Turning Chaos Into Calm: Creating Your Productive Environment


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It’s your first moment back at your desk after the annual meeting. The telephone is already ringing, 314 email messages lurk in your inbox, the staff meeting starts in 20 minutes, and your coffee just spattered on something marked “Urgent. ” You look up at that ticking clock, feeling smothered by all the demands on your time and attention. Everywhere around you are papers and projects you need to work on. You look at a framed statement on your wall. “Have nothing around you that you do not know to be useful, believe to be beautiful, or love. ” You sigh, remembering that you wanted to live and work that way, but something always gets in the way.

You get to your meeting on time; continue successfully through your day, and driving home you think back on the challenges you are facing. You ask yourself, “How do I get into this clutter mess so frequently? I’m not a disorganized person, and most of the time I accomplish the work I need to do – but all those piles of paper are so frustrating!”

After more than 25 years of working with people from every profession, region, age and outlook, we can assure you that there are four distinct clutter categories, each with its own strategic solution. It is likely that you are affected by each of them. Those categories are:

SITUATIONAL Situational clutter usually arises from specific events. You are engaged in a project that generates a temporary mess – like a meeting, crisis, deadline, annual report or new initiative. This is a natural and normal part of life and work in a complex, sped- up world.

To conquer situational clutter, recognize its temporary nature, set an end point by which it will all be cleaned up, and move on with your life. One meeting professional marks time on her calendar equal to one day of “reentry” time to restore order, for each day she has been away. Another schedules a temporary employee to assist him every two weeks. He delegates tasks to this “partial assistant” that would have been assigned to the person whose job got cut in the last downsizing.

EMBEDDED Embedded clutter reflects years of accumulation and benign neglect. The longer you have lived or worked in a specific setting, the deeper the layers go. Many people report that an extended campaign to banish embedded clutter takes at least one month of focused clean-up activity for each year they have been in the setting. Naturally, if you are getting ready to move, you may have to do the job in a few weeks. So you put everything in moving boxes and promise yourself you’ll organize everything when you get settled.

To conquer embedded clutter, set starting and ending timeline goals, arrange incentives or support along the way, and plunge in. One manager reports, “It’s like going on an archeological dig going through these old documents. There are at least 14 years worth of layers of material in the files and even in the closet. I almost wish I had time to create an archive, but I’m just impatient to get it all done. By setting a realistic timeline I could hold on to the goal that it would have an ending date. ”

IMPENDING Impending clutter is everything around you that is sitting in a pile while waiting for you to make a decision about where it needs to go. It’s the stacks of mail, leftover project materials, stuff you heap on the credenza waiting for someone to take it to the storage room. Again, these pre-clutter piles and stacks and clusters of stuff are a normal part of working. But they become dangerous if neglected for long. Clutter is contagious. Order can also become contagious.

To conquer impending clutter, create and follow systems to clear all flat surfaces at least once a week and be sure that everything has a place. Remember the Hemphill principle that CLUTTER IS POSTPONED DECISIONS. Have the courage and discipline to make the daily decisions that prevents clutter comeback.

INVITATIONAL Invitational clutter is the most invisible and therefore the most dangerous. This is clutter you generate unintentionally by operating in today’s society. These are things you “invite” into your setting without considering whether they still have value for you. This may include any magazines you no longer read, unwanted catalogs that seem to just keep coming, a surplus of small gifts people give you because they know you like roosters, promotional give-aways from the last three conferences, stuff-of- the-month items you “don’t have time” to cancel.

To conquer invitational clutter you first recognize your role in creating this excess. Second, clarify what you do and don’t want in your ideal setting and stop opening yourself to the invasion of anything that no longer matches your vision. Third, purge your current excess, cancel subscriptions, get off mailing lists, announce that your rooster collection complete. Get rid of the candy jar that “invites” people to stop in for a few minutes of distractions and calories!

Once you identify the different types of clutter and consider strategies to conquer or prevent them from intruding on your day, you move toward creating your personal productive environment – where everything you do or need to do is supported by everything around you and nothing extra weighs you down.

© Barbara Hemphill is the author of Kiplinger's Taming the Paper Tiger at Work and Taming the Paper Tiger at Home and co-author of Love It or Lose It: Living Clutter-Free Forever. The mission of Hemphill Productivity Institute is to help individuals and organizations create and sustain a productive environment so they can accomplish their work and enjoy their lives. We do this by organizing space, information, and time. We can be reached at 800-427-0237 or at www.ProductiveEnvironment.com


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