We are the change

Empowerment Cycle: Is your clutter the chicken or the egg?

Last month, I shared five little secrets for being organised at work, one of which was that the more you do it, the more you’ll do it. When you clear your desk and floor, file those papers that have been gathering dust for months, get everything relating to each project into a single file, and convert your piles of piles into a single to-do list, you feel so energised and positive, your productivity levels go through the roof.

Next thing you know you’re powering through that to-do list, ticking stuff off faster than you dreamed possible. You can lay your hand on anything you need. You’ve got plenty of clear space to spread out the project you’re working on that moment. You’re not distracted by things lying around demanding your attention.

You’re getting your work done, doing it well, developing new business opportunities, creating, creating, creating…

And it’s automatic to put away each piece of paperwork or file when you’re done with it.

You’re in a virtuous circle of decluttering and organising.

It can go the other way too.

Last week, I worked with a female entrepreneur whose business isn’t making as much money as it once did. Times are tough. We’re in the deepest recession since the second world war and, despite the undoubted quality of her products, she’s struggling.

When you run your own business, it’s easy to take such setbacks personally: to feel that a downturn in your bottom line is a reflection of your worth as a human being.

I could see how low she felt about her business (and her life) in her posture and hear it in the tone of her voice. She was feeling low about her work and low about herself. She felt like a failure and pessimistic about her chances of reviving her business.

Her home-office was a mess. We could hardly find her desk under the overlapping piles of paperwork (some of which related to her business, some to her personal life). In fact, we could hardly get to the desk through the piles of paperwork on the floor. Bulging files were spilling their contents. Boxes of index cards stood open, with cards turned upright and lying beside them. There was no room to cram any more papers in her stackable trays. She couldn’t shut her desk drawers. Dirty plates and cups lay under some of the papers and everything was covered in dust.

The environment she worked in was an external expression of her internal mental and emotional state.

We spent five hours decluttering and organising the space. We cleared the floor and desk, shredded and recycled bags of paper, filed what she needed to keep, creating new files as necessary, and re-homed various objects from her office to elsewhere in her house. Whenever we found something that needed action, we added the action to her to-do list and put the object away.

Then we vacuumed the floor, dusted the surfaces and had a well-deserved cuppa.

By the end of the day, though we were both tired, her posture was more upright, her face was brighter and I could hear in her voice that she felt ready to tackle her work again.

Rather than piles of clutter competing for her attention, she had a simple to-do list, which she could prioritise by urgency and importance. She’d moved from feeling overwhelmed to knowing exactly what actions she needed to take and when she would take them.

She felt positive and inspired and had come up with new ideas for ways to promote her products and win new business.

By working on her external space, we’d transformed her internal space.

Which came first, the disempowerment or the clutter?

Had her home-office become cluttered because she felt disempowered about her work, or did she feel disempowered about her work because she’d got cluttered? Did she get her power back by decluttering or did she feel able to declutter because she’d already begun the process of empowering herself?

Sometimes, the trigger that shifts you from a virtuous circle of decluttering, organising and empowerment to a vicious circle of clutter, disorganisation and disempowerment, or back the other way, can be external.

You lose a contract, or get some negative feedback, you can’t be bothered to put your papers away at the end of the day and the clutter starts to build up. You win a new piece of business, or simply have a positive conversation with someone, you’re motivated to put away those files that have been glaring at you for weeks and your office looks great.

You’re not the kind of woman who lets her circumstances dictate her mood, much less your productivity though, are you?

If you’re reading Women Unlimited, chances are you’re the kind of woman who takes charge of her own destiny and chooses for herself how her life is going to go.

Treat your office getting messy as a wake-up call. Notice how you’re feeling about your work. Consider why you don’t feel motivated to keep your workspace clear. And look for actions you could take to tackle any disempowerment you’re experiencing.

If you can’t immediately put your finger on what’s going on psychologically, just start decluttering and organising. As you do, watch out for the files and bits of paper that make your heart sink. Which are the ones you’re least motivated to tidy away? What action do they require? Are you nervous about taking this action? Why? What are you telling yourself about it?

What can you do to shift the way you feel about that action? Could you get help with it? Could you break it down into smaller steps? Is there something you could do right away to make progress around it?

Pushing yourself to declutter and organise ensures you address the things you’ve been hiding from. You circumvent your subconscious desire to avoid actions that scare you. You make a decision about every piece of paper lying about.

It’s by going beyond your comfort zone to deal head-on with even the scary stuff that you make your business a success.

Are you currently in a vicious cycle of clutter and disempowerment or a virtuous circle of decluttering, organising and empowerment?

If you’ve recently shifted from a vicious to a virtuous circle, how did you  make it happen?


Rachel Papworth runs Green and Tidy. She helps people with way too much stuff declutter and create homes they love – homes that support them to live the lives of their dreams. A trained coach with a Psychology degree, and a self-confessed decluttering and organising geek, Rachel loves the way decluttering your stuff declutters your mind, and the contribution decluttering and organising makes to living a low impact life. For more tips on having a home that supports the life you want, join the Green and Tidy community at http://www.mygreenandtidylife.co.uk, follow her on Twitter @greenandtidy and Like http://www.facebook.com/GreenAndTidy.



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  1. Greg says

    I am constantly shifting between a vicious and a virtuous circle.
    Consistency is my problem.
    How do you keep it up and maintain the empowerment?

  2. Hi Greg

    It’s a combination of mindfulness, discipline, scheduling and keeping in touch with your vision. Watch out for the disempowerment creeping in and take action as soon as you spot it. The more you do this, the better at it you’ll get. And keep looking for the root of each disempowerment. What are the items lying around your space? What do you associate with them? What are the actions you’re putting off, or feeling stopped/blocked around, that’s preventing you dealing with those items?

    Over time you’ll build up the metaphorical muscle that you use to shift yourself from disempowerment to empowerment.

    You can find ways to get further help with it here: http://mygreenandtidylife.co.uk/helpme/

    Best of luck and keep in touch.