Hands up anyone who has ever started clearing off their desk — or clearing up the piles on the floor — only to end up in the middle of a huge mess, exhausted and wondering why the bleep they ever started this. Oh yeah, been there, done that.
That’s how most people declutter. And how most people assume it has to be done.
I beg to differ. It does not have to get worse before it can get better.
You don’t have to do it that way. In fact, it’s better if you don’t.
There’s a much easier way, a much saner way. That will still get the junk out … without the mess bomb exploding.
This is exactly what I teach in my virtual decluttering parties. And today I’m sharing it with you.
Done that step? Now you’re ready to get clearing.
Here are my three most important guidelines for sorting through desks, offices — and why decluttering this way leads to less mess and better results.
Declutter one area at a time, one thing at a time
Choose one area. Whether it’s your desktop, a file drawer, a bookshelf doesn’t matter. Just choose one. This is the one area you are clearing right now — the rest doesn’t matter. Ignore it.
Take everything off that one area and put it in your empty box. If you almost had a heart attack about putting all that stuff in one box, choose a smaller “one area”. Chunk it down into something doable.
Make decisions one thing at a time. Work from the top of the box down.
I realize this might sound tedious, but the truth is you can only make decisions one at a time anyway. And when you get to the bottom of that temporary box, you’re going to feel more inspired to move to the next area.
Why one at a time
- When you haven’t taken everything out, you haven’t made a bigger mess.
- You’ve clearly defined what you’re working on right now … this one area.
- The box allows you to focus on what’s on top because it’s harder to dig through.
- Focusing on a small area makes it easier to complete — and success breeds confidence and motivation.
Set yourself a goal you can achieve. Pulling everything out, getting overwhelmed or running out of time, and leaving a big mess does nothing for you. It just perpetuates the idea that you can’t do this, that’s it’s impossible to get this figured out. Don’t stack the deck against yourself.
Decide how long you’re going to declutter. Schedule it. Turn off your phone, your computer, close your door — do whatever you need to do to get a small block of uninterrupted time. And I’m talking no more than 90 minutes. You do not need a big block of time.
Get a timer — a manual one from the kitchen if you have it — and set it for 25 minutes. Then work.
When the timer goes off, reset it for 5 minutes and walk away. Get a drink of water, have a snack, go outside, move your body. Take a break.
Repeat if you have set aside more time or clean up if you’re done for now.
Why limit your time
- Making decisions is tiring — and you’re not on a reality tv show.
- It’s easy to get distracted by something you found — the timer interrupts you before you’ve wasted hours.
- Working for set periods and taking a break keeps your energy up.
- You don’t work to the point of exhaustion, which just leads to bad decisions and mess.
You can’t declutter effectively when you’re a numbed-out zombie. You need energy to consciously choose what’s important to keep, what matters to you, what you need to act on — and what you can just let go. Now’s not the time to be worn out and running on autopilot.
You also can’t focus on your one thing so you pick things up, put them down over there, wander around, make no progress but usually make a bunch more mess in the process.
File it now — or not at all
Under no circumstances are you make a ‘to-file’ pile. As you sort through your stuff, either file it right away or get rid of it. This holds true even when you’re sorting through the filing cabinet. If you’re going to make a different file for those papers, make it now. File it now.
A ‘to-file’ pile is just another delaying tactic. If it isn’t important enough to file right now, it isn’t important enough to keep.
Regardless of how full your files are right now — still file it. Yes, you may revisit that piece of paper in the future, that’s okay. I’ll say it again … if it’s important enough to keep, it’s important enough to file right now.
Why there’s no ‘to-file’ pile
- Making a ‘to-file’ pile is just making another pile and that’s not moving you forward.
- It’s just deferring a different job you don’t like.
- Most people file to avoid deciding — do yourself a favour and just decide.
File what you must keep. The point of files is to be able to find what you need when you need it. Keep what’s important, what’s important to the life you want to live — and the stuff you’re legally required to keep. Don’t let your files become the place where you store all the stuff you couldn’t decide what to do with.
You don’t have to make a bigger mess in order to declutter. It’s not the only way — nor is it the best way. Decluttering is all about making decisions, and it’s easier to make those decisions when you’re working in a defined area, for a short time. And it’s always better to make a decision rather than another pile.
So give this a go — and let me know how it works for you.