WebMD: Clear Clutter Out of Your Life

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Aug 16, 2009
Organize and simplify your life for better emotional health.

By Jennifer Nelson WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Simi Nwogugu of Brooklyn, New York, felt that her life was filled with clutter. Her drawers were filled with old notes and books from business school and years of paid bills. Toys that her sons had outgrown still littered the house. In fact, she felt so mentally cluttered that she couldn’t do the one thing she wanted: write.

To get out from under the clutter, the founder of HOD Consulting rented an expensive New York City office. Problem was, the clutter followed her. Finally, she stopped trying to escape clutter and began to organize it.

“I know where everything is and it is so much more pleasing to work from home. Most of all, I am writing again,” she says. Even her aching back and shoulders feel better.

When you can’t find things, you can feel frustrated, angry, and unproductive, says Kelli Ellis, an Orange County, Calif., design psychologist who’s appeared on TLC’s Clean Sweep television show. “You see that person who has papers flying out of files, or you see their handbag, and you say, 'I know exactly what your car looks like or what your home office looks like.'” Clutter spills over into every aspect of life.

Clutter, both mental and physical, can do a number on our productivity and eat away at our time. Think of all the minutes we waste looking for items that aren’t where they should be. Plus the sheer stress of a cluttered life means we may miss deadlines, work longer hours, and lose important stuff. Clutter equals stress. Where to start simplifying?
The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Clutter

Between a zillion to-dos, work and family life, errant worries, and obligations, it’s no wonder you have a cluttered mind. Start by learning to let go.

“To be truly happy, sometimes you must eliminate unhealthy people and situations from your life,” says Alex Lluch, author of Secrets to Love Life and Be Happy. For instance, if you feel stuck in a dead-end job, resolve to make a change.

Or if there’s someone in your life who constantly brings you down with a negative attitude, find a way to disentangle yourself. “It may take some courage to eliminate this stuff from your life, but you will feel much more fulfilled once you are able to concentrate on the people and things that do make you happy.”

Lluch advocates clean sweeping your thoughts with a hot bath, a meditation practice, a long walk, a phone call to a friend -- whatever works for you. Spend at least 15 minutes a day in a pursuit that allows you to decompress, clear your mind, and rid your thoughts of the mental chitchat that clouds your creativity, passion, and productivity.

De-Clutter Your Desk and Work Space

Whether you work from a home office or a tiny cubicle, there’s no way you can be totally productive in a space that doesn’t function for you. “I have never actually met anybody who is extremely successful who works in absolute chaos,” says Ellis.

Sure, everyone has a junk drawer or a messy desk on occasion, but if your clutter is taking over, it’s time to scale back.

When Nwogugu tackled her home office with a very organized friend, they compiled three separate stashes: what to keep, what to shred (sensitive information), and what to just throw away.

Follow a similar routine working from desk to files to shelves. Clear everything off and sort into appropriate stacks. Use file folders, three-ring notebooks, or magazine sorters to hold important papers. And immediately pitch what you don't need. Get creative with containers. Coffee mugs and decorative boxes hold everything from paper clips and tacks to business cards and pens.

Look toward vertical wall space as a new storage solution. “We tend to make piles,” says Ellis. But piles are hard to address and papers within them become hidden. You can’t pay a bill or return an important message if it’s hidden at the bottom of a stack on your desk.

Instead, option wall space. Set bills in a hanging bin, keys on a hook, magazines in wall hangers. Now you can see and reach items easily.
Clean Out Clothing Skeletons in Your Cluttered Closet

If closets are your nemesis and yours could rival Vogue’s accessory closet, you’ll need to spend some time getting down and dirty. The first step to cleaning a closet is to take everything out. Then you can see what you have. Often you’ll need to purchase storage boxes or organizing bins, shoe holders, or shelving. Don’t forget plastic garbage bags for trash and donations. Have a few bins or boxes for items that don’t really belong in the closet but will be moved elsewhere. Be realistic. Do you really need or want each item?

Ellis’ mantra is, “If you haven’t seen it, needed it, or worn it in one year, get rid of it.”

