In 2010 Brother International funded a study to discover the monetary losses from disorganization. The staggering results revealed that the cost associated with just one problem—employees looking for misplaced items—topped $89 billion annually! The average employee spends 38 hours a year searching for things. If you experience moments of “I can’t find what I need!” in your life, you know they add up to an enormous amount of stress.

According to Sara Skillen, founder of SkillSet Organizing, a consulting firm in Franklin, Tennessee, anyone can learn how to become organized. She shared some tips with me for making sure your surroundings are set up to support your best performance, both at home and at the office.

How does your mind affect your environment?

Often clutter is just a physical manifestation of stress. Your current surroundings represent your level of consciousness at that time. Conversely, becoming aware of your surroundings affects your consciousness. This understanding often leads people to have that “aha” moment: “Oh, my gosh! How have I been living?” That’s when they can start to make changes. Clearing out clutter is freeing and makes a positive difference in how you interact with yourself, others, and the rest of the world.

Is there any science supporting how environment affects your daily experience?

There was a study done at Princeton called “Interactions of Top Down and Bottom Up Mechanisms in the Human Visual Cortex.” The researchers discovered that multiple visual objects compete for your brain’s attention. When you’re sitting in a space that’s full of stuff, it’s almost like there’s a child standing next to you poking your shoulder saying, “Mom!” You may think you can block it out, but overall it has a subconscious effect on how you’re living and working.

Do the same principles of organization apply to everyone?

You have to ask yourself, “Is my environment helping me to succeed, or is it holding me back?” Organization is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. It looks different for everyone and depends on varying factors, including age. For some people, being organized means having a spotless desk. For others (especially visual people), it means having things on the desk arranged in a way that they can be immediately found.

How do we start to declutter?

These are my favorite steps:

1. There has to be that little moment of illumination, a spark of desire. You have to be ready.

2. Start with something small that’s not too overwhelming. I usually tell people to find a drawer or a cabinet—not an entire space—that they access frequently. Pull everything out and spread it around.

3. Think about what the use of the space really should be. Start making decisions about what you see in front of you. Ask yourself,

    • Do I use this?
    • Is this something I absolutely love?
    • Do I have space for it?
    • Is this something I need for future reference?
    • Does this item contribute to my success?
    • Does this make me better in some way?
    • Why am I hanging on to this?

4. Get rid of things by throwing them away, recycling, giving them away, or storing them in a more suitable location.

Some people will go through this process and it ignites a whole transformation and excitement and they move on to organizing other spaces. However, if it becomes difficult and emotionally heavy to make the decisions, place the items in a box and put them away for a while. Give yourself permission to quit and be gentle with yourself. You might not be ready.

If we’re taught to save things, how do we learn to get rid of them?

It’s tough to break the cycle of clutter. To do so you must be able to see the positive aspects of letting objects go in terms of how the newly opened space looks and feels better. Ask yourself, “If a tornado hit and all of these things were gone, would it really matter?” It all comes down to focusing on what’s most important in your life.

While Skillen’s points make physical decluttering more manageable, her approach also extends to organizing your mind. Perception creates stress; changing perception reduces it. Next time you feel that familiar mental-tension twinge, ask yourself, “What’s most important in this moment?” Then take action around the answer.

Read about Michele Rosenthal.

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