Editor’s Desk: Conquering the Demon Called Clutter

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Image source: iStock | ©cawcaw

Recently I was asked to be part of a beta-test of a time management program, headed up by a friend of mine. It was easy for me to say yes to her 8-week program because I’m always feeling the effects of too much to do in too little time. There was no doubt in my mind that I could use some help in scheduling my time more effectively.

In the third week the assignment was that we consider the following questions:

  • What’s a big recurring challenge you keep encountering with your time?
  • What is the most elusive goal you would like to work towards and/or accomplish this week?

I only had to look around my home office space to be reminded that my perpetual, tenacious, and dogged devil was the demon, clutter. I’ve been attempting to beat this adversary into some semblance of regular orderliness for years with only the briefest moments of getting it to sit in the corner and behave. But as soon as I turn my gaze away, it bounds out of its assigned cubbyhole like a tornado and with ferocious energy begins tossing everything within its grasp hither and yon in a cloud of papers, books, gadgets, CDs, and more. Soon all my clean surfaces are once more a jumbled wreck. It happens so fast I barely have time to take a long breath before everything is once more in a confusion of clutter.

I believe the plan to change a longstanding habit must be accompanied by a certain degree of readiness. For instance, I’ve recently been successful in losing a substantial amount of weight (85 pounds), which is an accomplishment that has eluded me for decades. I’ve heard all the sage advice about losing weight hundreds of times, but I now understand that until I’m ready with my whole self am I not truly able to receive what I need to heal, and no amount of outside guidance can truly be of help. I needed to get to a point of being finished with the dis-ease (in this case the extra weight). I needed to be truly ready to shed the burden, the struggle of it. I needed to arrive at a point where I just refused to participate in it anymore. I laid down my weapons. No longer am I fighting a battle with being over-weight. I am no longer angry with it. I was ready for a new relationship with my body.

With that success, I began to apply what I’ve learned by successfully losing weight to my next recurring challenge: clutter.

I realize that what made my past year successful was small efforts that were applied steadily week-in and week-out. It wasn’t about giant leaps that might lead to failure, but about small, incremental, baby steps that could be successfully carried out day-by-day.

Applying my theory of “baby steps” I made a program for myself. I set a stopwatch for 1 hour. I then go about my work and when the alarm goes off I stop what I’m doing and reset the alarm for 10 minutes. For those 10 minutes I turn toward some pile and begin to sort. For example, it may be a stack of books that need logging into the database. Each one needs a decision as to how it will be handled. Each book is assigned a category and needs a decision as to whether it is a possible program idea, or if it should be moved out of the office, or maybe kept for future reference. Or, maybe it’s written by a former guest and needs to go on the shelf. If a letter is attached to it, that needs to be recorded in some way as well. This is very detailed work and can swiftly cause mental fatigue. So, that is where the 10-minute limit comes in. When the alarm goes off, I stop the process and go back to my work.

This structure might not work for everyone, but if I do this four to five times in a single workday, then I will have accomplished 40 to 50 minutes of sorting and clearing piles. If I do this at least 3 times a week it could add up to 2 or 3 hours of taming the chaos. So far I’ve been able to clear out 12 bankers boxes that have been hunkered down behind chairs in my living room for over 3 years. Slowly, slowly, I’m making headway in clearing clutter.

I have to keep in mind that this is not a quick fix. Rather, it is a long-term endeavor. After all, it took me a year to fully embrace my new habits of eating and exercise. I know I am ready to be clutter-free, and I know this is only the beginning. Please send me your good wishes for steady progress on this journey.

– Justine Willis Toms