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Solutions to Office Clutter & Disorganization

Clutter-Proof Your Business is about people, not things. Things don’t clutter. We clutter. Things aren't disorganized. We are disorganized. Too often we concentrate on things: files, filing cabinets To-Do lists. Getting your files in order is secondary to getting your mind in order. Getting your mind in order is subordinate to getting your life in order. Whether you are only mildly disorganized, overwhelmed by cluttered workspaces or diagnosed with ADD, you’ll find new ways of dealing with disorganization here. Solutions to why we clutter is what Clutter-Proof Your Business is all about.

The solution to office clutter (home office clutter or corporate clutter) is more about time-acceptance than time-management. Clutter has stolen your business. It has stolen your life. A messy desk is neither a sign of a genius at work nor of failure. Clutter is just stuff. Your clutter is not you.

Chronic cluttering has psychological roots. Based on a survey with 879 responses, 51% said their earnings were affected by their cluttering, 49% said they were, or had, experienced depression and 34% sought psychiatric counseling. 29% of those who told their psychiatrist/psychologist about their cluttering felt it helped then not clutter long-term.

At one of my seminars, I mentioned the depression percentage and a woman shouted out, “I dispute your statistics!” Though I was cringing inside, I politely asked her why. “I think 49% are depressed and 51% won’t admit it.” The audience burst into laughter.

We’ll learn more about letting go than controlling. The chronically disorganized suffer from too much control. We can’t decide what is worth keeping, what we need to remember; or where we should start, so we waste energy on our clutter. We’ll learn to save our energy for things that are important: our goals, our families, our friends, our creativity. We can live happier, richer lives by controlling less, but better.

After one of my seminars in Los Angeles, a woman asked me to autograph a dog-eared, heavily highlighted copy of my last book, Stop Clutter From Stealing Your Life. Her story motivated me to write as if you and I were having a conversation, just two people talking about a common problem.

“Stop Clutter really helped me get my life back from cluttering. You seemed to understand and speak to me like no one else. But it dealt with my personal life, with only a couple of chapters on business cluttering. When I heard that you were writing a book for the working aspect of our lives, I just had to tell you how important it would be for me, and I suspect many others. 

I’ve applied the principles you presented to my personal life and it really has made a difference. I’m no longer so ashamed of the way I live that I can invite friends over for the first time in years. I have a sense of serenity at home that I’d always longed for.

But work is another story. It is such a struggle. Clutter seems like an evil shadow self that threatens to overwhelm me. I struggle every day just to do what seems to come to others so naturally. I have a hard time making decisions, can’t file things or even tell my secretary how to help me.

I’m frequently overwhelmed. Papers keep coming in and never seem to go out. Everything seems to be equally important. I fear that if I file something, I’ll forget it. It will turn out to be crucial and I’ll make a serious business error. I feel like I’m just one piece of paper away from failing.

I work sixty hours a week at the office and then part of my weekends at home. My family life isn’t nearly as full as I’d like it to be because I spend so much time working. I started my own business believing it would give me more time to be with my family, more freedom and independence, but have found those to be hollow promises.

I know that if I could just get the clutter under control, I could shave twenty or more hours from my week and spend them on things that really matter. In the workshop today, you said something that electrified me. ‘We clutterers have replaced people in our lives with things. We can learn to put things into perspective. People are what count, not things.’

So how do I do it? I’ve bought business organization books, taken seminars, hired a business coach and really, really tried. They all had great ideas that apparently work for other people. I honestly tried to implement them in my business. I really did. Things were better for a few weeks, but then they fell apart again.

I’m smart, well-educated and motivated. I have an MBA from UCLA. But sometimes I feel like a failure. What’s wrong with me? Why have I let simple things like too much paper, agonizing over decision-making and wasting so much time trying to find things ruin my life? My company does well, but I have to work twice as hard as I should, to keep it going. I feel like I’m running as fast as I can and staying in the same place. Can you please help me?”

