Right at the start of lockdown, when life was suddenly thrown upside down, I dedicated a full week to consciously decluttering my work, my life and my home. I did this knowing that I needed to have more “space”.
To cope with the stress and pressure of this rather scary, unknown situation, and to have the space to assess and respond to what was coming, I needed to create a more uncluttered life.
As part of that exercise, I tidied up my hard drive that was bursting at the seams. With a few clicks, I also deleted 2500 unread emails that had been languishing in my inboxes for several months.
(Note: I’m a curator of content, for myself and my comms clients. Part of that involves dipping into and wading through a LOT of newsletter subscriptions … or not, as was the case.)
Eight months later, that unread email number has sneakily crept back up to 1300! It creates a background layer of irritation every time I go into my email. So, I reckon it’s time for another electronic spring clean before winter descends.
(Another note: My theory around gung-ho deletion is that if it’s really important, I will have saved it, or I can find it another way)
This form of defenestrating (i.e. throwing something out the window) is a valuable practice. It helps to minimise the digital noise and clutter which, when it starts to build up, can impact on our ability to deal with where we are right now.
According to a De Paul University study quoted in the NY Times in 2019, physical clutter stimulates procrastination. And procrastination – as recently covered in my Creating Cadence podcast – is an emotional response to stress.
In turn, procrastination leads to psychological clutter, so it can become a vicious cycle between our inner and outer environments.
In The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter (NY Times), Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi writes more about these research findings:
Due to fluctuating weather and social distancing restrictions, many of us are currently needing to spend more time back in confined spaces. Wherever we are in the world, it’s important that we give some considered thought to the ways that we can create more physical and mental space for ourselves, in spite of these constraints.
Clutter or “too much stuff” looks different to all of us …
It can be a pile of laundry that needs folding or a pile of paperwork. It can be too many dust-covered nicknacks in your lounge or no free counter space in your kitchen. It can also be an unfinished work project or an over-subscribed To Do list.
It’s fairly simple to figure out how to create space in your physical realm.
You can move it or remove it.
This can be a bit more tricky, as our identity is a sensitive thing. Our mind likes to hold onto things that aren’t necessarily serving us.
So how do we get started?
As always, we first need to reflect on who we are and where we are, to understand what needs changing…
How we see ourselves affects our performance, as our behaviours conform to our self image. Our sense of identity can get tied up in a negative self-image if we find ourselves procrastinating a lot.
How is your clutter making you feel? Who would you rather be? How do you really want to show up?
Consider your identity in relation to your thoughts and actions.
In Brad Stulberg’s Outside article about how to ‘Marie Kondo’ your mind, he shares three ways of creating clarity in your thinking, to help you set better boundaries and create more space.
One: Identify what’s important to you? What are the top 5 things (people, values, activities) that matter most to you in your life?
Two: How are you spending an average day? To what extent are you able to do things that align with your values and what’s important in a typical week? What’s stopping you from doing more of the things you value most?
Three: When you take on new things, what’s the trade off? What other things does ‘doing more of a new thing’ prevent you from doing?
Nir Eyal (a behaviour design specialist and author of Indistractable) believes that To Do lists can “destroy the fun in life”.
In this article, he references a study which found that “intrusive thought, including thinking about what we ‘should’ be doing, can kill the enjoyment of life’s most important pleasures.”
I agree. And To Do lists on their own, don’t always help us to be mindful, focused and present in our work either. When you look at a To Do list, you’re looking at everything that needs doing, and it keeps being added to. It can cause too many open loops in our brain … which then takes strain.
Instead of working around a task list that never stops, Nir suggests we rather structure our days according to an intentional schedule. One that incorporates not just work, but also makes room for all the other important and meaningful things in your life. Those things that bring you joy and the activities that fulfil you.
In my workshops, I often talk about using scheduling activities as a mindfulness practice. They help to manage not just your productivity, but also your wellbeing.
I also use the Bujo method for managing my To Dos, BUT it works in conjunction with my electronic calendar. So it’s a blended approach. In this way, all of my To Dos are given a time and a place to be worked on, rather than having them milling about in my brain at all hours.
Time-blocking doesn’t have to be a fixed, rigid way of working. It’s a very good method for building a more supportive work-life cadence into your days.
So, decide on what you’re going to do and when. Then book those activities (for both work and play), into your calendar, just like you do for meetings. Watch the quick video in Nir’s article about his method for creating a time box calendar.
According to Nir, adopting an intentional scheduling system can help to lower distraction levels, as you’re more likely to only focus on the thing you’ve allocated the time to. Scheduling also supports a better self-image and helps us create positive identity traits.
So … when you identify with being the type of person who gets shit done, then you feel better about yourself for being more structured and organised. Now just imagine what believing in yourself can help you to achieve!
But what about all those other things that tempt us? The stuff that gets in the way of us creating forward movement. The things we default to when stress and distraction are getting the better of us.
Scott Young’s 10 foundational practices for a good life include the recommendation to create barriers to ring fence these temptations. That could be making them either harder to reach for, or setting limiting constraints for how long you’re able to engage with them.
This may sound a bit restrictive, but again, creating these barriers can be tied back to our identity in a positive way. For example, you could set ‘rules’ or principles for how you like to live and work.
“I don’t drink during the week.”
“For every glass of wine, I have a glass of water.”
“Social media / Netflix is the reward I get for first putting in the work”.
“I only play video games on the weekend”.
Or, “I don’t snack, period.”
This isn’t just about saying what it’s like you to be. To assimilate these behaviours into your identity, you have to follow through in practice. So create the space to make these practices easier to follow day to day.
What extraneous obstacles are creating clutter in your mind, and how can you contain them? What new principles can you start implementing in your day to day to support you better?
We’ve got some long months ahead and we need an effective framework to support us during tough times. Creating and leading an uncluttered life will help.
Let’s develop those decluttering practices that help to keep our frequencies clear. So that we can live and work with as much mental clarity as possible at this time.
If we keep building our resilience through foundational practices like good sleep, nutrition and exercise, that supports us too.
Creating morning routines for meditation, being kind to ourselves and practising gratitude are another way to create mental space.
And if we remember to bring our whole, undistracted selves to our encounters with the others in our lives, we’re more likely to experience more joy.
Finally, let’s set some boundaries.
Article: Your surge capacity is depleted, it’s why you feel awful by by Tara Haelle for Elemental
Film: Minimalism – A thought-provoking doccie about how your life can be more important with less.
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