkish Bride Soup is delicious and easy to make, and by using a pressure cooker, can be ready in less than an hour. The method is simple. Saute onion in butter, add red lentils, bulgar, and paprika, then stock, tomato paste and cayenne pepper,  and cook under pressure for 30 minutes.  Release the pressure, add dried mint and eat.

Here is how it went.  

I kept my primary attention on the call,  as I am sure you are relieved to hear, and put the soup-making on autopilot.

And actually, it seemed to be going well until... 

... I sealed the cooker lid, and double-checked the recipe to confirm the cooking time.

I discovered I had added eight times the amount of cayenne pepper called for.

Panic - of the cook who might have ruined the main dish - set in.

My immediate response was to go into "recipe disaster mitigation planning" mode:

  • I could make another batch without cayenne, and mix the two batches together.  This might work, but would take more time and would result in a freezer full of the leftovers. 
  • I could off-set the heat with a side of dairy; I had no sour cream, but I could offer yogurt.
  • I could thaw a different kind of soup from my freezer supply.

Then things got worse:  I started worrying about not serving a perfect dinner. Worrying ruined my mood and my clarity of thought, and did not help one little bit.

A happy ending.

When the soup was finally done, I had a very tiny taste: bland.  

No noticeable cayenne at all;  a second taste was confirmatory.

Saved!  In fact, I had to add quite a bit more cayenne to make it right.

What can we learned from this little story?

I identified at least three lessons based on the actual mistake and its aftermath.  But there is also a fourth lesson based on what went right.

Lesson 4. You can be more efficient and effective by creating a system of supporting skills, structures, processes, and habits. 

For example, my "cooking productivity system," allowed me to solve the initial problem of how to make dinner on time.

The elements of my own system that helped with the soup situation included: 
  • A recipe collection organized in Evernote.  This app synchronizes across all my devices, so my recipes are always available. I use tags as part of my search strategy. Searching on three of these tags, "soups," "best recipes," and "pantry meals," made finding the right recipe easy. The time I have spent learning to use Evernote allows me to easily add, organize, and access information. This means I can spend my time working with information instead of looking for it. 
  • A stocked pantry.  I use a grocery shopping app, Out of Milk, on my phone. This makes it easy to add items to my list as soon as the last one is used.  As a result, I had all the ingredients I needed for the soup at hand.  Maintaining your system saves time.
  • Pressure cooking was an option.   That meant I could make the soup in less than half the usual time.  ( If you want to know more, go to Laura Pazzaglia's website Hip Pressure Cooking. The site covers "all things" pressure cooking, including stove top and electric types.) Figuring out how to make a work process more efficient pays off.
The "mistake" lessons

Lesson 1. Really, folks, multi-tasking does not work.

To be clear, the kind of multi-tasking that does not work is attempting to simultaneously do two tasks that require cognitive attention.

My call that day had significant "cognitive load;" I needed to listen and make thoughtful suggestions. 

Although the soup recipe was easy,  measuring and adding ingredients in the correct order did require attention.  Which I failed to give.

If you want to know more read Devora Zack's book singletasking, in which she summarizes the research and provides detailed examples and implementation tips.

Lesson 2. Even though I knew it was not a good idea to multi-task, I did it anyway.   

I did not follow my own "expert" advice.  Instead, I let my feeling of "time pressure" overcome my better judgment.  I am betting some of you have done the same.

Nobody's perfect.

Lesson 3. We can improve by thinking through "time management mistakes"  after they happen.

For example, I can be more thoughtful about the plans I make when I'm feeling time pressured.

In the matter of the soup, I could have made a plan that minimized the risk or avoided it altogether.

  • I could have minimized the risk by reducing the cognitive load of the soup making. If I had measured the ingredients and arranged them in the order to be added before the call. I would then have had relatively "mindless" steps to perform.
  • I could have avoided the risk by recognizing that the soup only takes an hour to make. I could have made it after the call.  Plus, the soup was for a casual weekday night supper. No one would notice that dinner was a bit later than I had planned.

Bonus meta-lesson: Worrying never helps.

Let's go back to my frantic attempt to make a back-up plan had I ended up with unacceptably spicy soup.

While it was helpful to think of ways to "repair" the soup, it was unhelpful to let worry take over. 

Worrying never helps.

Takeaways for your consideration:

Nobody's perfect! 
  • Watch out for your own multi-tasking moments, and work to minimize them. 
  • More generally, pay attention to your own "time management mistakes," and spend some time debriefing each.  
  • Notice when you are worrying. Take a breath, and focus instead on making a backup plan.
  • Start thinking about your own productivity system. What works well, and what could be improved? These observations can be the basis of deciding what productivity system changes you should make. 
And of course, you can make some Turkish Bride Soup

Monday, March 18, 2019

Possibly the last new year's resolution post of 2019

Did you make New Year's resolutions this year?   Have you noticed that one or more have fizzled? 

Fizzle: "end or fail in a weak or disappointing way."   

If this has happened to you,  you are in good company: the (vast) majority of New Year's resolutions "fail to launch." 

A big reason, not always mentioned in explanations for this phenomenon,  is that when you made that resolution, you were already very busy.  So although it certainly can be done, it is difficult to add a brand-new goal on top of what you are already doing.

