When Decluttering is Daunting
When I think about organizing anything from my closet to my financial papers, I feel a sense of dread and anxiety. I’ve made attempts, but they’re always fleeting. I’ll get rid of a stack of papers only to find another one slowly accumulating. I’ll purge my closet and quickly find unnecessary items creeping their way back into it. I marvel when I see people — like my brother-in-law — who seem to have that gift of keeping an orderly system in place. I find that skill to be entirely elusive, which is exactly why I was inspired to write this piece.
“I haven’t met a soul that isn’t organized in some area of their life. It’s not that you don’t have the skill — it’s that you’re not transferring it to all of the areas of your life,” says Julie Morgenstern, an organizing and time management expert and author of “SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life: A Four-Step Guide to Getting Unstuck.”
“Organizing at its best is not about confining you or forcing you to conform to something,” she explains. “It’s really a way to harness and liberate you to do everything you want to do. It’s a gateway to your goals.”
Want to organize your life? Here are seven surefire strategies.
Fuel Your Brain for Focus
To organize yourself on every level (your thoughts, your schedule, your stuff), you need to think clearly. But to do that, your brain has to operate under optimal conditions. “If you’re distracted and stressed, frenzied and tired, then the part of your brain that does the organizing — the prefrontal cortex — can’t do its job,” says Margaret Moore, co-author of "Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life” and director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital.
“Brain energy comes from exercise, nutrition and sleep. The physical and emotional brain energy is what we call the ‘tame your frenzy,’ which is how you manage negative emotions in a way that you can settle them when it comes time to focus,” explains Moore. “Exercise greatly enhances blood flow to that region of the brain, nutrition is the same — the brain has no energy store, so you need a steady fuel of blood sugar, which comes from the right balance of fats, carbs and protein. You’re really eating to fuel your brain.”
Ample sleep, a balanced diet and exercise will help you focus, an essential skill to organize the many aspects of your life.
Take a Brain Break
A brain break is an opportunity for your brain to recharge so that you can tackle your life with renewed vigor, clarity and purpose, says Moore. How do you do it? “Rest your brain — take it off its leash,” she explains. “Don’t try to focus it; let go.”
Among her suggestions: Do some yoga poses or stretches, meditate, walk up and down the stairs, do your laundry, wash the dishes. Literally go with the flow without any mental agenda at least once an hour. “Basically every time you take a brain break, you’re pausing to reflect and it’s in those spaces that you organize,” adds Moore. “You begin to have pauses and moments of reflection and then your brain can catch up. It’s the reflection time when you have pauses and breaks that gives you distance to let your brain do the organizing it wants to.”
Instead of your brain racing with an endless, seemingly unsurmountable to-do list, pausing clears the clouds in your mind so that you can identify and organize your priorities. The 30 items swirling around on your list can become the three or four that you really need to tackle.
Be Methodical About Organizing
The physical act of organization can start by figuring out which areas of your life are most in need. Let’s say it’s your home office that’s spiraling out of control. “Break it down into individual, discrete, functional projects. Start with the smallest one that has the most daily impact on you,” says Morgenstern. Then analyze and address the other projects.
Ask yourself what works or doesn’t work about an organizing system? What’s your motivation for designing a system and what’s most essential? How is your life going to change when this system is in place? “It’s really important to identify that,” says Morgenstern. “If you focus on the payoff, it’ll get you through every tough roadblock you hit along the way.”
Next, envision what your system will look like when you’re done, she says. “Think about a kindergarten classroom. Everything has its place in the room.”
Then dive in.
Use the SPACE Formula
When you have the items together and are ready to organize, Morgenstern recommends using the SPAC. formula: Sort, Purge, Assign a home, Containerize and Equalize.
Wait to shop for containers until after you’ve decided what you want to keep. And don’t just throw things away and assume you’re done. “All it will do is remove the current accumulation of stuff, but then it will start growing again,” says Morgenstern.
The other key component of an organizing system is scheduled maintenance. “Our needs evolve,” says Morgenstern. She recommends With paperwork, for example, you can review your system on an annual or quarterly basis to see if the categories still work or if they need to be updated. Whatever you do, do not stack things in a pile to put away later (I am a huge culprit of this). “A file pile never goes away. It becomes a miscellaneous place to look for things.”
Do Away With Distractions
Smartphones and social media can help us stay connected and save time on some tasks, but they can also be a major distraction. “When you’re always checking your phone, you’re not organizing anything,” says Moore. “You’ve lost control of the brain.”
If the urge to check email and social media constantly seems impossible to resist, Moore recommends imagining a pause button on your forehead and pressing it when you’re tempted to check your phone for the fifth time in an hour. “Put your finger on your forehead and pause,” she explains. “That will help you regain self-awareness and get back into conscious control again. When you use your hands to do something like that, it’s more powerful for the brain.” (It sounds odd, but forcing yourself to pause can help you resist the impulse to pick up your phone.)
Make Your Phone Work for You
A smartphone can be a time suck if you’re not careful. But, used correctly, it can also help you organize your time. The timer and alarm on your iPhone can help you stay on track with your day’s agenda. “Let’s say you’re a hyper-focuser who tends to run late because everything you do you get lost in,” says Morgenstern. “As you plan your day out, you can set an alarm that triggers the end of each activity or even gives you a 15-minute warning for the endpoint of every activity.”
If you are someone who’s trying to organize and balance how you spend your time, Morgenstern likes the Eternity app, which helps track your day. “By reading back your true time allocations, you’re able to start making concrete changes and get it in balance,” she explains. And the EveryThink app is a blend of an organizer, calendar and to-do manager that can sync to your email, access Box and Dropbox, Evernote and Google Drive.
SHED Your Clutter
I have a difficult time parting with items I feel an emotional connection with (my daughter’s drawings, a birthday card from my late grandmother) or even things I’m convinced I’ll need (tax returns from 2005, for example). That’s part of what makes the process of decluttering so daunting for me: I am often so conflicted about getting rid of things.
For the process of decluttering, Morgenstern created the SHED concept: Separate, Heave, Embrace and Drive. “It’s about identifying what is obsolete in your life and releasing it to make room to move forward — new adventures, new experiences, new chapters in your life,” she explains. “Figure out what’s next when you’re feeling stuck and bogged down.”
Interestingly, when people get rid of clutter, they often don’t know what to do with the empty space left behind. “Instead of reaching to refill that space, take a minute and you embrace your identity from within,” she advises. “Once you get that, you’re no longer stuff-dependent and then you can start to drive towards exploring the next chapter of your life. You’re not desperate to just get busy or fill your space because you’ve now separated your identity from stuff.”