1 simple habit to increase productivity and declutter your life
26th of December.
I wake up and find the kitchen full of unwashed dishes from last-minute Christmas preparations.
My whole flat is covered in a 3-week old layer of dust, neglected in favor of gift-making, card-writing and general excitement about the holidays.
As usual, during this time of the year, the last few weeks have been especially unproductive when it comes to work, and as usual, I react to that fact with anxiety.
“It’s time to get back to work”, I think. A ton of articles to finish. A full inbox to reply to. Meetings to schedule. I feel overwhelmed, and I can’t even think where to start.
But I do it anyway. However, as I sit on my desk and try to push myself to start, it feels as if the mess around me is also cluttering my head, and I can’t bring myself to focus. Even though I feel the pressure and excitement to be productive, my whole body and mind beg me, screaming, to just grab a freaking trash bin and a hoover and bring some order to the place.
At first, I fight the urge to clean. “For sure it’s just my subconscious trying to convince me to procrastinate”, I tell myself.
But as push through, I notice that my brain isn’t working. I feel stuck. My ideas don’t flow. My eyes keep moving from the used envelopes on the table to the pile of unwashed dishes I am supposed to clean and return to my mom (who, of course, gave me a week worth of delicious post-Christmas leftovers).
So I finally decided to give in. I stopped what I was doing, I switched on the music, and I started decluttering and cleaning.
And it changed my mood for the rest of the day.
Even if at first a feeling of guilt was creeping in, I made a point to completely eliminate work-related thoughts from my mind. After a few hours of dusting and dancing, organizing, and creating a giveaway pile of things I no longer needed, my mood was completely different.
My mind was unlocked. My energy was back up. I had space.
And guess what? I loved the process of getting rid of things while letting my brain rest.
And in the end, my mind was so clear that a few days later I had either processed, completed or scheduled everything I had on my list.
Your Subconscious Needs To Breathe
In his book The Art of Thought (affiliate link), English psychologist Graham Wallas proposes that every creative process needs an incubation phase.
That means that, after you go through the preparation phase (formulating problems, thinking, reading, writing, etc.), you will often hit a wall that can only be taken down by stepping away from the problem and letting your subconscious process it for a while.
The act of cleaning and decluttering is not only a great way to provide that distance and facilitate the incubation process of ideas, but it is often very necessary as an end result in itself.
In my case, not only was I feeling a creative block that day, but I also felt that the mess around me was a huge factor contributing to that.
Research shows that clutter reduces productivity. Another study proves that not only does clutter cause stress, but it also triggers coping mechanisms such as emotional eating and binge-watching Netflix, which further damage your productivity and mental peace.
There are countless types of clutter that we tend to surround ourselves with: useless objects in our house, ads on TV, pop-up windows and other digital distractions, multitasking tendencies, restless thoughts keeping us from focusing on the task at hand, and so on.
Imagine the most cluttered room you have ever seen (for me, my grandma’s basement is the perfect example!)
Picture yourself having to move things out of your way to get to a desk, which is so full of objects that you have to remove a few in order to find space to place your laptop or your notebook.
Now think about an empty, white, spacious room full of light, with only a desk and a chair in the middle. Maybe an inspiring painting or two on the walls, and a few comfort items such as a sofa, a pretty lamp and a cup of your favorite tea.
In which of these rooms do you imagine it being easier to be productive?
Even if you don’t go as far as your grandma’s basement, the truth is that a lot of us get negatively influenced by the clutter around us without even noticing.
And I am not just talking about physical objects; for me, one of the biggest points of resistance when it comes to productivity is switching on my laptop only to find a desktop full of random files, and a slow machine due to having way too many apps installed.
Take It One Step at a Time
The good news is, decluttering can be not only fun but also very healing.
Lately, whenever I feel stuck, tired, or overwhelmed, I take the time to clean/organize/declutter something.
Here are some of the benefits I have been experiencing when I take decluttering breaks:
- My subconscious has space to process previous thoughts and activities, usually ending up in enhanced mental clarity;
- I create empty space around me, which brings me a deep feeling of tranquility;
- I accomplish something, which motivates me to keep on being active;
- I feel more in control of my environment, which makes me feel empowered;
- I give myself a break, and look at the situation from a different perspective;
- If I am decluttering a physical space, I get to move my body and that always makes me feel much, much better.
Now, this is not to be confused with an excuse procrastinate—if you find yourself doing this way too often as a way to escape your work or tasks, then you might want to re-evaluate your intentions.
Don’t Run Out of Decluttering Ideas—Be Creative!
Now, if you want to make this decluttering routine even more effective, you can make a list of areas in your life that need cleaning.
I usually keep a spread in my notebook for that, and I add items to it whenever I remember.
As I look at this list often, it often happens that the need to create space pops into my awareness.
Then, whenever I need a break, or whenever I feel that my mind is tired and confused, I dedicate anything from 5 minutes to a few hours to one of the items on my list, and as a result my brain usually feels as decluttered as the space I have just cleaned.
This is a recent practice for me, but I am planning on implementing it as one of my go-to rest/short break ideas for the upcoming year, as it has proven so powerful since I started dedicating more time to it in the last few days.
I am committing to making this a regular practice, as it not only helps me clear my brain and be more productive, but by the end of the year all fields of my life will be considerably more spacious (and I by breaking it down in short breaks I will avoid whole days of emergency cleaning!)
If you want to join me, here are some ideas.
4 Areas to Declutter Regularly
- Empty your desk of all objects and find a place for them in a cupboard.
- Give or throw away any stationary or other tools you don’t use anymore.
- Remove any decoration you don’t enjoy and hang something on the wall that will keep you motivated when you look at it, like an inspiring picture or a mantra.
- Dust or hoover the room where you work.
For me, my journal is where I stay on top of and organize my whole life (for you, it might be your phone or laptop).
- Reduce the number of goals you set out to achieve and focus on one or two at a time.
- Create shorter to-do lists (according to Tim Ferriss, they should fit in a tiny post-it paper).
- Choose 1-3 healthy habits you want to start, and create a habit tracker for them. I use the Minimalist Journaling System.
Your Digital Space
- Get your email to Inbox Zero.
- Change your background to plain black to avoid distractions and save battery.
- Remove all icons from your desktop and place them in the appropriate folders.
- Uninstall all apps that slow down your device and only cause distractions (my life completely changed since I uninstalled Facebook and Instagram from my phone).
- Reply to emails you have been postponing forever.
- Go through your clothes and give away anything you haven’t used for more than 2 months (if you have too many clothes, choose 1 to 5 in each break you want to take).
- Throw away all the expired food in your fridge and cupboards.
- Use the KonMari method to get rid of objects that don’t bring you joy.
Create More Space for Productivity In 2019
This is a great way not only to unlock your brain in times of need but also to start living a simpler, more clutter-free life.
If you want to embrace this technique and maximize your breaks and your work time in 2019, here’s what to do:
Make a list of all the areas that need decluttering in your life, and keep it where you can see it (if you keep a journal, that’s a great place!)
Whenever you feel a creative block, frustration, or emotional overwhelm, choose one of those items and so some cleaning!
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