Improve your decision-making skills and reduce the clutter in your home and office

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

16 Comments for “Improve your decision-making skills and reduce the clutter in your home and office”

  1. posted by Sarah on

    I regret to say that this scenario completely describes my behavior. I never thought of it in this way, but this post makes it all clear. Thanks.

  2. posted by WilliamB on

    There’s one more factor you didn’t include, that applies to some circumstances or people. When you do make the decision, then some people/sometimes you have to deal with the emotions involved in the delay. Usually it’s “That wasn’t too hard, why did I delay so long? Now I’m mad at myself for that.” But sometimes it means facing more serious consequences, such as financial loss or legal problems.

    It’s like, but not as serious as, a recovering addict having to face all the harm he did while actively using. The pain involved in that is a well-known problem in addiction recovery.

  3. posted by Amy on

    Good post. That’s what I have noticed that I really love about having a cleaning lady come every two weeks. We pick up the house the night before, which means we have a deadline to make decisions about where all the homeless stuff floating around needs to go. I only wish I continue to do this without the deadline!

  4. posted by Erin Doland on

    @William B — I can see that with non-clutter decision-making, but not usually where the advice above might be applied. In my experience, regret and remorse are rarely associated with uncluttering. People can maybe point to one or two things they regret purging (like I can point to accidentally throwing out my passport), but after the issue is resolved that is the end of the regret (once I had a new passport, I didn’t really care about accidentally ditching the old one). People don’t usually beat themselves up over not acting earlier, because they know they couldn’t have done it earlier — you have to choose to unclutter, it’s not something that can be forced upon you (unless it’s a hoarding situation, but the advice listed above isn’t intended for hoarding situations). You enjoy the benefits of your newly uncluttered space and call it a day. Plus, people know that if they continued to delay/avoid, the situation would have only become even worse. Like I said, I can see it in other decision-making situations, but not usually with uncluttering linen closets or pantries or stuffed garages. It’s a little more likely with paperwork, but still, it’s pretty rare. My clients tend to find checks and money then learn they didn’t pay something. When you owe someone money, the person/company you owe doesn’t usually let you forget it. I’ve found if someone doesn’t pay a debt it’s usually because they actually don’t have the money, not because they’re avoiding making a decision about a piece of paperwork. You may be correct in a few circumstances, but very rarely have I encountered it.

  5. posted by WilliamB on

    @Erin – we have different experiences, then, at least as far as paperwork is concerned. Sometimes it’s the cost associated with the delay, such as a lost passport might cause. Sometimes it’s just beating up oneself for delaying; jus as you wrote “Plus, people know that if they continued to delay/avoid, the situation would have only become even worse” but with self-recrimination involved. Especially if they could have acted earlier and just didn’t.

  6. posted by NutellaNutterson on

    This post was a revelation for me. Though I can totally see where WilliamB is coming from – anxiety/perseverating/regret is a nasty cycle.

    I think the biggest a-ha is realizing that there really is very little in my life that is *that* big of a deal that it’s worth delaying the decision-making. And for those items, I can decide to make an interim decision and re-evaluate later.

    For me, this has most recently come up about saving art I made in college. I don’t love it all enough to frame it, but my life isn’t negatively impacted by keeping a file in storage.

  7. posted by Carla on

    This definitely strikes a nerve with me. But I have to agree with WilliamB wholeheartedly. I am forever beating myself up over putting things off, even uncluttering. I know that I should act as Erin mentioned, happy to now be in an uncluttered space. But instead, I often feel unhappy with myself that I let it get that bad, especially if it only took a few minutes to clean up the mess that had piled up for weeks.

    Erin didn’t care that she threw away her passport once she had the new one. I still get upset over accidentally leaving a fleece blanket behind at an event in high school!

  8. posted by Beth on

    I saw myself in this article, so much that I felt the need to comment. Sometimes, just hearing it from someone else helps pinpoint what the problem really is so it can be rectified.

    Also, I read the comments and wanted to weigh in, and I do see what WilliamB was conveying, and I understand Carla’s application with the fleece blanket. I do tend to beat myself up on things long after they have been cleared up or I can no longer do anything about them. However, what I find helpful is that I need to “unclutter” my emotions. For example, my current project is a room that is full of stuff I did not make decisions and felt the need to hide in the spare room, now I have guests coming in a month. I am too busy over the next two weeks to find time to begin this project and have set aside time for it after those weeks. Everytime I think about that room, I feel guilty and want to go work on it right now, but I have to remind myself I have other tasks with higher priorities to do right now. Or in the case of something lost or extra bills to be paid due to a lack of decision or improper decision, guilt is only going to weigh on you and cause you to delay in other areas that need your attention now. Maybe what could help is some self talk to bring your emotions through some logical resolutions on the subject, like reminding yourself you have time set aside later, or that the money is already spent, blanket lost ect. so use it to remind you in the future to be more careful/not make the same decision.