BEFORE I CONTINUE, a brief aside for those of you subscribed to this blog in the distant past:  

You may have noticed how I  started this post as if I just blogged last week, instead of reappearing after a FOUR YEAR ABSENCE! I might write another time about how I got back on this wagon, but for now, THANKS for not un-subscribing.

Back to today's message:

Resolutions are generally about doing things that will improve your life in some way. With a little more than 9 months left to go in the year, there is plenty of time to consider alternatives to that end.

One approach, instead of starting something new, is to focus on how to make the life you have now better.

Here are three ideas to get you started thinking about how this might work for you. 

Each of them is a variation on how to pay attention.


Engage fully in every activity you do.

This means everything, whether you are doing something by yourself (e.g., writing) or with others (e.g., meetings, conference calls).

Optimize your engagement by minimizing outside interruptions - phone off and email minimized!

And yes, this includes things you find boring or distasteful or just plain horrible (routine paperwork, email, expense vouchers).

For another angle on this idea read David Burkus's new year's resolution blog, "Why I'm not setting goals in 2019..."

The possible outcomes of this practice can be more satisfying and higher quality outcomes for your work, even work you don't like to do, better personal & working relationships, and more pleasurable "off work" time.

Ideas to take this further, when you are ready:

Look ahead to the coming week, to be aware of what is already planned, and to think about what will make your time better spent.  For example, you might do some advance preparation for a meeting,  or create a plan about how to use an open block of time for high priority work, or even something as mundane as figuring out what will be needed to get to an event on time - so that you can relax and get more out of the experience.

This review will also lead you to make better decisions on the fly.

Do a similar "scan and plan" for the coming day, and in addition to reviewing your schedule, pick up to three tasks related to your current goals that will move that work forward.


Look for ways to make tiny incremental reductions in your current level of activities, "stuff," and time wasters.

Most of us are over-committed, and cutting back could pay big dividends.

But I'm not recommending a major overhaul.  That can be a great idea, but to be successful, you have to have the commitment, energy, time and a clear plan. 

Instead, I suggest that as you go through your day, notice anything (large or small) that you might consider changing or stopping. 

For example, every morning I read the entirety of two local newspapers (they are short!), and very selectively from two national ones. 

Six months ago, I realized reading the comics page was really not that interesting, and so I tried dropping it.  I did not miss it at all.  In fact, now I can get to the food sections of the national papers more quickly, and spend more time doing something I really enjoy. 

Note that in this example, I did two things:

     First,  I stopped doing something I did not actually enjoy, which created more time for something I DID enjoy.

     Second, I did a time-limited experiment.  If I had discovered that I actually missed the comics, I could have added them back. 

Ideas to take this further, when you are ready:

You'll get more value out of your observations if you record them.  Make this simple:  a note on your phone that you can add to needed.


Acknowledge moments of satisfaction, gratitude - or whimsy.

Apparently, our brains are wired to focus more on the bad things that happen than the good.  The idea here is to notice when something good happens, even if it is a fleeting moment. 

Noticing feelings of gratitude, in particular, has been recommended to physicians and academic faculty as a way of reducing burn out risk and the feeling of "busyness" - and if you are both, perhaps you'll reap a double benefit?

Here is a recent experience of mine using this method.

The first 24 hours of this story can be condensed to the familiar "unpleasant travel experience."

The trip began with a very early wake up call ("4 " was the first digit of the departure time), the scheduled Uber not showing up, followed by a flight cancellation, re-booking with a middle seat assignment,  then another delay, and a final arrival late at night, exhausted - with a big presentation on the horizon for the next day.

Usually, I would have ruminated on this dismal narrative, which would result in a frame of mind not conducive to a great presentation.

Instead, I had already picked that day to notice "good things."  

It turned out there were several. 

Although the Uber did not come, I did have a car at the ready, so I was able to drive myself to the airport in plenty of time.  Because of the first delay, I had time to go to an O"Hare bookstore, and discovered a new time management book - Life Admin, by Elizabeth Emens - that turned out to be great. As I got settled into my middle seat, the couple assigned to join me asked "if I would mind" switching to the window.  (Visualize a large smiling emoji!)

So instead of the negative narrative, I was able to replace it with a positive one.

And then, to top it all off, the next morning there was a moment of whimsy:  While getting ready to go to my meeting, I casually flipped the round bar of soap into its dish, and IT LANDED ON END! 

I could not stop laughing - and I even worked the story and photo (tastefully) into my presentation that day.

Ideas to take this further, when you are ready:

This is a repeat: "You'll get more value out of your observations if you record them.  Make this simple:  a single note on your phone that you can add to as needed."

If you want to try this: 

You may have other ideas about how to pay better attention  - feel free to try those.

 Also, the approaches are not mutually exclusive - so you could do all three simultaneously.

However, I'd suggest you begin with one. 

Pick the one that sounds most natural, or most interesting, or most potentially helpful - whatever appeals to you. 

Try it for a week or two, and at the end of the planned trial, ask yourself how it went.  Don't worry if you didn't do it every day.  Focus on any benefits of the times you actually followed through.

Then you are free to switch to one of the others, or add one,  or do some other attention paying practice.

Comments are welcome - post your own ideas on paying attention, and send any other topics you would like to see here.