Cluttering Is About Our Feelings, Not About Piles of Papers

When Mary finished her impassioned plea, there were tears in her eyes. Here was an intelligent, educated businesswoman who felt inadequate, defeated by a paper monster. Cluttering is not about those pieces of paper we need to file or discard. It isn’t about making a better To-Do list. It’s about us. It comes from deep inside us, as a manifestation of our fears and insecurities. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  We’ve got to work on our insides before we can do anything about our outsides.

I use the word “cluttering” interchangeably with “disorganization.” I call those of us who are chronically disorganized “clutterers.” I will not use terms like “packrat” or other euphemisms you may know. Cluttering is serious. It is a compulsive behavior. That doesn’t mean this is going to be a tome. You’ll laugh out loud as some of the things you read. Cluttering is serious, but learning not to take ourselves so seriously is something we need to learn. Lighten up and defuse clutter’s hold on you. Cluttering is seldom life-threatening. But, as many people have related to me, it can cause accidents at work and in the home.

Cluttering is a silent epidemic.  It is a psychological and spiritual blockage in our lives that hampers our job performance, steals time from our families and fosters feelings of inadequacy in people who are far from inadequate.

Mary’s story was not unique. I’d heard bits and pieces of it from many others. She helped us all by expressing the problem of cluttering in the workplace so succinctly.

Improve Your Memory – Right Now!

It’s not that we have terrible memories. We just don’t know how to use them and we don’t trust them. There’s a chapter on improving our memories, but you can start right now and get more from reading.

Your dog remembers what is important better than you. Sure, most dogs have fewer things on their minds that most of us, but they know what is important. They know because they focus. A god’s, er dog’s, focus is you. He knows that you are important to his goals of eating, sleeping in a warm place and being loved. You probably are secondary when it comes to chasing cats, so he ignores you when that time comes. While you may never be as smart as your dog, you can learn to focus and your memory will improve dramatically.

        Remembering is active, not passive

        We remember better when we are actively involved.

 As you read, ask yourself two questions:  

  1. "What’s he going to say next?”
  2. “How does this apply to me?”

That’s it! Just doing those two things will make the process more personal; more memorable. Take notes. Scribble in the margins. Most clutterers learn by doing. Many of us learn visually or kinesthetically. Use every method of learning that helps you. Heck, go ahead and sing some passages if you are an auditory learner.

 Fear and Overwhelm Are The Enemies

Between eighty and ninety percent of the information we save has no real value. Twenty percent of a cluttering employee’s time is wasted looking for information, according to estimates by clutterers themselves. Surveys show that the average American spends an entire year of her working life searching through desk clutter or looking for misplaced objects. Executives waste up to 6 weeks a year looking for misfiled or mislabeled papers.

We save papers that have no value because of fear and not understanding how to make decisions. We are afraid that, if we discard something, it will come in useful later. We are afraid that we will lose our jobs if we don’t CYA when we make management decisions. We are afraid of making decisions. Let’s not let fear run, and ruin, your business. Let’s set some intelligent, practical guidelines for making decisions and empowering you and your employees to make good decisions.

Another factor is overwhelm. We are overwhelmed by the volume of information that comes into our offices every day. We can put a stop to that immediately. That will be one of the easiest things we can do, and the least painful.

What You’ll Learn 

How We Feel Because of Our Disorganization

Now We Feel

We’ll Learn To Feel

Overwhelmed

Control

Chaos

Order

Friction

Harmony

Fearful

Confident

Confused

Serene

Look at the table above and ask yourself if you identify with the feelings in the left-hand column. I haven’t met a clutterer yet who didn’t feel overwhelmed by her clutter, or by the thought of tackling it. Clutterers live in chaos, at work and home. Our clutter causes friction with our bosses, coworkers and clients. At home it affects our relationships with our families. We are fearful of making mistakes, losing our jobs, hurting our businesses because of the disorganization we create. Our mental clutter keeps us in a state of confusion most of the time. Since September 11th, more of us feel overwhelmed in general.