  9. posted by thank-you on

    I am soo with WilliamB on this! For me, the regrets werent simply that it “took so long” but the fallout.

    I have a friend who lost her 3 year old daughter to a brain tumor when her husband was stationed overseas. On the tenth aniversery of her death, they planned a trip to return to their daughters resting place and cslebrate her short life.

    I remember the panic and fear in her voice a day or two before they were scheduled to leave…”I cant find my passport!”

    I think its when the clutter has meaningful negative rmifications (even if they are rare) and you realize uncluttering is so much easier from the other side that its hard to forgive yourself for causing yourself past pain that could have been avoided.

    I spent 2 years slowly uncluttering (with a professional organizer), until a family crisis forced my priorities to become crystal clear. My lack of completing the organization prior to this crisis left me unable to effectively deal with the crisis, and although healing, my family now years later has still not fully recovered…and my clutter (failure to deal with it) is partly to blame. This concept of clutter-regrets resonates deeply with me. I am glad to know I am not the only one.

  10. posted by Dede on

    I am not a good decision maker, unless you count deciding not to decide, so this article felt incredibly personal. I noticed that Erin and Carla accidentally lost something, and I’ve always looked at uncluttering as something intentional and specific. I’ve felt guilty for not starting, but I’ve been working on uncluttering my bedroom and once I got started, I didn’t have one single regret. I was thrilled to be liberated from all that stuff. Giddily happy, in fact. And it instead of kicking myself for not doing it sooner, I eagerly looked around the house for more things to throw away. I would LOVE to empty the entire house onto the front and backyards and then magically know where to put what I want to keep. My biggest frustration is not knowing how or where to store the “don’t use it all the time but don’t want to throw it out…yet” stuff. But I’m working on it.

  11. posted by Janet on

    Erin, this is a bit off topic here, but you mentioned David Allen. I have just started the process to incorporate GTD in my life. Do you have more posts about this? It is a bit daunting at the beginning setting up the system but I do believe it will work to help me get control of the different areas of my life that I need to be involved in right now.

  12. posted by cindi on

    You have no idea how much this post helped me. I have labeled myself as lazy for years, which causes all kinds of guilt and shame. My real issue is avoidance–you described my behavior perfectly. Now I can focus on making decisions, rather than continuing the cycle of guilt and shame. I see a significant increase in productivity and greater likelihood of achieving goals in my future!

  13. posted by John on

    I’ve read many articles on getting rid of the clutter, but your post reached me like no other. You identified the root of the problem right off. Thanks a lot. Now to get to that letter at the bottom of my stack of papers 🙂

  14. posted by VeritySa on

    Erin, you are a genius at pinpointing clutterer tendencies. I’m super excited about this post!

    This helps clear up a lifetime of frustrations for me. I could never figure out how I could be such a motivated person and yet struggle so much for so long with clutter!!

    This is a really great post. I sent the link to several of my family members to read.

  15. posted by Maria on

    Wow, I have read this site for years and really enjoyed it. I am so glad to read this particular entry, as well as the comments after it. I feel like this describes me as well… makes me relieved to know I am NOT lazy! My avoidance, though, has caused some areas of my home to become so full of clutter and decision making that I have all sorts of anxiety of just the thought of them, as well as where i will ever find the time to finally clear them out! I’m so guilt ridden that I am robbing my children of a home they can spread out in because I can’t find/make time to go through a CD collection I haven’t listend to in years, etc etc. My procrastinating due to avoidance has also led to some emotional issues with my dear husband as I feel my lack of committment to just dig in has left him in a “I don’t want to help” sort of thought process. I do so much better with help when it comes to purging. I read in your book about the emotional attachment you can get to things just by touching them.
    I’m rambling now, but just wanted you to know I’m grateful to see through your other readers that I am NOT alone.

  16. posted by Erin on

    When I was a little girl, my mom gave my first lesson in organizing: make your bed everyday…you’ll feel in control of your day. (When I was a little older, that lesson expanded to “when you’re feeling stressed, go clean your room…it helps you feel in control”…she was right.)

    When I was 17, my second boss (after the ubiquitous McDonald’s job) gave me my second lesson in organizing: Whenever you can, touch a piece of paper only once. Deal with it when you pick it up the first time and your day flows right along.

    Of course, I didn’t recognize those lessons for what they were at the time, but those two pieces of advice have served me well for 30 years.

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