The Root Cause of Clutter

In BasketThis is a picture of my in basket a few days ago. It’s a collection of random small things was my nemesis for a few weeks. It doesn’t look like much but it really bugged me.

What are they? They’re the result of a recent wallet cleaning and attempt to corral loose pieces of floatsum laying around my workspace. The kind of things that are there so long you stop noticing them.

Like a good processor I gathered these things up and put them in my Inbox to be processed. But something happened. I put new mail etc. on top, processed the mail and continued to leave them in the bottom of the basket. “I’ll get to them later” I thought.

Here you have it, a public confession that I broke one of my own cardinal rules. DON’T USE YOUR INBOX AS A STORAGE FACILITY.

But these items were so insignificant to my daily work they hardly seemed worth my time, attention and decision making prowess. So they just sat.

Why did they sit? In analyzing the situation I realized that first I had no place to put them and didn’t feel like using limited space and my even more valuable time deciding what to do with them. I realized that the process of making two decisions about each piece was just too painful (brain hurting as a colleague always says), so I put it off. I was avoiding the pain of making (a very simple) decision. The result was clutter.

This is a very simple example why we accumulate clutter in the first place. Whether its’ just a few stray pieces of paper in our wallets or piles of paper and folders throughout our entire office. Clutter (any clutter) represents un-made or deferred decisions. In fact each time you look at a piece of clutter you actually do make a decision, which is to do nothing. The problem with this is that you are making multiple decisions about something that could have been resolved with only one. It’s a huge waste of mental energy.

The solution is to set aside time to process (and only process) incoming information (mail, e-mail, meeting notes, a pile of loose notes, etc.). Make a decision about each piece before moving to the next. Use the temptation to put it aside as a trigger to first think about why you are deferring your decision, then force yourself to make it. Maybe, like me, you put off the decision because you don’t have a place to put it. If so time for an action item to create some files (or electronic folders) and move on.

If I was sitting with you at your desk this is exactly what we would do with each item in your Inbox. It can create quite a bit of anxiety. If it does, use that feeling as a red flag and dig into your underlying reason for not deciding.

You may be wondering what happed to my little pile of stuff. About half is in the trash. Some things have been added to my Outlook contacts and the rest are in a folder for little used but sometimes needed frequent shopper cards. I feel better now.