Clutter kills productivity. It really does. And that does not only work productivity, but general life productivity.
But the clutter that hinders us isn't only physical clutter – the tangible mess that we can all too easily create in most aspects of our lives. It's also the feeling of clutter… that feeling of just not knowing what to do, where to start, how to start…
So, what are the best ways to deal with all this clutter?
Well, tangible clutter is a little easier to deal with, purely because it's tangible. We simply need to invest the time in cleaning, organizing, deleting… and gradually we can get through it.
The feeling of clutter, on the other hand, can be harder to manage, purely because it's intangible… it's about the way that you do things. And it's about all the different things that you try to do.
For me, the physical organization comes easily (in fact, it's what I thrive on!)… but that feeling of clutter? I know it well. Too well… which is why I've spent so much time trying to find ways to manage it. And the good news is, there are lots of things you can do that will help.
So, here are the top tips I've found (and tried!) that will help you feel less cluttered – both in your digital and non-digital spaces.
1. Plan your to-do list strategically.
The to-do list is the number one cause of “clutter stress”. We all have one, even if we don't actually call it a to-do list. Well, that's the biggest tip: acknowledge that you always have a list of things you need (and want) to do, and get strategic about it.
Then, here are my top tips for transforming your to-do list from Argh to Ahh!
Write it down. Rather than just keeping a “mental note”, start to write it down… and use a pen and a journal, rather than creating another digital note. Physically writing things down makes it more “real”, which in turn makes you more accountable, helps you stay organized, and gives you much better clarity on what you need to accomplish.
Use a proper journal. You can of course use any kind of notebook for your to-do list, but I really recommend using something specially designed for the job. They come with prompts and tips, and make it an enjoyable act rather than simply a task. I use the Dailygreatness journals and think they're brilliant.
Track your tasks. Journal what you did in your day so you can see where your time is actually going. This is a great way to identify where you can better use your time.
Keep a digital calendar. Paper calendars are nice, but they're just not efficient. Online calendars can be synced across all your devices, and are accessible by others, so there's no risk of forgetting to add something and missing it! And makes booking meetings so much easier.
“Mega batch” your time. This term is from the book Free to Focus by Michael Hyatt (which I highly recommend!), and it's basically about batching all your similar tasks into a group and doing them at the same time. For example, I now schedule all my meetings and calls into just one or two days a week, which leaves the rest of the week free for my “head-down” work, without any distractions.
2. Be a digital minimalist.
The digital world is great, but there's almost too much out there now, so it's super easy to get completely cluttered and overwhelmed with digital excess.
Reduce the number of accounts and subscriptions you have across all digital platforms. The less you have, the less time you need to maintain them. And in all likelihood, you probably don't actually use most of them.
Cut down on the number of gadgets you own, or at the very least, the number that you use for work. Multiple phones, tablets, laptops, etc., actually just adds to your feeling of clutter and stress.
Close down tabs, windows, and open files as often as possible. Leaving them open for “later” is a recipe for clutter and distraction.
Regularly clear your bookmarks and widgets on your computer, and store as little as possible on your computer desktop.
Turn off instant notifications for as many of your apps and processes as possible. There are very few things that we really need to know immediately, and notifications are the ultimate killer of focus.
Remember that being a minimalist doesn’t necessarily mean that you own very few things; it can also simply mean that everything you own and use has a clear purpose and a worthy place in your life.
3. Learn to say “No”.
This one can be difficult to do, I struggle with it myself. But taking on more than we can handle means we are bound to feel cluttered and disorganized in all areas of our lives.
People often think that being “busy” is something good, but do you really want to be busy, or do you want to be productive?
If you take on too many things, you'll be more stressed, plus you won't be able to give each thing the time, attention, and quality that it deserves. And that's no good for you, or the person you're doing the “thing” for.
Learn to say no to anything that you know you won’t be able to give your full attention to. Whether that's work or a fun-sounding freebie.
