Green and Tidy

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Is your clutter the chicken or the egg?


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Chicken and eggs

In February, I shared five little secrets about being organised, one of which was that the more you do it, the more you’ll do it. When you clear a clutter mountain and completely sort out your space, you feel so energised and positive, your productivity levels go through the roof.

Next thing you know you’re powering through that to-do list, ticking stuff off faster than you dreamed possible. You can lay your hand on anything you need. You’ve got plenty of clear space to spread out the project you’re working on that moment. You’re not distracted by things lying around demanding your attention.

You’re getting stuff done: not just the stuff you need to do but the stuff you want to do too

And it’s automatic to put things away when you’re done with them.

You’re in a virtuous circle of decluttering and organising.

Unfortunately, it can go the other way too.

I recently worked with a female entrepreneur whose business isn’t making as much money as it once did. Times are tough. We’re in the deepest recession since the second world war and, despite the undoubted quality of her products, she’s struggling.

When you run your own business, it’s easy to take such setbacks personally: to feel that a downturn in your bottom line is a reflection of your worth as a human being.

I could see how low she felt about her business (and her life) in her posture and hear it in the tone of her voice. She felt like a failure and pessimistic about her chances of reviving her business.

Her home-office was a mess. We could hardly find her desk under the overlapping piles of paperwork (some of which related to her business, some to her personal life). In fact, we could hardly get to the desk through the piles of paperwork on the floor. Bulging files were spilling their contents. Boxes of index cards stood open, with cards turned upright and lying beside them. There was no room to cram any more papers in her stackable trays. She couldn’t shut her desk drawers. Dirty plates and cups lay under some of the papers and everything was covered in dust.

The environment she worked in was an external expression of her internal mental and emotional state.

We spent five hours decluttering and organising the space. We cleared the floor and desk, shredded and recycled bags of paper, filed what she needed to keep, creating new files as necessary, and re-homed various objects from her office to elsewhere in her house. Whenever we found something that needed action, we added the action to her to-do list and put the object away.

Then we vacuumed the floor, dusted the surfaces and had a well-deserved cuppa.

By the end of the day, though we were both tired, her posture was more upright, her face was brighter and I could hear in her voice that she felt ready to tackle her work again.

Rather than piles of clutter competing for her attention, she had a simple to-do list, which she could prioritise by urgency and importance. She’d moved from feeling overwhelmed to knowing exactly what actions she needed to take and when she would take them.

She felt positive and inspired and had come up with new ideas for ways to promote her products and win new business.

By working on her external space, we’d transformed her internal space.

Which came first, the disempowerment or the clutter?

Had her home-office become cluttered because she felt disempowered about her work, or did she feel disempowered about her work because she’d got cluttered? Did she get her power back by decluttering or did she feel able to declutter because she’d already begun the process of empowering herself?

Sometimes, the trigger that shifts you from a virtuous circle of decluttering, organising and empowerment to a vicious circle of clutter, disorganisation and disempowerment, or back the other way, can be external.

Something goes wrong at work or you feel upset by something that a friend or your partner says or does, you can’t be bothered to put stuff away at the end of the day and the clutter starts to build up. You get recognition for something at work, or simply have a positive conversation with someone, you’re motivated to put away some stuff that’s been glaring at you for weeks and your home looks great.

You’re not the kind of person who lets their circumstances dictate their mood, much less their productivity though, are you?

Wouldn’t you rather take charge of your own destiny and choose for yourself how your life is going to go?

Treat any room getting messy as a wake-up call. Notice how you’re feeling about the area of your life that rooms relates to. Consider why you don’t feel motivated to keep it clear. And look for actions you could take to tackle any disempowerment you’re experiencing.

If you can’t immediately put your finger on what’s going on psychologically, just start decluttering and organising. As you do, watch out for items that make your heart sink. Which are the ones you’re least motivated to tidy away? What action do they require? Are you nervous about taking this action? Why? What are you telling yourself about it?

What can you do to shift the way you feel about that action? Could you get help with it? Could you break it down into smaller steps? Is there something you could do right away to make progress around it?

Pushing yourself to declutter and organise ensures you address the things you’ve been hiding from. You circumvent your subconscious desire to avoid actions that scare you. You make a decision about every item lying about.

It’s by going beyond your comfort zone to deal head-on with even the scary stuff that you get to live the life you choose.
Are you currently in a vicious cycle of clutter and disempowerment or a virtuous circle of decluttering, organising and empowerment?

If you’ve recently shifted from a vicious to a virtuous circle, how did you make it happen? Comment below.



If you’re not yet part of the Green and Tidy community, sign up here (and get a free decluttering masterclass as a bonus).

  • This is just what I needed to read Rachel – I see what you mean about watching out for things that make your heart sink as you declutter, and I have experienced that without acknowledging it previously. My desk space definitely demotivates me because it is such a mess. Though I am happy that I made a very minor start on decluttering yesterday, and currently have a few bags and boxes downstairs waiting to be donated to charity. I have so many cluttered spaces though that I feel I have to clear one before I clear the other, in order to move some stuff from one to the other, and then it just seems too monumental and I give up! Fingers crossed I manage this month, as I have dedicated May to decluttering.

    • Disqus generic email templateThanks for your comment Andrea. I’m glad my post helped. You’re definitely not alone. I’ve lost track of the number of times people have told me that their home/office desk is the most cluttered place in their home. And I can relate to it because mine is too!
      You’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed either. Concentrate on one space at a time and make sure you acknowledge the progress you’re making. Before and after photos can be great for that. Combine that with making sure you don’t keep bringing more in, and you will get clutter-free.
      Well done for making a start on decluttering and for scheduling time for it this month.
      I hope Butterflyist is doing well.

      Rachel x

      —– Original Message —–
      From: Disqus
      Sent: Tuesday, May 08, 2012 12:22 PM
      Subject: [greenandtidy] Re: Is your clutter the chicken or the egg?