 Now the bright side, the right side. We are going to gain mastery or control over our cluttering behavior. Note that I didn’t say “over our clutter.” It’s not the stuff, it’s our behavior that is the problem. When we clutter less, we will enjoy a feeling of order in our lives, business and personal. We can enjoy feelings of harmony with those around us and with our surroundings. We will learn to trust ourselves to make decisions and regain our confidence in ourselves. Instead of being confused, we will have clarity in our thoughts.

If Things Are So Good, Why Am I Mired In A Swamp Of Paper?

We can’t put a price tag on the emotional costs of cluttering in our lives. But estimates of lost productivity due to disorganization run into the millions of dollars annually.

The Wall Street Journal reported on February 14, 2002 that productivity growth for the U.S grew about 2.6% a year from 1995-2000. Did yours?

Today, there are about 600 companies in the paper-shredding business, compared to twenty-five in the 1980’s. Paper-shredding is a $1.5 billion dollar a year industry. Yet, most of us are still overwhelmed by paper.

I conducted surveys on www.businessnation.com, www.clutterless.org, Yahoo!, MSN and personal interviews. The overwhelming response to the biggest cluttering challenge was “too much paper.”

The “how to” of dealing with paper clutter is simple – we don’t need to keep most of it. The “why is” of paper clutter is more complicated. We’re afraid to make decisions about the value of papers, so we keep them all. We can learn ways to trust our decisions.

My Promises To You

As I say in my seminars, if you get the sudden flash that you are “cured,” feel free to jump up, shout Hallelujah! Brother Nelson has cured me!” and go forth to clutter no more. It hasn’t happened yet, but please email me if you have this experience.

I wish I could promise you that reading these few pages will make you completely organized. But that would be dishonest. It took you years to get where you are. It will take an unspecified amount of time to be clutter-free. Fortunately, you will get better right away. Unfortunately, you will have to work at not-cluttering (kind of a Zen concept) for the rest of your life. But it gets easier and easier. After awhile, you’ll wonder how you ever lived the way you used to.

Radical Changes Ahead

If your company motto should read, “I know it’s around here somewhere,” we’ll change that to “Yes, I know exactly where it is.” The principles will work for one-person home businesses, medium-sized companies and conglomerates. Beware – this is unlike any organizing book you’ve read. It’s not just about better filing systems – it’s about  better ways of living and working. A cluttered office is a reflection of cluttered thinking, in individuals and businesses. Change your thinking; change your life.

Changing is not easy. It requires fundamental revamping of the way we look at work, efficiency, our goals and our lives. Our entire paradigm needs to shift. We need to make deep-seated changes to effect lasting growth.

People are disorganized for a reason. Imposing systems and organizing tips on yourself or your employees without addressing the root of the problem is like applying a band-aid to a cancerous growth. It will look better for awhile, but the cancer will continue to fester and grow. You’ll end up with employees who sabotage the new systems because they have not changed their beliefs. Together, we will help clutter-junkies wean themselves off their addiction to C.H.A.O.S. (Change Hurts And Organizing Stinks) and bring them back to being the effective employees they want to be.

You may have had an organizational coach or professional organizer come to your business and get you set up with great systems. You learned about “zones” and “homes” and had “handle each piece of paper only once,” drummed into your corporate consciousness. Six months later, things aren’t working. Why?

The organizers and coaches I interviewed are professionals who know what works for most people. Their ideas are sound. Their systems make sense. So what’s wrong?

Sometimes it’s as simple as being a visual learner who could benefit from more colors trapped in a manila jungle. Sometimes, the reasons are rooted in psychology. We do not maintain a disorganized work environment for no reason. Psychologists tell us that we do not do things unless we get a payoff from them. The payoff can be negative or positive, but there is a payoff to our every action – or inaction.

Organizing Is Like Going On A Diet

Organizing books are a lot like dieting books. It is estimated about half of Americans are on some form of diet on any given day. We need organizing books just as we need dieting books because we are a bloated, overweight society, in terms of information clutter and physical body mass. Oddly enough, a side-benefit to decluttering is weight-loss. Presented properly, this could be a great motivator. Maybe your new motto could read, “Cut the fat – corporate and personal.”