4. Learn how to focus
The world is full of distractions, and the digital world even more. Recognizing the things that cause you to get distracted and lose your focus is a big part of actually learning to focus better.
Avoid falling for shiny object syndrome. Don't try to reinvent the wheel when something is already working. As the saying goes: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Change (whether that's shiny new toys or a total system overhaul) is great when it's necessary, but when it's not – you're just adding more work to your plate.
Don't try and do everything at once. Know the times of day when you are most focused and productive and set time aside in those periods for your “deep work” – the work that requires your full concentration and attention. The more distracting or less-intensive tasks, such as emails, research, admin, etc., can then all be done in your “less-focused” windows.
Identify the things you love doing (and are good at!). Another game-changer for me from Michael Hyatt: his Passion/Proficiency Model. Essentially, it's identifying how we feel (passion) vs how good we are (proficient) at all the different tasks we do, acknowledging which of the four areas they fall into (dredge, disinterest, distraction, or desire), and learning to focus our time wisely on each category accordingly (i.e. focus more time on the “desire” tasks, and outsource more of the “dredge” tasks!)
Automation can cut a whole lot of “clutter” out of your days, and automating the “right” tasks can save you a lot of time, ensure consistency, and help you manage and organize a lot of the clutter in your life. There are lots of different ways to automate:
Self-automate. This is simply having a clear, defined, consistent routine.
Use templates. Create them once, and you've just reduced your future workload many times over.
Use “process” templates. Create documents that outline the way you do things, and not only is your own future workload easier, smoother, and more effective… but it’s easy for others to follow your exact same processes, too.
Outsourcing can often be the most efficient, productive, and the cost-effective thing you can do. And here's why:
Going back to Michael Hyatt's “zones”, the tasks you aren't passionate and/or proficient at are always the ones you're going to put off the most, find hardest to focus on, and hangover you like a to-do-list rain cloud. Outsourcing them simply crosses them straight off your list, so you can focus all your time on the things you're best at and most enjoy. Win-win!
It's often tempting to learn new skills ourselves, and sometimes coaches, online courses, and free content that teaches us how to manage new tasks is a godsend. But… it's also another task on your to-do list. You have to find the time to do it, to learn it, and to get good enough that you can get the results you need from it. Which in itself, is more clutter in your day. And sometimes, we just don't need to learn those new skills. Sometimes, paying someone who is already an expert and thus able to do it a hundred times better and faster than you'll be able to, is worth every single penny.
Being productive isn't about doing more. It's about learning to effectively manage the way you prioritize, delegate, and manage your resources better.
7. Be Intentional
This may sound obvious, but consciously choosing to do things that will help you, is important. And these are, in my opinion, the two most simple yet effective “intentions” that everyone in our modern digital world will benefit from:
Set time aside to recharge. Plan to regularly have time away from your digital spaces, where you fully unplug and recharge your mind and body. Quality time away from the screen and digital spaces is vital in feeling less digitally cluttered. (I know, it's hard… It's a work in progress for me as well!)
Approach your digital spaces in the same way as you do your physical ones. Keeping things perfectly neat, tidy, and organized on a daily basis is impossible. So don't even try. Simply try to keep things “tidy enough” on a day-to-day basis, and then put aside time for a more thorough deep-clean every month, quarter, season, etc… your digital spring clean, where you can get into those nooks and crannies that get neglected on the day-to-day basis.
Feeling cluttered is normal. The world is now full of millions of exciting, new, and easily accessible things… which means we all take on too much, try too much, want to try too much… and essentially, get easily distracted, cluttered, and often, totally overwhelmed.
The above tips have helped me a lot in managing my sense of overwhelm and clutter-stress. Hopefully, they'll help you too!
But remember… you'll never overcome the feeling of clutter if you haven't actually sorted the tangible clutter first. So if that's you, drop me a line. Maybe it's time to outsource your digital decluttering, so you can start your new clutter-free habits in the best shape possible!