Podcast 106: College organizing tips

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This is Podcast 106 and it’s about organizing tips from my college days. They involve beer and garbage bags, just so you know.

Before I get to that, I want to announce that I’ve been posting more to Instagram. To find me, go to Instagram and search on clutter Coach. Type it with the space in between the words or not, I should be the first entry that comes up.

I lived in a dorm at college. I was lucky enough to have my own room, a single. It was small but it was all mine. There was room for a twin bed, a small desk and chair and a bureau. Maybe one extra chair for guests. I had a window that overlooked the graveyard next door.

I wasn’t as organized back then as I am now. I wasn’t a slob, exactly, but on campus there were more fun things to do than clean up my room. I’d let things slide until it got to hard to find anything or to move around the room.

This often happened before midterms. The semester would start out slowly and I kept up with my work. But then the assignments piled up AND I had to study for the exam, which meant hours in the library and schlepping stacks of heavy books and readers back to my room (this was a long time ago, youngsters). My room filled up with study materials, in addition to cast off clothing, piles of laundry, empty cans to recycle and whatever else I just set down somewhere and didn’t put away.

There was a tipping point for me where I couldn’t focus on my work with all the junk in my way and filling up my visual field. It was too distracting. I needed to clear the decks so I could focus. If I was writing a paper, I needed to get the final draft done without being sidetracked.

Here’s a little sidebar. Another thing that distracted me when I needed to get my final paper printed out to hand in was my desire to keep quote unquote improving it. I’d change a sentence or start elaborating on a minor point and then I’d realize I’d sabotaged my own conclusion and had to go back and start over.

You’ll have to take this recommendation with a grain of salt. I found that the best way for me to stay focused on simply making the edits I’d already written out for myself was to drink a beer or two before I sat down to type. The beer turned off my internal critic and I became absorbed simply in the activity of typing.

I know this solution isn’t for everyone, but it illustrates an important point. We often make more work for ourselves by trying to perfect tiny details that are irrelevant in the long run. This is the law of diminishing returns.

I’ve talked about it before, in podcasts 86 and 90. In order to be effective, you have to get used to doing something that’s good enough rather than perfect. Partly this is realizing that you probably have some really great ideas that could add to the project and that’s terrific. However, there are other projects to tackle and those ideas can be used in the future.

For me, to get this paper out the door I needed to evaluate what I’d written against the assignment. Did I address all the points I was supposed to? Is it the right format? Is my argument supported by the right number of sources? I could give myself a check list. That meant that I either did something or I didn’t. I wouldn’t go into the shades of grey.

Other ways you could distract yourself from trying to achieve perfection if you don’t like the two beer method are listening to music or having a casual conversation with someone (you’ll have to judge what kind of conversation provides just the right amount of distraction). You could also work on one page at a time. Get up and do something else in between. Or work on it from end to beginning. Those ideas work for writing term papers and many other tasks. Basically, you encourage yourself to focus on some other aspect, such as the physical typing, rather than the content.

That turned out to be more than a sidebar! Okay, back to the room clutter. Here’s the technique I used in college. I got a big black trash bag and threw everything into it. Dirty clothes, stray papers, books, readers, personal items I didn’t need at the moment that were out of place, plastic plates and cups. Yup, everything.

The bag was pretty heavy by the time I finished. I’d drag it into the corner and immediately feel better that now it was just me and the term paper. Well, and the beer.

People often don’t believe that they are distracted by clutter. My very first podcast dealt with that topic, the emotional cost of clutter. In that one I talked about feelings of regret and shame and embarrassment that can come from having too much clutter.

This effect is more mental than emotional, but that’s also important. The thing is, we tend to discount it because we’re so used to it that we don’t see it. We do see it though and it does affect us. It’s tiring, even draining. It causes a constant flow of small distractions that derail our trains of thought. Then we have to expend mental energy getting back to that train. It reminds us of things we need to do and haven’t done; more mental sidetracking.

If you don’t believe me, try this. Look around at a cluttered area of your home or office or wherever you are. Really take it in. let your eyes roam over all the different objects, shapes and colors. Really see what all those things are. Now close your eyes. Imagine a peaceful scene such as a beach.

For most people this will be water and sand and sky and that’s about it. Looking at a scene like that makes people feel calm and peaceful and part of the reason for that is the lack of visual distraction. If you want to feel calm, you probably aren’t going to visualize times square or rush-hour traffic, right?

So those are my two best college organizing tips. One is for overcoming perfectionism in completing a task and the other is for at least temporarily clearing your visual field so that you can focus on something important.

Here’s what you can do right now. Either try the beer method or choose a cluttered area to clear temporarily. You don’t have to use a garbage bag. You could use a box or simply move things to another surface where you’re not working, where you won’t see them. Notice how much better your focus is.