Clutter can collect in homes and offices for multiple reasons, and avoidance is a common cause for clutter collection. Avoidance is not laziness (laziness can be a cause for clutter, but it’s very rare). Rather, avoidance is what happens when you choose not to make a decision and it is one of the top reasons for clutter accumulation, if not the top reason. Instead of deciding how to deal with a mess, you decide instead to avoid making a decision and (try your best) to ignore the mess.
I do this every few months with my inbox on my desk. I’ll be great for weeks at processing and making decisions about the paperwork that comes onto my desk. Then, a piece of paper I don’t want to deal with appears, and the paper hangs out in my inbox for days while I avoid making a decision. Other papers eventually pile up on top of the paper I’m avoiding (in theory: out of sight, out of mind) and eventually my inbox is a stack of papers cluttering up my desk. The pile causes me anxiety, and no matter how much I’m trying to avoid making a decision about that piece of paper at the bottom of the pile, I know it’s still there. It hangs over me like a cloud of darkness. I’ll waste so much time and energy thinking about that piece of paper, which is ridiculous because almost always it only takes a few minutes to process it when I finally stop avoiding it.
Does this scenario resonate with you? My guess is that it does.
Being a good decision-maker doesn’t mean that you always make the right decision. It’s impossible to always make the “right” decision (and since “right” is subjective, what you believe to be right may not be considered right by others, anyway). Rather, good decision makers are people who can make well-informed decisions efficiently and then respond appropriately to the outcome. For example, if the decision turns out to have a negative outcome, good decision makers quickly respond and rectify the situation. They also learn from all decisions they make.
Decision-making is a skill, same as tying one’s shoes or typing on a keyboard. It’s something that can be taught and improved over time. Just because you’re not-so-great at making decisions today doesn’t mean you’re doomed to spend the rest of your life surrounded by clutter. Thankfully, there is typically a cumulative effect, so the more decisions you make the better you usually get at making decisions.
Theories abound on how to help people become better decision-makers, and the following is what I’ve cobbled together over the years as the best method for making decisions about clutter. These tips may work for you in other areas, but my intention is to focus on helping you make better decisions about processing your stuff:
- Acknowledge you need to make a decision. This seems ridiculously obvious, but you would be surprised how easy it is to ignore this step. If you have ever thought, “I don’t want to deal with this right now,” as you set down whatever it was you were holding, you have skipped this step in the decision-making process. Instead of thinking, “I don’t want to deal with this right now,” practice thinking, “I need to make a decision about this right now.” Then, move on to the second step in the decision-making process. If you don’t have the proper time to make a good decision right then, identify exactly when you will have the time and schedule it immediately on your calendar. As David Allen advises, you don’t want any “open loops” — something that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is.
- Identify actions you can take. When processing clutter, your possible actions might be as simple as: keep or purge? Your list might be longer or it might be full of all good options (or, conversely, all bad options) or you may not even be aware of what your options are. Be creative here and work to give yourself at least two actions you can take.
- Decide the value of the decision. Is making this decision something that could impact your life in a significant way? Or, is it a minor decision that will have very little impact on the way you live? Minor decisions need to take the least amount of time to decide which action you wish to take. Major decisions should take longer, but not any longer than it would take to rectify the situation if the choice has a negative outcome. For instance, if you spend four days making a decision about something that would take you just 10 minutes to fix, you have spent way too long making the decision. By knowing the value of the decision, you can determine how much time to spend researching and weighing actions and possible outcomes.
- Research and weigh realistic possible outcomes. People who struggle with decision-making usually get held up on this step. They cycle through fears and unrealistic emotions (“… but what if …” or “I could miss it”) instead of concrete possibilities. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the what-if cycle, and instead list out actual outcomes and how you will handle each of those outcomes. If it’s a major decision, you may wish to use a piece of paper and write out each outcome. If it’s a minor decision, all you’ll need to do is quickly list the outcomes in your mind. When you list real possibilities, it helps reduce your fears and confront how you will respond. If you decide to get rid of a shirt that no longer fits, you know you’ll be able to get a new shirt if the time comes.
- Make a decision. After going through the previous steps, you’re prepared to make a decision. Remind yourself that no one makes the right decision every time, and you’re doing the best with the information you’ve collected. Remind yourself of possible outcomes and how you will be able to handle the outcome. Finally, remind yourself that with each decision you make, you’re becoming a better decision-maker and the process will become easier.
Do you need to work on becoming a better decision-maker? Will doing so help you process your clutter and keep you surrounded by only the things you need and that you truly value? What decision can you make today that will help you alleviate some clutter from your life? What have you been avoiding that has created more clutter?