There seems to be a new diet/organizing book released every few months. They all promise that if one follows the regimen they offer, it will be easy to attain a svelte, clutter-free  figure, either corporally or corporately. Anyone who’s been on a diet will agree that unless we change our fundamental relationship with food, we won’t lose weight. Unless we change our fundamental relationship with our stuff, we won’t get organized. And, honestly, not all people need to be model-slim or over-organized. But, as you will read, maybe they are round pegs in square holes and can still be valuable employees in another position.

Too Tidy Is Too Stressful

The goal is not to turn everyone into a neat-freak. Too often clutterers have been told they have to keep picture-perfect desks, immaculate, sparse files. The effort of doing this causes them more stress that their mess did. Not everyone who is a little disorganized is a clutterer. It’s only when your disorganization gets in the way of your life and way of living that it’s a problem. If a few practical suggestions turn the corner for you, great! You don’t need the in-depth understanding that a real clutterer needs to be productive. Take what you need and leave the rest.

Joe Nick Patoski is a senior editor for Texas Monthly Magazine. His office would never win any awards from Office Beautiful Magazine, but he functions perfectly in his world. He is a hard worker, steady producer and writes extensively: books, articles and interviews. He admits to being cluttered at his home office.  I’m probably not going to do much about it. It works for me. My work is my priority. How I do it is secondary.”

Use Your Senses

Anthony Robbins (Unlimited Power, Awaken The Giant Within) encourages us to determine what senses we use to learn best. We have five senses, but few of us can learn organization through taste or smell, although most people will agree that being disorganized stinks. According to my survey and interviews, the majority of clutterers learn kinesthetically by doing. People can tell us how to do something, but unless we actively touch and do, it won’t last. That’s why a clutterer has to clean his own files, or clear her own desk. If someone does it for us, it isn’t real.

Once we start filing and learning using our dominant senses, we naturally do better, with less stress.

Decluttering Is Boring

I do the work of ten women during the day. Yet, my files are a mess, my desk is a mess. It hampers me, but I don’t do anything about it because, decluttering it is, well, boring.” – Joan at a Clutterless meeting.

Clutterers generally have a great, if wry, sense of humor. They lose interest if something is humorless. (One of the memory techniques you’ll learn is to attach humor to those things we need to remember). That’s another reason we have a hard time decluttering. It is boring. It’s hard to find humor in an in-box of old faxes. So, we’ll learn to make a game of decluttering. Perhaps one day we’ll have decluttering Olympics.

Who We Are – The Short Version

Most clutterers are intuitive thinkers. Unfortunately, we have deluded ourselves into believing that we are logical. Mr. Spock, we ain’t. Our systems have an illogic to them that makes sense to us.  Joe Nick again, “What you see as clutter I see as a semblance of order.”  If the semblance works, fine. But if you spend more time looking for things than doing new things, you need to keep reading.

We are generally quite creative. We like to paint big mental pictures. Then we get lost in the minutiae. We start out wanting to be Rembrandts and end being poor imitations of Salvador Dali or Picasso. We love projects. We just aren’t crazy about finishing them.

Our clutter is inherently visual, but we don’t see it the same way as a non-clutterer. Where a reasonably rational person sees a mess, we see a system. Like the little boy  digging through a pile of manure, we are sure there’s a pony in there somewhere. We would make great treasure hunters (except for keeping track of the details like where we’d already searched and how much air we had left in our Scuba tanks). I gave up Scuba diving after going to all the trouble to get certified. There were just too many details. I’d rather fish. It’s simpler. Bait a hook, throw it in and wait. A clutterer has a hard time remembering to do more than three things at a time.

Our mental clutter never stops. (ADD people know exactly what I’m talking about).  Sometimes it’s a nagging voices in our heads reminding us of all the things we haven’t done. Sometimes it’s just white noise. Some of us even carry visual representation of everything that bothers us in our heads.. One of our goals is to quiet our minds and stop the voices or images so that we can get to work on the problem.

Is It ADD?

