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Guest Post: Process and Structure to Control Clutter

Ever been unable to find that document you need for your next meeting?

Have you lost focus while working on one thing because you can’t stop thinking about something else? Feeling overwhelmed? There are several types of clutter: physical, technology, and mental. And that clutter is likely affecting you negatively. 

Physical Clutter

Physical clutter is the stuff surrounding you. Symptoms of a clutter problem are:

  • You can’t find things.
  • You’re embarrassed for people to come over to your home or office because of the mess.
  • There are stacks everywhere.
  • If everything caught on fire, you’d be in trouble.

This ‘stuff’ is what Marie Kondo addresses when she is “tidying up.” A professional organizer can help you with those types of challenges. But, there are ‘things’ that you can’t find joy in that keep coming into your home or work no matter what. Like, for example, the mail.

The key to solving a challenge like incoming mail is to put structure in place to manage it, along with processes to help maintain it.

The National Association of Professional Organizers says that 80% of clutter is due to disorganization and not due to a lack of space. So, let’s start by putting some structure in place to reduce as much incoming paper as possible. The initial steps will take a little work, but you can do it in small bits, daily, as the mail comes in. Put a little time on your schedule during that first month to daily perform these steps:

  • Cancel subscriptions to magazines you aren’t reading.
  • Get off mailing lists – yes, including all those catalogs.
  • Convert to digital bills/invoices/notices for everything possible.

Process and Structure

Then, set up a process to make sure the remaining mail is addressed as it comes in to forever stay on track:

  • Never put the mail down. (Touch things only once!)
  • Sort your incoming mail directly over the recycling bin.
  • Shred anything that has private information on it. (We don’t want any identity theft!)
  • Keep/read/share what’s important (maybe 2 things/week?). This mail should have specific places to go in your home – one reading pile that you never let get more than 1 week old, for example.

The important part is to have a process. You can customize it to be whatever works best for you, your family and your particular circumstance.

Technology Clutter

Technology clutter is all the online and digital “stuff.” Symptoms of a technology clutter problem are:

  • You miss important meetings.
  • You don’t know your schedule.
  • You’re unable to commit.
  • You waste time (usually on social media).
  • You can’t figure out where to find important information, because you have too many places to look for it.

My favorite example of technology clutter is email. We all get it. It’s a requirement for pretty much anyone with a job. But, is anyone actually at the infamous Inbox Zero? I am. And you can be too.

Just like dealing with the paper mail above, we’ll tackle this with process and structure. 

First, if you are really, really behind, declare bankruptcy on your inbox and archive everything. If it is important, they’ll get back to you. But, let’s face it, you aren’t going to read it all. And you likely aren’t going to find what you need if you have to go back to it.

Process and Structure

Now that that’s out of the way, schedule specific times of the day to go through your email. Do not leave it open all day long! If you believe that someone can’t wait more than 2-3 hours for an email response, set up an autoresponder that lets the sender know when you’ll be back in touch.

Decision making is key when you do review it. For each email, make one of five decisions:

respond (because you can answer it in less than 1-2 minutes)

  • file it (because it is simply for history)
  • mark it as junk – or better yet, unsubscribe
  • delete it because it isn’t important at all, or
  • flag it for a time when you can come back and think about it. If it is a big enough deal, block some time on your calendar to review it. (FYI, I’m a big believer in calendar blocking, and we’ll get to that next.)

The goal is to be at inbox zero after each review so that the thought of looking at it isn’t overwhelming.

Another suggestion in regard to email is to schedule outgoing emails so that they go out during regular business hours. It helps to set boundaries with your clients. Plus, who wants a paid consultant working on their business at midnight… they want the best of you, not the tired you. Products like Boomerang (for Google mail) or AirMail for Mac allow you to schedule when to send out emails.

And here’s a bonus tip. Social media is a time suck. Schedule times to look at it as well. If you feel addicted, there are apps that will block your access for certain amounts of time or during specific time windows. Take back your time!

