Clear the Decks For a Fresh Start

How I won my war with clutter and how you can win yours

Posted Nov 07, 2012

before (trying to hide my junk pile)


It's hard to learn with a cluttered desk. It's hard to be productive when you're staring at frustration triggers. You can win the battle with clutter and help your family and coworkers do it too (with their consent). It starts with self-acceptance. Your desk is full of reminders of past disappointments. You can re-wire yourself to feel accomplished instead of feeling behind. Here's what I learned when I committed to clearing my decks.

Start with the inner clutter
I recognized that “feeling behind” is just a network of synapses that I created in my brain. The pile of junk on my desk triggers that network, and so does the clutter on my computer. So I set the goal of clearing out the backlog, designing a system that prevents it from re-accumulating, and building a new neural network that triggers the good feeling of being  “caught up.”

I spent ten minutes a day imagining the pleasure of feeling caught up. It took a lot more than ten minutes a day to clear out my junk. I decided to invest the time for personal reasons. First, my computer is dying and I'd hate to transfer a big mess onto a new computer, so I feel urgent pressure to sort it out before disaster strikes. Second, I’m starting a new book and I don’t want a junk pile in front of me while I write, reminding me of things I woulda/coulda/shoulda be doing.

Check out my mess in the before photo. It started with a discrete pile of to-dos behind my computer, but it grew to the point where my coffee cup is constantly threatened by an avalanche. I’m relatively neat in other parts of my life. Why do I have this chaos in the place where I spend the most time? I got honest with myself and found some answers. 

1. I’m afraid I will forget about something if I put it away.
This strategy fails, of course, because a big stack of reminders is no reminder at all. Organization experts say that a good filing system is the solution, but I think self-acceptance comes first. I will never find a filing system that can undo my anxiety about my declining memory. So I worked on accepting my aging brain and being happy with myself even if I occasionally lose track of something. Then I created filing strategies that are easy to remember. Most of my junk went into a basket designated “big ideas to follow up on some day.” If I never follow up on them, it will be because even better opportunities came along. 

2. I defer unpleasant tasks without a hard deadline.
My credit card company is constantly sending mailers about how to redeem my points. After five years with this “new” card, I never redeemed any points because I dread the voicemail hell and the “my account” hell that often goes with such tasks. I left the junk mail on my desk to prompt me to figure it out, but I never did, so I ended up with a mess in addition to unredeemed points. Last week I finally got it done. I focused on the good feeling of accomplishment I would have when my desk was cleared, and resolved to plow through any frustration instead of expecting myself to find a fast, easy way to do it. And, truth be told, this blog provided the deadline and the public humiliation I needed. When I finished, I went to to stop the mailings.

3. I expect myself to clean up at night when I don’t have the energy for it.
I expect myself to do “real work” in the day and sort out my mess at night. That didn't work, so I accepted myself as a person who needs to burn daylight to sift through her stuff. As soon as I gave myself permission to clean up in the day, it got done.

Cleaning up is hard work because it triggers uncomfortable emotions. Most of my junk was associated with past disappointment that I didn’t know how to "fix." When I fail at something, I try to figure out why so I can do it right next time. But life is not always predictable and if I do nothing until I'm sure of the outcome, I will be at an impasse and junk will accumulate. So I accepted myself as a person who has disappointments as well as successes, and stayed focused on the joy of being a person with a clean desk.

All this sifting-and-sorting work would be for naught if I still felt overwhelmed once my desk was cleared. Building a new thought habit was just as important as cleaning up. Here’s how I framed my new thought habit:

What I am doing at this moment is just right for me. If something else becomes more important, I will know it and shift to it then.

You can develop a positive thought habit that’s right for you. However you frame it, self-acceptance is the yeast that will make it bloom. More on this in my new book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity.

At some point in the future, my mess will grow back because no organizing system can meet my needs forever. I accept that I some morning in the future I will need to re-work it. That's good news. It means I can recapture the fabulous feeling of being caught up if I ever lose it.

With all the nice empty space at my desk, it will be tempting to toss new junk onto it. Will I give in to temptation after all the time I invested in clearing my decks for a fresh start? Will I file away my great new ideas or leave them out to compete for my attention?  I am committing right now to keeping my spaces clear..........