Clutterers often ask, “Is cluttering related to ADD (attention deficit disorder)?” The only way to know if you have ADD is to be diagnosed by medical professional, but the short answer is, it is statistically unlikely. According to the National Attention Deficit Disorder Association (www.add.org), “According to epidemiological data, approximately 4% to 6% of the U.S. population has ADHD.” (Dr. Kathleen G. Nadeau PhD, author of ADD in the Workplace, says it could be as high as 10%.) “The ‘official’ clinical diagnosis is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD).” We often have ADD-like tendencies, but so do most people. When we learn not to clutter, these tendencies lessen.

Clutterers also wonder if they are hoarders (an Obsessive-Compulsive disorder). About 1% of the population hoards. Because of the publicity given these conditions, they are the only labels we know. Labeling can be a first step to identifying something that can be treated. But it’s not an excuse. Saying, “I have ADD, so you can’t expect me to be organized,” is a cop-out, as anyone who works with ADD patients will tell you.

Among those who do have ADHD, there are many successful and productive people. They’ve learned how to use their unique way of looking at things to their advantage. You can too. Being a clutterer means you have a different way of viewing the world. We are going to teach you to turn those “liabilities” into assets. You are not “bad.” You are not “hopelessly disorganized.” You just don’t learn the same way as other people or respond to “traditional” organizing techniques.

ADD-like symptoms can also be expressions of schizophrenia, depression and a host of other conditions. Many clutterers believe they are depressed (51% of my surveys) and 33% have sought psychiatric counseling for it. So far, I don’t know of any schizophrenics who have responded.

Let's celebrate our differences and help you raise your self-esteem to a higher level. Heck, “normal” people are the ones with the problem. They don’t have as much imagination as you. You are responsible for your cluttering and you can do something about it.

But I Gotta Give It A Name

Call yourself a clutterer. It’s not a medical diagnosis. It isn’t an excuse for your behavior. But it does give you a name to your condition. That helps a lot, as anyone with any condition that wasn’t identified years ago will tell you. In our grandparents’ day, people were diagnosed as suffering from “brain fever,” or “the vapors.” We can do better than that now. You aren’t alone. There are many millions of us. We just haven’t had a name to identify ourselves. “Packrat” is too benign to be taken seriously. We do have a national support group, Clutterless Recovery Groups Inc. (www.clutterless.org), but we are mostly in our Fibber McGee closets about our condition.

You Know What Will Work For You

You know what hasn’t worked and why. You’ve tried different organizing methods and found fault with them all. Once you understand your relationship with your clutter; once you take back the power from it and your Shadow Self, you can implement methods that will work. If you are serious about getting rid of the clutter in your workplace, you need to find the right approach. And, frankly, some people simply cannot get organized.  enough to fit into the corporate mold. For them, finding a more congenial way to make a living will improve their lives considerably.

Clutter Costs

For your business entity, time is money. Employee turnover costs you money. Employee dissatisfaction costs you money.

Many clutterers are under-earners. We are afraid to tackle positions we are suited for and capable of because of our disorganization. We are rotten with our own finances because we lose bills and checkbooks, can’t remember due dates or wouldn’t know a balanced checkbook if it bit us.  I have a disclaimer on my workshop flyers that personal checks are welcome, if you can prove you’ve balanced your checkbook in the past two years. People pay mostly by credit card or cash.

For clutterers, clear spaces are more precious than money. Only when we have clear spaces on our desks and in our offices do we have clarity. Only when we have clarity can  we can live the way we were meant to live. When we live up to our true purpose, we allow money, love and success to flow into our lives. When we are cluttered, we block ourselves off from the Universal flow that is our right.

Oh Yeah, The Practical Stuff

There will be plenty of practical suggestions about filing, eliminating junk mail, paper, time-management etc., but they are secondary to changing your way of thinking and feeling. I’ve worked with computers since 1982 and understand the power they offer for organization. This power in underutilized and misapplied. Bigger hard drives, scanners, better organizing programs are not the answers.

How Do I Know So Much About This?

