Chapter 1: Curing Clutter
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Zen master, your productivity is inﬂuenced by your surroundings. Napoleon Hill says: We begin to see, therefore, the importance of selecting our environment with the greatest of care, because environment is the mental feeding ground out of which the food that goes into our minds is extracted. If your “mental feeding ground” is a messy desk, your work will be messy. If you are constantly interrupted, your output will suffer. If you are ﬂitting from e-mail, to IM, to Twitter, you will lose focus. All of these things affect how you work. They make up your environment.
Eliminating Physical Clutter
Anything that doesn’t beneﬁt your work or productivity is clutter. Fortunately, clutter is an easy thing to ﬁx. Most people don’t see how the stacks of paper on the desk and cause them to lose focus. But our brain does. It just can’t push aside these distractions. You might think you can fool it into thinking that the piles of paper aren’t really there. But the brain is not so easily fooled. It registers each of these unrelated tasks that need to be done (like ﬁling the piles paperwork on the desk) and stores them as a “cycle”. David Allen (author of Getting Things Done) refers to these as “extra cycles” that ultimately get in the way of our focus. Our minds can only have a ﬁnite amount of cycles running at the same time, and as these cycles ﬁll up, we have less and less attention to give to whatever it is we’re working on. So the goal is to eliminate the extra cycles that we don’t need, clearing up our head clutter.
In order to eliminate extra cycles, we have to ﬁnd a way to collect all of our stuff that we’re not using and store it somewhere. Getting Things Done (GTD) is a great method to use for this collection phase, and I’ve written a cheat sheets on the collection stage of GTD. You’ll need to dump everything (yes, everything) into an inbox and process each item from top to bottom.
Eliminating Head Clutter
Clutter isn’t just physical bits of life. There is such a thing as head clutter. Head clutter is just as distracting as physical clutter. We tend to think we can rely on our brains to remember everything. Not smart, man! Many things slip through the cracks, and all that extra, unrelated information ﬂoating around in your mind is distracting. Fortunately, you can use the same principles in the GTD cheat sheet to collect and process all of the extra information. Take a pen and notebook and jot down everything on your mind. Everything. Once you’ve gotten it all on to paper, start processing the information and storing it. It could be stored digitally or on paper, it makes no difference. The key is to store it in an organized fashion so you can forget about it. As you’re dumping information, you’ll probably remember more things that need to be stored somewhere. Don’t worry, just place it in the inbox and process it too. Clearing your head can take a considerable amount of time. But once you’re done purging, you’ll feel much more focused and in control. Remember, clutter is the enemy of productivity. Be ruthless in keeping it at bay. Don’t be content with piles (mental or physical), even if they are arranged neatly. Eliminating clutter has a huge inﬂuence on your productivity. For other resources on eliminating clutter, I recommend the Unclutterer blog and
David Allen’s excellent Getting Things Done. If you’re looking for a simpler method similar to Getting Things Done, check out Leo Babauta’s ebook “Zen to Done”.
Chapter 2: The Immediate Environment
Now that you’ve cleared out all your clutter, think about the arrangement of your work space. Here are some important factors for an effective workspace. IS IT APPEALING? Would you want to spend time in your workspace if you weren’t working? If you don’t want to spend your free time relaxing in your work space, you can be darn sure that you won’t want to work there. If you’re a cubicle slave, this may not be a choice. But if you’re going to have a home ofﬁce, don’t pick the poorly-lit room in your basement. Pick the most aesthetic place you can. IS IT INVITING? If your ofﬁce space screams “don’t relax in here!!!” then you’re probably not going to be comfortable working in the space. Add aesthetic things like plants, throw rugs, cushy chairs, even a couch or two to soften the room. A GOOD CHAIR. Don’t skimp on a good chair. I repeat, don’t skimp on a good chair. Of all your ofﬁce equipment, your chair should be the most expensive thing. You don’t want to skimp on the thing you’ll be spending most of your time sitting in. ENOUGH DESK SPACE. You want to be able to spread out your equipment on your desk. Make sure you have a place to put your work equipment. QUIET. The quieter, the better. Less noise means fewer distractions. CLEAN. If the work space isn’t clean, you have clutter. There’s nothing wrong with running a vacuum every now and then, is there? NOT YOUR BEDROOM. Do everything you can to keep your work space separate from your living and sleeping space. Otherwise, the line between work and life can become very blurry. Having a physical barrier between your work area and your living space is incredibly important.
After you’ve got the bare essentials of your work area in place, start thinking about laying out your room’s furniture. Make sure it’s an arrangement that appeals to you. If you’re happy in your work area, you’ll be more that much more productive. A good practice is to make sure that your desk is positioned so that your back is against a wall while working. This adds a subconscious bit of security, as you can always see what’s going on in the room.