November 24th, 2009

30 Minutes to Less Clutter

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This guest post was written by Claire Tompkins of Clutter Coach.

Can you spare half an hour? What if it would make the following half hour twice as productive? And the hour after that too? Spending time on organizing is a great investment because it always gives you a high return, unlike other investments these days.

Figuring out how to start is often the hardest part of decluttering. The big secret is that it really doesn’t matter, just make a decision and do it. I’m going to suggest one of many possible approaches to structure your half hour, and that’s triage. Triage is all about decision making. It provides a simple structure to guide you and it depends on quick, resolute judgments that you act on right away.

In the medical world, triage is used when there are many patients and limited resources. Care is denied to those who will probably not live, so that those resources can help more patients who probably will live. I can guarantee you that you don’t have enough resources to manage all the stuff that’s currently in your life. Becoming skilled at triage (AKA, ruthless decision making) means more of your time and energy goes to the important stuff.

Triage breaks down into three categories (via Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triage).

1) Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;

2) Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;

3) Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

On your desk, this means

Category 1. Stuff you like and need that will be put away;

Category 2. Stuff you don’t like or need that you can immediately decide to ditch;

Category 3. Stuff that you need to deal with right now.

Let’s do half an hour of desk triage. Remember, triage is speedy because lives are at stake. The more quickly you make decisions, the clearer your desk will stay. You may not get through your whole desk in half an hour, but you’ll complete a section rather than just rearranging the piles.

If you have a lot of paper, choose a small area, perhaps just a section of your desk. Triage will get you through the purging and decision making. I’ve added some post-30 minute clean-up suggestions if you want to keep going.

In a hospital, triage patients are sent to different areas depending on their category. On the battlefield, they are simply marked with colored tags. On your desk, use Post Its to mark your piles. Allow enough room for sorted piles. A card table is great, but the floor will work too.

Phase One:
This is the gross sort. You’re deciding whether papers belong to category 1, 2 or 3. You’ll need a timer, 2 piling spots, and containers for recycling and shredding.

Set your timer for 15 minutes. Start with the pile on the left side of your desk and move across to the right without skipping over anything. Don’t let your eyes wander. Each time your gaze passes over the desk, your mind starts to run in different directions and you get distracted. Focus on one thing at a time. Turn away from the desk if it helps.

Pick up the first item in the first pile. Is it category 1, 2 or 3? Don’t read or think too much about an item; you only need to identify it for now. If you can’t decide, choose category 1. Put it into the correct pile or bag. Repeat until the timer goes off.

Phase Two:
Set the timer for ten minutes. Sort the paper in category 1 by topic. If a topic does not come to mind, ask yourself why you are keeping the item. When you go look for it again, you’ll think, “where is that information about ______?” Use that word. Choose broad topics; it’s easier to look for a particular item in five possible folders rather than 50. Right now, you’ll just create separate piles for each topic. Label the piles with Post-Its. If you run out of room, stack the piles alternating horizontal and vertical to keep them separated.

Post triage: File! If your file cabinet is a disaster area, consider getting a temporary file box to use until you can revamp it. That way your newly sorted papers won’t get lost again. I’ll do a post on my organic filing system soon.

Phase Three:
Set the timer for five minutes. Now we’ve come to category 3. These papers were out on the desk because you’re using them to remind you to do something. This is not an effective strategy. You need a list. A list allows you to see at a glance what all those to do’s are. When they are piled up or spread out, you can’t get the whole picture.

Your to do list can be in a notebook, on a pad of paper, in your PDA, a whiteboard, on your phone; wherever you will be most likely to look at it. For each reminder, create a to do. To do for stack of marketing letters: address envelopes, stuff them (including business cards), stamp and take to mailbox. To do for event flyer: Add event to calendar and make a note to RSVP (if necessary) on calendar several days before. To do for pile of business cards: enter into computer contacts list or put into alphabetized card box.

Now, you may be thinking your to do list will get unmanageably long. Yes, it will. But it’s not any longer than it was in your head, or spread out around the house. Before all these things were on the list, you were by turns overwhelmed and in denial about how much you had to do. Now you can see it in black and white. This is your current reality.

Post triage: Make looking at your to do list a habit. Send yourself email reminders if necessary. Where you keep your list is up to you. The important part is having one place to look for your tasks.

Use triage every day. The time it takes for each section may vary for you. The example above was based on most of the paper being tossed out, so there was less to organize later. But using a timer helps you stay focused and speedy and not find yourself deep in reading an hour later.

At your desk, sort mail into bills, action items, reading and filing. Create folders for your current projects on the desktop and file everything else in the file cabinets. Gather up scraps of paper and Post-Its and copy them over to your to do list.

This may seem tedious, but once it becomes a habit it won’t seem like so much work. Even five or ten minutes a day will really help. Another benefit is that you may be inspired to keep less stuff once you realize that you have to work to keep it all organized. It’s your stuff, you’re in charge.

Professional organizer Claire Tompkins specializes in honing in on what her clients truly want and need. That way, she can develop organizing techniques that make their lives easier and give them more free time to do what they love. There’s no “one size fits all” answer. The right technique is the one will actually get used everyday. Services include in-person sessions and telephone coaching. Read her blog here: www.cluttercoachblog.com. Phone: 510-768-7913.

Creative Commons License photo credit: stargardener

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