16. Organizing and Stress

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There are many things in our lives that can create stress. As I am writing this, an oil spill in the golf Coast is spreading toward the shoreline, a volcano in Iceland is causing flights to be canceled, and there are millions of people who can’t find work.

Many stressors in our lives are simply out of our control, however, the most immediate and profound stressors can be found right in our immediate environment, and these are the stressors that we do have control over. I’ve heard people say “I feel stressed out just looking at this stuff.” So, today I will be talking about the deep and profound links between stress and your organizational state. I will also make simple recommendations that you can do immediately to minimize the triggers of stress in your environment. Let’s look at several stress causing situations and how they can be avoided through organizing.

Some sources of stress in an unorganized environment are obvious. It’s stressful to not be able to find things when you need them. If it’s April 13 and you are sorting through stacks of paper desperately trying to find documents related to your taxes, that’s stressful. That’s probably obvious to most people. I will therefore devote the rest of this post to addressing three sources of stress that are less obvious, and that you may not be aware of. These three sources of stress are visual reminders, homeless objects, and delayed decisions.

The first source of stress in an environment is the presence of visual reminders. If you intentionally leave stuff in plain sight in order to keep track of it or to remind you to do something, then you are using visual reminders. The problem is that you are not just getting these reminders when you’re able to act on them. Instead, you are getting these reminders ALL THE TIME. Even when you want to focus on a particular task or just relax, you are receiving a barrage of reminders about other stuff you have to do. Please do not underestimate the effects of these reminders. They can be a constant and profound source of stress.

Instead of using visual reminders to keep track of what you need to do, it’s much less stressful to use a reminder system that allows you to get the reminders only when you’re ready to act on them. There are many different reminder systems that make this possible, and a discussion of these would take me too far off today’s topic, so for now I’ll just say that the simplest of these is a “to do” list.

You can find a more in-depth discussion of the drawbacks of using visual reminders in “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind.”

The second common source of stress is something I call “The Anxiety of not knowing.” To illustrate this, imagine you have guests coming over to your house in one hour. You’ve decided you would like to put stuff away and tidy up so that you feel more comfortable sharing your home with friends. As you’re doing this, you encounter two different types of items, those that already have homes and those that don’t. As an example, suppose you come across a tablet of Post-it notes. “Oh that’s easy. I know where this goes. Top left desk drawer with the office supplies.” Because the item has a place where it’s natural for you to put it, there’s no stress at all. You immediately know what to do with it, and you’re confident that when you need that item in the future you will know exactly where it is. There’s no stress.

On the other hand suppose you encounter an object that doesn’t have a home. I invite you to imagine or to remember how it feels when you’re in that situation. There’s a moment or several moments of “Oh Gee, what do I do with this? I don’t know where to put it, and if I just put it somewhere, I’m afraid I won’t remember where it is.” This situation is stressful. And being in this situation over and over again with many different items can become extremely stressful.

Also, if you pick something up consider it, and, not knowing what to do with it, you just put it back down again, you have invested time, energy, and attention in that object and yet you haven’t made any progress. I call this thrashing, and noticing that you are thrashing is stressful in itself. It’s stressful to realize you’re not making as much progress as you want to. It’s even more stressful if you start to criticize yourself or beat yourself up for doing this or even being in this situation in the first place.

The solution is, for every item that does not yet have a home, to find one or create one, and to do this as soon as possible. Either put it with an existing category that it fits with, create a new category for it and other objects like it, or create a home specifically for this item. You may feel like it’s harder to create a home for this item than to just put it down or to put it somewhere randomly. That’s true, but you will get the benefits of this effort every time you encounter that type of object in the future. The more you create or find homes for your objects, the less you will be affected by the anxiety of not knowing and, consequently, the less stressed you will be.

In my experience as a professional organizer, I have heard again and again that it’s stressful to not know. It’s stressful to not know where things are. It’s stressful to not know where to start. It’s stressful to not know what to do with something.

But notice that we use the word “know” in at least two different ways. Sometimes we use the word “know” to relate to knowledge. If I say “I know which country has the most people,” this means that there is factual information that I am aware of.

But we also use “know” to indicate choices. If I say, “I don’t know which book to read,” this is another way of saying that I haven’t chosen which book to read. If I say “I don’t know where to put my cell phone charger,” what I really mean is “I haven’t decided where to put my cell phone charger.” In this case, “knowing” means deciding, so saying “I don’t know where to put this,” is a way of delaying the decision.

It’s been said that “all piles are delayed decisions.” I don’t completely agree with that. Sometimes we develop piles because we are temporarily focused on something else that is more important. Nonetheless, I do believe that disorganized items are OFTEN a result of delayed decisions. In fact, a significant part of the stress in an unorganized environment is from delayed decisions.

When you delay a decision, you create two forms of stress. First, you have the stress of the results of that delayed decision. That might look like a pile of stuff, an item without a home, or just the prolonged uncertainty. But then you also have the stress of knowing that decision is still ahead of you, still yet to be made. When you delay a decision, it means that you will need to decide sometime in the future. You have just created a future responsibility for yourself. Do you think that decision will be easier to make when you get back to it? Maybe, but probably not.

So how can you avoid the stressful consequences of delaying decisions? The short answer is to stop delaying, but I’d like to offer some specific suggestions about how you might go about doing that.

First, start by cultivating awareness. Notice when you are avoiding or delaying a decision.

Second, Remember that delaying a decision causes additional stress and means that you’ll still need to face that decision in the future.

Third, imagine your ideal self. If you were already the person you’re striving to be, what would you do?

Forth, whenever you notice yourself tempted to delay a decision, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I choose the wrong answer?” It’s natural to have a fear of choosing badly, but in some cases, the consequences of not choosing at all are worse than the consequences of any of the choices. Sometimes the anticipation of an event is worst than the event itself. Sometimes the fear of deciding is worse than actually making the decision.

Fifth, remember that no decision is perfect. There is some uncertainty in almost all decisions. And you might learn things in hindsight that would have changed your decision had you known about them earlier. This, however, is not a suitable reason to stall your decision making. When you do make decisions, you can never be guaranteed that you’ve made the right decision. The only way to know this is to make a decision and notice the results.

Sixth, after you make a decision then, over time, notice how well the results of that decision work for you. In the future, you can choose differently if necessary. Decision-making is a skill that, like any other skill, gets better with practice. The more you practice, the better you will get.

Decisions related to organizing are ideal to practice, and thereby improve, general decision-making ability. They are ideal because they are low stakes decisions. You are not going to die or lose your house if you don’t find the optimum place to put your cell phone charger. When you become more confident and decisive at these low stakes decisions, you will then be better positioned to tackle life’s more important decisions.

A quick review: some common sources of stress in an environment are visual reminders, homeless objects, and delayed decisions. To reduce the stress, find a way other than visual reminders to remember what you need to do, find a home for everything, and develop your decision-making skill through practice.

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