When my eldest daughter started school last fall, I realized our family needed a whole lot more order and routine if we were going to survive kindergarten: late-start days, no-school days, “spirit” days (wear pj's!) and avalanches of worksheets. At first, I was petrified. Then I realized this transition was an opportunity to better organize our lives. So I dug into marketing and neuroscience research to find out how to take control of the chaos.
#1 Start a junk drawer. “I'm very deliberate about how I organize my stuff,” says Daniel Levitin, a behavioral neuroscientist at McGill University and author of The Organized Mind (Dutton, 2014). “It used to freak me out if I didn't have a special place for everything,” he says. “But the junk drawer is actually a triumph of organization.” In researching his book (which started out as a history of filing cabinets of all things!), Levitin learned it's best not to create too many categories for sorting. Imagine having 20 file folders containing just one slip of paper each. That kind of granularity stretches the capacity of your memory, he says. But grouping uncategorizable items together in a miscellaneous folder or drawer makes it easier to recall where they are.
#2 Dial down the visual noise. When I first sat down to write this column, I had 15 digital sticky notes scattered all over my computer desktop. One is my to-do list. The rest are digital detritus—previously important bits of info that I just haven't gotten around to dealing with. Having this type of “noise” in our sight lines takes a mental toll. Multiple studies have found that visual clutter competes for our attention, making it more difficult to concentrate on a task.
But grouping your clutter can help: One 2011 functional MRI study by neuroscientists Stephanie McMains and Sabine Kastner, both then at Princeton University, found that arranging similar bits of visual clutter next to each other made them less distracting. After reading that study, I dragged all my random desktop files into one new, clean blue folder, stacked all the sticky notes in one corner of the screen, and heaved an involuntary sigh of relief.
#3 Prepare yourself to pare down. North America is rife with self-storage facilities packed with an overflow of stuff people can't fit into their homes anymore. There are good reasons why people have a hard time letting go of things: Our possessions accrue meaning and value through their associations with our past and even future aspirations, says Catherine A. Roster, a marketing professor at the University of New Mexico, who studies people's relationships with their stuff. At some level, our things become intertwined with aspects of our own self-image, so getting rid of them can feel like tossing out pieces of ourselves.
But there are steps you can take to prepare yourself for a spring cleaning. Just stick your precious, but unneeded, things in a closet or attic for a while. “When you encounter them again, it becomes more evident that these objects are not as important as you initially imagined,” she says. “Creating spatial distance from objects that are infrequently used but still have highly charged meanings can be a sort of cooling-off period.”
#4 Restrict your digital diet. Of course, clutter isn't just stuff you can see or touch. Twitter notifications, text pings, floods of e-mails, Facebook updates—all of these compete for our attention and add to the feeling of being overwhelmed. In fact, when your phone buzzes with a text or call, it significantly distracts you even if you “ignore” it and don't pick up, a 2015 study by Florida State University psychologists found. During the experiment, researchers purposely called or texted college students in the middle of a task and found that the students made about 25 percent more errors than when they were left alone. Even though a digital ping is usually over quickly, the wondering and mind wandering it kicks off isn't, the researchers wrote.
I have suspected for a while now that too much digital input has been muddying my mental waters—and doing the research for this column confirmed my suspicion. So I recently deactivated my personal Facebook account, unfollowed all but a couple of vital folks on Twitter and limited myself to checking nonwork-related news once a day. Already I feel more clearheaded. “The biggest principle in organizing your life is to be deliberate about how to spend your time,” Levitin says. “Time is the scarcest resource that most of us have, so choosing what you do and when you're going to allow yourself to be interrupted is key.”