Simplifying life is one of the recurring themes here at Simple Economist. In many ways, clutter, both mental and physical, is one of our biggest competitors to an efficient life. Ironically, I’ve lived with a lot of clutter. There have been times in my life where I was a ‘collector’ of anything of value. I had the strange part of my brain that wanted to hang on to everything just-in-case. I hated the idea of recycling or throwing something away just to have a need for it a few weeks later. I’ve since learned that I could minimize most of the extra in my life and simply replace it with cash.
For years I only thought of clutter in relation to its physical presence. I considered all clutter, stuff. However, I’ve since expanded my view and now I think about clutter in terms of mental clutter, organizational clutter, and physical clutter. Each different type has a different effect on my body, yet they all keep me from living an efficient life. My goal is to live a life devoid of waste. And mental, physical, and organizational clutter often build over time and end up squeezing out the important things in my life. My physical space is easy to observe. Anyone who walks into my house will instantly notice if I have clutter strewn around. However, dealing with organizational and mental clutter provides a different, but equally important challenge.
Mental clutter comes in many forms. The way it manifests itself in my life is in the unending to-do list in my head, and the series of thoughts that keep me from paying attention to the present moment. Just tonight, I was attempting to spend some quality time with my daughter but I felt the constant drift of my attention. I kept thinking about the projects that I needed to complete, commitments I had in the next few hours or days, and all of the things I needed to accomplish before we leave for our vacation.
Mental clutter is the toughest for me. I also notice it in my sleep. I know when my mind is unorganized. I have difficulty both falling asleep and sleeping soundlessly through the night. So, how do I tame mental clutter? For me, it is about getting organized and getting the thoughts out of my head and onto paper (or evernote). I find it difficult to be efficient with lots of different nagging priorities bouncing around in my head. Once I have them out of my head, I find it much easier to prioritize and begin the process of tackling the most important items. The toughest part is when there is more to do than time to do it. The instance when I have too much to do and not enough mental space to process it all. When that point comes, it forces me to reevaluate the commitments in my life and determine which ones are bringing enough value to occupy the limited space in my brain.
Clutter in the form of stuff seems to be the most recognizable and talked about aspect of clutter. I get distracted easily and I find that it is difficult for me to focus when I’m surrounded by clutter. When I have something really important that needs to be done, I often find myself organizing the space around me before I tackle whatever project is at hand. For others, physical clutter is not as big of a distraction when it comes time to work efficiently. However, being disorganized, or having too much junk is not very useful even to the biggest collectors (or hoarders) in the world. At some point, which is often different for each individual, having too much stuff becomes counterproductive.
There are plenty of efficiency gains by becoming organized and killing clutter. Tools, food, clothing, and my desk are just a few of the areas where being clutter-free streamlines the processes and captures back hours of lost time every week due to disorganization. When I know exactly what tools I have, and where they are, it makes doing vehicle or household tasks that much easier and more time efficient. Having our fridge, freezer, and cabinets organized makes it easier to see what we have available and makes the menu planning process quicker. Finally, getting rid of over half my clothes has made the process of getting ready much more efficient. Designing my clothing attire so that it all matches streamlines my morning process of getting ready for the day. For cleaning, the simplest adage still works best: Have a place for everything. If something does not have a specific place, either get rid of it or create a space for it. Anything that doesn’t have a specific space will become clutter.
Organizational clutter is certainly the most frustrating type of clutter. Organizational clutter can refer to many different things, but I recognize the signs in my life by the bloated bureaucracy it can take to get small tasks accomplished. The tasks that require forced-in insourceing or outsourcing. But most of all, it is simply the time it takes for large, cluttered organizations to get things done. I’ve worked for several governmental agencies- and currently in higher ed- and the ability to overcome inertia is painfully difficult.
My favorite example of organizational clutter would be the combination of entities and structures that make up our tax code. I’ve taken several classes on tax law and each time I’m amazed at the inefficiencies and resources it takes for even the most basic levels of compliance. Or maybe you notice it when you need a question answered from a CR rep in a company. Often, they either do not know the answer or are not authorized to solve your problem. Thankfully, this has gotten better over time, especially for internet based tech companies. Organizational clutter is difficult to fix, but learn to observe and ask questions before you step into jobs or positions about the organizational structure. Find people who seem to work efficiently and seek out their methods.
An efficient life is about removing the clutter so we can concentrate on the things we value in life. This often means getting rid of the clutter that is distracting us from our goals. Mental, physical and organizational clutter all inhibit us from fully streamlining our lives. Take the time to identify clutter, then develop a process to remove it from your life if it is becoming a distraction. We could all use a little less clutter in our lives.