What my cluttered home has taught me about my work life

I seriously need to tidy up my apartment….and then apply the same approach to my work life.

When I moved in with my partner several years ago, we combined our accumulated possessions that had previously filled two homes into one small apartment, which meant stuffing the storage space to the ceiling full of overspill items.

 At the time, we promised to sort it out soon. We were busy with all the hassle that comes with a house move, so it got put off. Then we had a newborn to deal with and it got postponed again to a vague future date. The storage space was at full capacity and all the junk started to spill over into our living space.

 Our newborn became a toddler and consumed much of the energy we needed to tackle a big de-clutter. The more we accumulated, the bigger and more exhausting the task became, so the more we procrastinated.

 What was the way out of this for us?

  1. Forgive ourselves for being messy humans with busy lives. The pressure of blame, guilt and shame is exhausting and not helping us solve the problem.
  2. Stop trying to ignore the problem. It doesn’t go away, but just sits in the background consuming energy.
  3. Find ways to make the process easier. Break it up into tiny baby steps. One box sorted a week. Celebrate progress.
  4. Manageable maintenance – Hold back the tide of clutter by creating a small, daily tidying habit going forwards (think: quick swoop round the house for 1 minute twice a day)

 What has this got to do with my worklife?

 For me, a demanding job can sometimes feel like a white-knuckle ride, with no time to step off the rollercoaster and reflect on how to solve the problems that crop up along the way. It’s tempting to keep flying forwards at a hundred miles an hour, with the promise that I’ll stop and reflect on what’s not working at some point when ‘things get less busy’. Trouble is, that time is always in the future.

 When time is plentiful, I step back and consider what is needed. I’m organised. I ‘nip small problems in the bud’ before they turn into big ones.

 When time is scarce I put the blinkers on and charge forwards in my best ‘fire-fighting’ mode. However, that’s precisely the time I most need to step back, reflect and make any course-corrections required to get me back on a more productive track. I think of this as a work ‘declutter’.

 How I try to de-clutter my worklife:

  1. Acknowledge that this tendency is a normal human reaction to a feeling of scarcity. Scarcity makes us feel threatened. When we feel threatened we panic and make bad decisions. Make peace with this as a part of being human and use this as a reminder that we all need to step out and rest at regular intervals to get out of scarcity-mode.
  2. Ringfence some reflection time as an essential item on my agenda each day, to come out of ‘full-steam-ahead’ mode.
  3. If I’m feeling overwhelmed or are at full capacity: use some of this time to ask the question: ‘how can I make my life easier instead of harder?’. The modern work culture is demanding, and it’s easy to get in the habit of looking for ways to do more / demonstrate more value / strive harder and this can become unsustainable. Sometimes I fail to notice that I’ve accumulated ‘clutter’ (stuff that I’ve always done that no longer serves me). Maybe this means saying no to things when I’m at full capacity, outsourcing, asking for support, chunking up tasks into smaller / more manageable parts or cutting out unnecessary processes or commitments.
  4. Maintenance – A few well-chosen daily habits can de-clutter my day. They prevent me slipping off course, which can cause a massive pile of work to accumulate downstream. They also help me avoid the panicky feeling that a sense of time-scarcity causes.

 Examples of my de-cluttering habits:

  • Start each work day by identifying my 1 or 2 biggest priorities
  • Write a ‘to don’t’ list – as a reminder of the unnecessary activities that could potentially clutter my day
  • Take a daily walk outside to clear my head and do my best thinking
  • Plan a cut-off time from work in advance to ensure I turn up clear-headed the next day.

I’m not saying that I’ve managed full mastery of this process yet. I’m still human, and often find myself stepping on Lego bricks or disappearing down productivity rabbit-holes. The tide of ‘clutter’ creeps back into my apartment as well as my working life from time to time and I realise I’ve let things slip. However, at least I now have a process in place to course-correct these days, and I get busy tweaking my habits accordingly.