Get Organised! Or, clean up the clutter in your life!

My article on productivity and cleaning up the clutter in your life was carried by Life Positive magazine in their June 2013 issue:

Keep stress at bay and increase your productivity by organising your life

It might be a cliché to say that modern-day lifestyles are full of stress, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Caught between the competing demands of home and work, we often overreach ourselves and get overwhelmed by all that we ‘need’ to do. Many of fall prey to this at one point or another: We find ourselves drowning under a pile of responsibilities that just keep on increasing, and soon, missed deadlines and broken commitments become a common occurrence. This isn’t just a recipe for stress and worry – let it fester too long and it’ll become a ticket to chaos, confusion, and inefficiency.

Taking the time out to simplify and organise your life might seem to be yet another of those tasks competing for your limited time. However, putting in the effort to come up with a streamlined workflow will pay off dividends in the long term. Let’s take a look at where to start cleaning up the clutter from your life:

Reducing physical clutter

This is where the journey really starts. Not only does physical clutter – whether at home or at the workplace – reduce our efficiency by making us hunt around for what we really need, but it also adds an element of mental fatigue. Our surroundings rub off on us and just like a walk through a misty mountain road puts us in a relaxed frame of mind, working in a dusty, cluttered office will overwhelm your mental faculties after a while.

If you’ve ever found yourself digging through piles of paper or frantically rummaging through your desk, do yourself a favour and clean up your workspace or home. An act as simple as sorting out your bank statements or organising your library won’t just reduce the physical clutter and make you more efficient – it’ll put you in a more productive state of mind.

Priortise

Now you’re getting into top gear. Prioritising your duties, responsibilities, and chores is essential to your overall productivity regime. Unless you know what’s important, how will you ensure you’ve set aside enough time for it?

You can get started on this by carrying out an ‘audit’ of your day: For around a week to 10 days, keep track of what you’re doing and how you’re spending your time. You can use a pen and paper to do this, or draw up an Excel sheet, or even use a time-tracking phone app. Once you’ve figured out how much time you’re spending on each activity, you can see whether this matches your priorities: Is it really that important to watch funny videos on YouTube for 3-4 hours each week, only to find there’s no time to read that pile of books gathering dust? Assess your priorities – work, exercise, spending time with your family – whatever they might be, and see whether your actual schedule matches this.

Stick to a routine

We all fancy ourselves as free spirits who can’t be tied down by something as mundane as a routine. Think again. You’re probably doing yourself a disservice by not structuring at least some of your activities. No one’s likes to be stuck in with a highly-regimented or restricted schedule, but that doesn’t mean you don’t plan ahead – look at a routine as a framework for your day, something that’ll lay the foundations for becoming more productive.

A structured day will also increase your sense of accomplishment and give you something to look forward to – notice how the day goes by better when you anticipate your regular post-dinner badminton game? You can also think of it this way: If you’re already reeling under a lot of pressure, what’s going to be more useful: The uncertainty of an unstructured routine, or the peace of mind of knowing what you’ll be doing? Best of all, you’re free to make it as restricted or relaxed as you wish.

Clean up your inbox

Technology’s been something of a mixed bag when it comes to simplifying our lives. It was supposed to free us up from our daily chores or repetitive tasks, giving us more time to spend on really ‘living’. However, we seem to forget technology’s merely a tool, not the aim or target itself – and become slaves to our machines. Here’s what you can do to regain control of your electronic kingdom:

Reduce Device Fatigue

The office desktop, a laptop for home, a fancy new smartphone, and perhaps even a handy tablet…. Don’t look surprised, for many of us, this is reality. Unfortunately, all these devices don’t really increase our productivity; on the other hand, they can even induce a ‘fear-of-being-disconnected’ panic! This is especially true when on vacation – do you really need to lug that laptop along to the beach? Or must you spend every lunch break at work browsing Facebook on your smartphone? Common sense is the key here: Use only what you need, and only use it as much as you need to!

Tackle Your Mailbox

Surprising as it might seem, E-mail, once heralded as the ultimate in business communication, is actually being blamed for reducing productivity at workplaces across the globe! Actually, we can’t really blame E-mail for this – it’s our abuse of this technology that’s the real culprit.

Do you really need to reply to every mail the minute it arrives? Or, for those of us who go the other way, must you let unread messages pile up in your inbox? And, answer this honestly – don’t you find it hard to regain focus after being disturbed by yet another mail notification?

The truth is that most mail is actually never that urgent or ‘actionable’. For some people, logging into their mailbox at predetermined times – perhaps as few as two or three a day – works wonders. By adopting this method, you not only reduce any disruption in your workflow, but can also set aside enough time to properly deal with your incoming messages. This doesn’t just apply to E-mail, but to any form of electronic communication – do you really need to check every hour what your friends are saying on Facebook?

Formal productivity techniques

Once you’ve got the basics sorted out, you’re ready to move into the big leagues of formalised productivity techniques.

Pomodoro

If you frequently find your concentration flagging after a while, this might be the right strategy for you. Less of a formalised productivity regime and more of a concentration-enhancing tool, the Pomodoro technique is perfect for those of us with a wandering focus. Developed by management and IT consultant Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro technique capitalises on the human brain’s preference for working in intense-but-short spells, and recommends that you try out 25-minute intervals of work. Each of these 25-minute ‘Pomodoros’ is supposed to be punctuated by a five-minute break, with a longer, 25-minute rest period coming up ever 3-4 Pomodoros. According to the Pomodoro website  this technique doesn’t just help make the best use of your time and keep you fresh, but can also aid you in assessing the time you spend on each activity.

Getting Things Done

The Getting Things Done (GTD) method is perhaps the best-known productivity technique around. Developed by productivity guru David Allen, the GTD philosophy is built around the fact that most of us are poor multitaskers. According to adherents of this method, assigning priorities, deadlines, and contexts for our duties frees up our minds from having to worry constantly about our targets and aims. Instead, we’re free to focus on the task at hand.

However, the GTD philosophy requires some amount of self-discipline, and for that reason, might not be perfect for everyone. What you can do, of course, is combine the GTD method with the Pomodoro – adding that much-needed element!

 Make the most of your re-organising efforts

  • Take small steps: You don’t have to try everything at once. Pick one aspect of your life, or one strategy, and stick to it for a while.
  • Be good to yourself: Panicking about all the stuff you have to do isn’t of much help. Don’t be hard on yourself; instead, pat yourself on the back for each small goal you accomplish.
  • Review: It might help to get into the habit of a twice-a-day review of what your plans for the day are, and what you’ve achieved so far. Don’t get too caught up in agonising over your progress though!
  • Balance: When drawing up a schedule, try and balance out your life – keep time aside for your family, friends, and most of all, for yourself.

Good ‘ol Pen & Paper: Smartphone and computer note-taking apps might seem very attractive, but there are few things as handy as a notepad and a pen! Draw up your day’s tasks, keep a note of people you have to call, your shopping list, and anything else. Simple, cheap, and very effective!

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