Many individuals experience anxiety when they think about starting an organizing project. They might worry about how large the project is or how to get started. One's heart may thump at the fear of letting go of possessions or remembering past failed attempts. The project may have been delayed long enough that it now has more urgency and has grown in complexity.
Some clients feel anxious before we get started, especially if it is their first time working with a professional organizer. Generally, their anxiety diminishes as we get to work, and they learn what to expect from the process. The simple act of getting into motion can reduce stress.
Sometimes difficult emotions can bubble up at the sight of a long-forgotten object. I will prompt the individual with specific questions, we will chat about options, and they will decide the best course of action. If stress is high enough, I might offer to guide them through a breathing exercise to reduce anxiety so that they can more easily make that decision.
There is a lot of science behind the benefits of this type of practice. Intentionally breathing in specific patterns will force the nervous system to calm down. It does this by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, and then our bodies have no choice but to tamp down the fight or flight response. You can watch this happen in real time with biofeedback from a smartwatch; it is pretty nifty. Clients report lowered stress levels after a few rounds of particular breathing exercises with me.
We need an easily recalled practice when amygdala hijacking occurs. If we can access the method at that moment, then accessing rational thought in the prefrontal cortex becomes easier. For me, Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breath fits the bill. With practice, the 4-7-8 breath can be simple to remember:
Additionally, I've read that exhaling longer than inhaling aids relaxation. I have anecdotally found this to be true. You can learn more about the reasoning from Dr. Andrew Huberman, a Stanford neuroscientist.
There are many other breathing techniques as well, such as the box breath:
The fewer numbers I have to remember in a moment of stress, the better, but I have heard about this breath frequently enough that it warrants exploration.
Recently, I learned about a breathing exercise that Dr. Huberman dubs the "physiological sigh" or "cyclic sighing." It consists of:
I have not practiced this more than a few times, but it has the same amount of steps as the 4-7-8 breath.
Overall, I find that regularly practicing a breathing exercise means that it is more likely to be remembered and used in a moment of stress. If you have heart or lung issues, check with your doctor before engaging in these exercises. Also, ensure you refrain from repeating to the point of feeling lightheaded.
In some instances, the anxiety can be overwhelming. Sometimes it can occur frequently enough or at such an intense level that the organizing process comes to a screeching halt. If you find this to be the case, I urge you to consider working with a mental health professional to address the anxiety and manage its symptoms. Another option is to join a decluttering support group such as Buried in Treasures or Clutterers Anonymous. Once you feel less anxious, the work will continue with less angst and more ease, and you will most likely make more progress.
Reducing stress and anxiety can make the organizing process much more manageable. You may find decluttering enjoyable with practice, as some of my clients have. No guarantees, of course, but regardless of whether you engage in a breathing exercise or work with a mental health professional to reduce anxiety, you will improve your odds of decluttering success.
Wrangling Those Pesky Paper Notes
Perhaps you have already heard of the wisdom of getting thoughts out of your head and onto paper (or into an app). It is beneficial for various reasons:
It can be mentally taxing to fill up precious working memory slots with tasks we cannot currently complete. If other working memory slots are full, other information will get booted to retain that task.
Worse yet, those tasks might detract us from making significant progress. Imagine feeling great about tackling a long-avoided task. You are gaining considerable traction. All of a sudden, another task pops up into consciousness. You might think, “I know myself. I’ll forget to do that other task if I don’t do it right now. Logically, you get up to knock it out. It felt innocuous enough because you estimated it would only take two minutes to complete. We have all been there before.
The problem is that we often underestimate task duration. Additionally, unforeseen complications can arise that expand the time necessary to complete it. Other times, the distracting task leads us down the rabbit hole to a second and third task that we think will “only take a minute.” Before we know it, an hour passes, and we run out of time to get back on track with the first task. Instead of feeling proud of working on that long-avoided task, we feel frustrated and defeated that we let a less critical task (or series of tasks) usurp our time.
You may use paper as an external memory by parking thoughts on paper until you complete the current task. If so, you have created a wonderfully supportive productivity habit.
We must take this habit further to avoid piles of paper clutter and keep track of important reminders.
In a pinch, we might write reminders on whatever paper happens to be at hand: the back of an envelope, a scrap of crumpled paper, or an important bill. Sometimes they seem to scatter like the wind, only to be found long after the deadline. At that point, the task balloons into a time-consuming project. Small leaks increase in size and require a more complex (and costly) repair. Appliances that initially needed minor repair now need replacing. An overdue bill now requires additional time to work with a collection agency. A course is more expensive because the early bird registration has expired. Airfare becomes more costly as the trip approaches.
While writing thoughts and tasks down is terrific, we can take it one step further to alleviate future headaches. Task management apps or paper planners are receptacles to hold that information until you’re ready to act on it.
Apps are great because you can assign a date and time to reminders. They are harder to lose. You can easily make changes to the time and date. They aid in breaking down projects into tasks, and they can sort lists by priority, importance, deadline, etc.
While it is true that paper planners can get lost and you might have to re-write tasks, they do have some advantages over apps. Writing something down can be much faster than finding our phone, unlocking it, opening the app, and starting a new task. Sometimes that task slips out of our working memory when we are ready to type it out: “What was I wanted to type?” Then the hand-wringing and retracing of steps ensue, as we hope to remember once again.
I have lost count of how often I have heard or read that writing something down helps solidify it into our memories. So this is another advantage.
Paper planners can be a joy to use; they contain beautiful designs and colors. Many include a vast array of sections to track your days, habit formation, mood, water intake, tasks, projects, and general musings, to name a few.
They are far calmer than having miscellaneous piles of papers in the home. It is much nicer to look at a lovely planner on a desk than a stack of post-it notes and scraps of paper.
Have you ever noticed how satisfying it feels to cross a task off when using paper? Apps are getting more creative in helping celebrate task completion. Still, I have yet to experience that same small jolt of positive reinforcement as when I physically check a box or scratch out a completed task.
If you are frustrated by losing important thoughts and tired of reshuffling papers to find notes, you may invest in a paper planner. If so, think about the type of information you want at your fingertips. Here are some guidelines to review before making a purchase:
You can start with a basic planner at your office supply store if this feels daunting. You can then graduate to a more comprehensive planner that will help organize and support various aspects of your life.
Having one place to park ideas and tasks can be a lifesaver. If you have never used a planner or have not used one in over a decade, look at what is out there; it is impressive how far they have come over the years.
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.