Tuesday, July 23, 2013

12 Tips for Reducing Mental Clutter

Mental Clutter
Mental Clutter by Alberto Ordonez, on Flickr
"Help! I'm being buried by my office!" is the cry of many a coaching client. In some cases they are over-busy, some of them are in transition, and some have creative minds for whom out of sight is out of mind. All of them realize that having too much stuff is getting in the way of their productivity and their ability to think clearly. Here are some ideas to consider if your time at the office is creating mental clutter that is eating you alive:

For the Over-Busy
In the classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey talks about the balance that needs to be struck between production and production capacity. You can only drive, drive, drive the car for so long before it won't move because it needs fuel or an oil change. If you're focused on production so heavily that you're not building in organization time it will catch up with you.
  • Create slots of inviolable me-time at least weekly - for some people the very beginning or end of the day works to help them have peace of mind and a greater sense of control over their work. Close the door and turn off the ringer on your phone, and let people know only to interrupt you during your me-time if the building is burning down. ( A rather colorful litigator known to Summit would secure crime scene tape across his doorway when prepping for court, telling his staff that to cross it would risk murder or at least a serious new assault case!)
  • File papers right away. Create a place for them to go. One effective method is to maintain a "pending" file for items awaiting action from other people. Consider making a "read" file where you put anything that you want to see but don't need to see immediately. You can take your read file with you to help you make use of down-time between appointments.
  • If you manage people or interact with certain colleagues routinely (and if not you probably should,) set up a tablet where you keep a page for each of them. As you think of non-urgent things you need to discuss with them don't interrupt your work flow to track them down, rather write the items down and cover all of them during your regularly scheduled face to face.
  • Overall, write it down in a place where you can readily find it.  Email it to yourself if you have to.  The feeling of busyness often stems from too many things circling the short term memory loop.  When you document it, your brain won't need to remind you so often.  And you won't lose it.  And you won't inadvertently change it over time.
  • Consider dumping one non-essential activity that's taking your schedule over the top of manageability. Volunteerism is a very important value for high-influence people, but it's more important for you to be able to keep your word and follow through effectively than it is to give half-baked effort in a larger number of venues. After you've freed the time slot, use the time you get back for capacity building activities. Pass a task along to someone for whom it can be a challenge or a developmental process. In this way you're building their capacity for the future, which helps you have more flexibility.

For Folks in Transition
It's likely that you have accumulated stuff from your prior life. If you've determined that you're going to establish a new career identity part of the transition is letting go of the unrelated accoutrements of your prior career.
  • If you have an entire office to redo and are feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the job, make a commitment to yourself to spend a finite period of time (1-2 hours or even 15 minutes at a stretch) working on it. You'll probably be surprised how much progress you have made, and you'll be so pumped about it that you'll want to commit another block of time until it's done.
  • Be ruthless about how much you really need to keep. It's the same principle that wardrobe consultants use - if you haven't referred to it in the past _______timeframe let it go.
  • If you're a book addict (in the traditional hard-copy version) you can donate the ones you don't use anymore to a Book Nook fundraiser for a local charity, or give them to people you know will be able to use them. If the thought of permanently separating from them makes you want to hyperventilate you might want to consider the value you can provide by lending them. A local businesswoman actually puts a library card in the back of every book she lends to help remind herself and the borrower. She keeps a recipe-sized file box with the cards of the outstanding books. In the meantime her office is rid of a substantial amount of paper.
  • Even if you're not there yet, reinvent your space around who you aspire to be.
For the Creative Minds - You might not be a person who can be productive with nothing but your current task on your desk. The guy down the hall just can't concentrate with a clean desk because he's constantly thinking about what essential task might be hiding in his desk drawer. If this is an issue for you, there are multitudes of desktop organization and storage systems out there now - take a look at whether any of them can work for you.
  • Visible need not mean disorganized. Stand-up file boxes can be right at your fingertips with a small footprint, and won't dump file contents on the floor if you happen to graze them with an elbow, unlike the desktop stack of folders you have now. Some of the file boxes available now are clear plastic or wire mesh, making it easy to see what you have.  Color coding also works to help the creative brain notice hot projects (red folder), etc.
  • If you have bookshelves or can install shelving you're in luck. Check out pottery barn, ergo in demand, or office depot for ideas on shelving and baskets and bins you can use to hold samples and other stuff in an organized fashion. Label them so you know what you have on hand at a glance. You might also want to consider using shelves with glass doors, so you can see what you have, but it's neatly contained.
  • If you have a home office consider taking better advantage of closet space. You can keep the doors open while you're working if you need to see what's in there, then you can just close the doors if you need to have the space looking tidy quickly for client meetings or overnight guests.  Some at-home business owners even put their work surface in there, so when the door is closed the entire office is out of sight.
  • Incorporate a few minutes at the end of the day to put away the day's work.  The process of handling the items to store them serves as a review process of sorts to prepare your brain for tomorrow.  And if you don't want to lose your place, write a brief note or list to yourself so you can hit the ground running in the morning - without losing sleep tonight.

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