Nwogugu’s friend had three questions when they came to every piece of clothing: Does it fit? Have you worn it in the last 12 months? Is there some sentimental value strong enough to keep it? If the answers are no, toss it in one of three options -- in a bag for charity, to sell at a garage sale or on eBay, or for the trash heap.

Nwogugu went through the same procedure for her husband’s clothes and shoes as well as her children’s. “By the time we were done with clothing, we had over 15 hefty trash bags of stuff for Salvation Army.”

Organization Tips for Your Clutter-Free Action Plan

Here are more steps to help you clear clutter from your life:

Organize in bite-size bits:If the thought of getting organized completely overwhelms you, set a timer for just 15 minutes a day. Knowing you won't spend hours working on an organizational project might make working in small nuggets easier to manage.

Mainstream email: Instead of checking email with each ding of the inbox, read your emails on a regular basis only twice a day. When you open an email, answer it immediately and don't save it for later.

Handle snail mail only once: Create a special time and place to read your snail mail regularly. During the appointed time, open the mail and immediately take action on it. File it with bills, shred it, toss it in the trash, etc. Commit to touching each piece of mail immediately and only once.

Avoid horizontal piles: When possible, avoid putting paper in horizontal stacks in your home or office. Save time and frustration by categorizing and finding a home for paper as soon as it comes through the door.

Purge regularly:This applies to every room in the house but don’t forget the kitchen and bathroom. Check expiration dates regularly on medicines, vitamins, supplements, and cosmetics. Stick to the “when in doubt, throw it out” rule. If you can’t remember when you purchased it, let it go.
The first day after Nwogugu de-cluttered she walked around her apartment, remembering why she loved it. She no longer felt the need to escape. She looked forward to writing. "All around, I feel much better,” she says.



Sylvie Guillem fan
May 10, 2006
Crikey and OMG!

My new book (will be on Amazon next month and no, I wont' tell you about it cuz it's against tPF rules) has a chapter all about what you say, Blah!!!

Listen up all you tPF gals:
I've run into Blah elsewhere on tPF. She is super smart,totally honest, and wonderful. I want to sign up for the Blah fan club. Honest.

When Blah speaks, I totally listen. HTG. I read EVERY post I find from her.

Now here's the relevant section from my new book:

Clearing Out the Cobwebs
If you are tired, overmedicated, or stressed, you will have a hard time thinking clearly, let alone creatively. You need to limit the amount and/or timing of drinking caffeine so you sleep well, and you need to take breaks and de-stress.

Sleeping and dreaming - You need to get at least six hours of sleep each night unless you are lucky enough to need less. Ask a friend or doctor if you seem to always be a bit tired to learn if you need more hours of sleep than you currently think you do. (Most people in the US think they need several hours less sleep each week than they truly do.)

Studies have shown that the mind continues to process data while we are sleeping. This is obvious with dreams. When I was a little girl, I used to read fairy tales before going to sleep. I noticed that sometimes I would actually dream about Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella and that I could talk with them in my dreams. Surprised and delighted with this discovery, I focused my attention on how to make this happen more often. In my twenties I learned that lots of people did this and psychologists coined a term for it: “Directed Dreaming.”

Relevant to this, I discovered as a teenager that a puzzle which bothered me the day before was sometimes suddenly solved (or key insights realized) upon waking in the morning. I realized I had dreamed about similar situations or themes that led to knowing more about what was puzzling me. Once I discovered this problem solving technique I instantly began using it purposely. It is such an easy way to gain insight to a potential solution to a problem.

Recently, I heard some cites during an on-air interview of research scientists which aired on the local Canadian public radio station. They were giving specific quantities and percentages related to how the brain continues to learn while sleeping by processing data and experiences, whether we noticed what had happened or not. (Remember: the eye is a camera. The brain is the filter. You see and notice far more than you realize. When I talk about this with friends, I tell them I just don’t know how to turn the “Record” button off anymore. It’s too darn fun just leaving it on all the time.) So it is important to the health of your business to get enough rest. If you are tired, you will not be making the best decisions. If you are exhausted, you could be making terrible business mistakes.