Once again, we see that the important part is to have a process. You can customize it to be whatever works best for you and your clients. Technology should be of benefit to you, not command your time.

Mental Clutter

Mental clutter includes those thoughts that distract you from your focus. Symptoms of a mental clutter problem are:

  • You are easily sidetracked or find yourself procrastinating
  • You feel overwhelmed
  • You can’t focus on a project for any length of time
  • You lie awake at night or can’t go back to sleep because you are thinking of all the things you don’t want to forget.

All of these symptoms are reflective of the same issue. There is no process and structure in place for getting your thoughts out of your brain and into a tool that you can put to work for you.

Everyone needs at least 2 organizational tools: a calendar and a to-do list. You can use the ones that come with your smartphone or specialty apps. You can even use analog (i.e., paper), but I prefer not having to keep up with something else and I like to have these tools at my command no matter where I am.

Just like any tool, it isn’t magic. A hammer won’t put a nail through a 2×4 if you just lay it down next to the nail and the board. So, empty your brain into those 2 tools.

Calendar Blocking

I’m a firm believer in calendaring your day to ensure that you block out time to do the important things. So, start your calendar by putting the things in it that keep you going. Block the priorities first. In my opinion, that is time for God, time for you and your health, and time for your family.

If you expect to pray or meditate, block that time. If you want to be healthy to care for your family and clients, block time for exercise and healthy eating. If you don’t want to miss Katie’s soccer game, then it best be on the calendar. 

Next block any appointments and/or meetings – along with the travel time to get there if it is required. And then, start blocking time with yourself to focus on certain tasks. For example, I have a calendar block to do household chores. The chores themselves are on my to-do list, and I do them during that block. So, I’m not blocking time to “make the bed”. I’m blocking time to knock out 5 little things like that at once.

To-do List

That brings me to the to-do/task list. Use that to identify the tasks. If you do big projects, I recommend more of a project management tool where you can create a personal project to keep track of your own personal tasks too. But, otherwise, a simple to-do list will work. Tasks are not “rebuild my website”. That’s a project and will entail a LOT of little tasks. So, make sure the tasks are granular enough… or start looking into Teamwork (my recommended favorite), Basecamp, Asana, Trello, or another project management tool to build more detailed lists.

Process and Structure

Lastly, set aside time at the end of every day to look at your list and your calendar for tomorrow and make sure it is going to work for you. If not, rearrange so you can start the day strong. If something needs to be pushed, it is easier to do it the day before than at the last minute.

I would also recommend setting aside time at the end of each week to look at the following week… and then, also at the end of the month, the quarter and the year to keep your big picture on track.

Now that you are set up, if you start to feel overwhelmed, you need to go back to your list and calendar! Is it up-to-date? Are you following what you laid out for yourself? You know… the process and structure?

If you can’t stop thinking about your newest brilliant idea in the midst of another thing you’re supposed to be doing (often this is during sleep, right?), stop and write it down (digital or analog) and block time on your calendar when you can come back and think about it.

A thousand little things that keep distracting you? Are they on your to-do list? Make sure you get them there. Worried you’ll miss an appointment? Is it on your calendar with a reminder set?

You get the drift. Empty your brain and it will free it to focus on what you want it to focus on. Take charge of your thoughts through process and structure. You control your focus. Don’t let other things take you off track.

Hopefully the topic of removing clutter has helped you see the value of process and structure to control your environment, your digital world and even your thoughts.

If you are struggling with any of these things and want a little specific help to bring process and structure to your operational or project management clutter, please reach out to Susan.

Susan Fennema is the Chaos Eradicating Officer (CEO) of Beyond the Chaos, a consultancy helping small business owners gain control of their lives through better processes, organization, and structure of their projects and business operations. As a graduate of Texas A&M University with a BA in journalism from Texas A&M University, she has over 30 years’ experience in the software development, creative, marketing, and advertising industries. In 2016 and 2018, she spoke at XDC and enjoys being part of the Xojo community.