I call myself a “reformed clutterer.” That means I am a lot better now than I was a few years ago. I still clutter to some extent and probably always will. But I’ve raised the bar. I can almost always find what I’m looking for. I don’t live in chaos. Life is good and always getting better. You’ll say the same things when we’re finished. 

The destination is not a minimalist, super-tidy office. It is an office where I can be productive, find things when I need them and still express my individuality. I am not happy in minimalist surroundings. Too tidy is too stressful. But, let me tell you where I came from, and see if it resonates with you.

My last job

The last “real” job I had (which was the beginning of my “career” of writing) was writing guidebooks about Mexico. I worked for an international corporation, and they decided they couldn’t justify the obscenely high wages they paid me for “just a writer,” so I became manager of a print shop, a few employees and ultimately a publishing company.

Fortunately for all of us, forty percent of my job meant being on the road for a month or more at a time. (I had to travel in a large van, because of all the stuff I took with me: a portable Jacuzzi for the bathtub, four suitcases, three camera bags, books, tools, various knickknacks and a human assistant).

The office ran quite smoothly without me. When I returned, property values went down. Things were fine when I held the largest office in the back, with oak-paneled walls and a door. No one could see my mess. When the company needed the big office for two real employees. I was shuttled to a glass cubicle.

Quiet, genius at work

A newspaper editor told me, “A disorganized genius could get away with a lot. The rest of us have to fit in.” I considered myself a genius. My old office was littered with loose papers, had five filing cabinets and hundreds of books.

I crammed all that stuff into half the space. I justified my tower of clutter because I needed the information “for research.” Things got so bad, management put up a partition so it wouldn’t distract everyone else. My boss said it gave him a headache just glancing in there.

Shallow goals

Being “famous” was my major life-goal at the time. I achieved that goal. But, like all illusory goals (like a big house, fancy cars etc.) it wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it would be. About 1,000,000 people were guided by my books over thirteen years. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Texas Monthly and many other newspapers and magazines wrote stories about me. I always contrived to meet the reporters in Mexico, and keep them away from my office. A reporter for a Mexican news magazine sneaked up on me one day. He couldn’t take a picture of me at my desk because the piles of books, papers and God-knows-what hid me. Now I know that we hide behind our clutter, literally and figuratively.

Failure To Success

I made several attempts to “get organized.” They all worked for a few days to a few weeks, but ultimately failed. I had no real reason to change my habits. Frankly, I didn’t want to. Honestly, I didn’t think I could. I thought that was just the way I was. New management came in and decided to declutter. They quickly realized that I was hopeless (and overpaid) so they began their decluttering with me. I was on the street.

The full story is in my last book, but the short version is that after a fiancé divined that I loved my junk more than I loved her, I got help from a support group. So far I’ve eliminated over a ton-and-a-half of clutter from my homes and home offices, been free enough to move four times in three years, and now live and work in two rooms. Sometimes my office is messier than I’d like (like right now, while I am in the middle of a big project), but it is never even close to what it was like four years ago. How neat is it? I could go back to that glass cubicle and no one would be ashamed to have me there, if I wanted to.

What Is Really Important?

But I don’t want to. Decluttering has taught me that my Really Big Goals are freedom and helping others. “Being famous” was hollow, fleeting and self-indulgent. Getting rid of the excess stuff and the disorganization that came with it was the first step on a road to self-discovery. I’ve since talked to thousands of clutterers. They are amazed when they discover how decluttering opens up their lives. They get a lot more out of life when they learn that less is indeed more.

Learn To Be A Cartographer

You’ll get far more than organizing tips here. You’ll learn how to create a master map to whatever and wherever your Really Big Goals are. You’ll learn how to organize your files, handle mail and papers expeditiously and more mundane things, but that’s incidental. You’ll learn to make decisions and feel more self-confident. You’ll learn how to organize your life and clear the clutter from your mind, heart and soul. You will see a whole new path open to you that has been blocked by your physical, mental and emotional clutter. That’s a pretty good deal for the investment of less than a portrait of Andrew Jackson, don’t you think?