Medications - Pay attention to the side effects of any medications you are taking to see if they are doing more harm than good. For example, I have hay fever and must take allergy medicines some months. Sometimes I need to take a decongestant, such as on days when I visit the dentist so I can breathe through my nose. But I hate the jittery feelings that accompany taking a decongestant. So I am careful to not take one on days when I have lots of appointments, trying to puzzle out a problem, look at something in a new way, or trying to think through some marketing data or ideas.

Endorphins - Endorphins, breaks, and vacations are all necessary to foster creative thinking. If you are married or have a partner, you know of one fun way to increase your endorphin levels and de-stress. You may wish to “get in the mood” more often. Exercise is a good endorphin producer as well. Overeating can increase endorphins but that is not healthy so switch away from unhealthy foods to produce and vegetable-filled soups and salads if you find yourself stress eating. If you love notary work, you might sometimes forget to eat like I do. So when you do remember to eat, have healthy food on hand and take vitamins.

Vacations - Below are a couple of excerpts from my first book, x, about why we need vacations and why travel is especially helpful.

“We need to take a break, recharge, and reflect on our lives. Without rest and recharging, we cannot continue to care for our loved ones or ourselves. Without reflection, our lives do not stay meaningful.

“Taking a week off work and doing chores around the house does not give us the break and change in perspective that traveling does. We need to change our environments. Reflection in far-away places reminds us of the infinite choices we have in sculpting our lives. Other cultures have very different ways. In learning about their customs, we can choose the rituals and actions that add meaning to our lives. We need to periodically focus on ourselves to keep growing.”

Notice when you tend to get less work so you can schedule your vacations around this time. The week before Christmas usually offers little notary work. I live in an area with short summers, so I can leave town during the sunniest month and miss minimal work because everyone is outdoors playing as much as they can. They postpone notary work and other indoor chores as much as possible.

Schedule your vacations and post the dates on your website and in your ActiveRain.com and other online announcements. This gives you a date to look forward to and alerts new and repeat clients to plan their visit with you sooner rather than later. Writing and posting vacation dates is also affirming in a practical way: you are making a promise to yourself that a vacation is finally coming. Posting the dates I will be boarding planes always puts me in a good mood. I work harder and better when I am happy. You probably do, too.

Plus posting an upcoming travel date is what marketers refer to as a “call to action.” This is something that gets the prospective client to pick up the phone and schedule an appointment (or buy the product, reserve the air ticket, or whatever action you hope they do so you get business). Since I state that I offer services only by appointment a few times on each page of my website and in as many online announcements and profiles that will allow me to add this type of text, new clients already know they cannot just drop in and find me ready to work with them. I also do not list an address. (An exception is Yahoo local. I list the address of the restaurant venue I use the most on that site. Yahoo local is just too good for SEO to pass up. And the owner and staff there are so good to me, I am happy to give them this little SEO boost in addition to the big tips I always leave.)

Friendly and relaxed conversations with colleagues - I went out of town last December for a work project. One of the things I did over the holidays was to have a couple of long phone conversations with a few terrific notaries in different parts of the US. (I only called the ones I knew lived alone so I didn’t interrupt family time.) The friend in whose home I was staying was out a couple of days sharing annual holiday meals with friends so I got on the phone with a notary in the Midwest who is very nice, savvy, and smart as heck. I did this another day with a notary near Los Angeles. We all got great business and marketing ideas from those phone conversations. They were fun talks and none of us considered ourselves to be working. (I didn’t even realize I was having fun and increasing my business acumen then until writing this text.) So take time to spend with friends and colleagues, near and distant. You’ll be a better businessperson for it.

Being healthy, rested, and in a positive state of mind clears out the cobwebs of your mind. You can be free to notice new opportunities and try out new ideas to make your work more fun, productive, and lucrative.

pls note by authoress - notary work is one of my 7 businesses. Art is my first. Non-profit is my second.
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