Why do so many of us feel like we are spinning our wheels but not reaching our goals? It all boils down to keeping our eye on the prize or “the ONE Thing,” as Gary Keller and Jay Papasan refer to it in their book, The ONE Thing The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Easy in theory, challenging in practice.
As we focus on a task, distractions seem never-ending. We can start on the right path if we write them down to return to the task at hand. Some might even have well-organized tasks and project lists, or maybe even software devoted to staying organized.
Yet after weeks, months, or even years of dedication to our tasks, we can become exasperated when our goals seem as far away as ever. Some may have stopped creating goals altogether because the recurring disappointment is just too painful. Keller says that most of us are doing as much as humanly possible to reach our goals, but the problem is that we should be doing the opposite: we should be “going small.”
Instead of completing all those tasks, we must decipher the most crucial task that gives us the biggest bang for our buck. How often do we stop to identify those needle-moving tasks? When running his real estate company, he found that his high performers were not completing their self-assigned tasks during the week. He created a “Focusing Question” to ask every day, and it made a massive shift in his company, Keller Williams Realty. Perhaps you have heard this question in articles or seminars: “What is the ONE Thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”
Before even asking this all-important question, though, we must address six fallacies that lead us down the wrong path.
“Everything matters equally”
Checking items off task lists feels good in the moment, but where does it lead us? Unfortunately, not far if those tasks were not the best way to move closer to our goals. With great insight, he states, “If your to-do list contains everything, then it’s probably taking you everywhere but where you really want to go.”
Instead of trying to do it all, we need to push the famous Pareto Rule (“80% of outcomes result from 20% of preceding factors,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle) to the outer limits. Once we have determined what 20% of all tasks will result in 80% of the results, we need to narrow it down to the most significant needle-moving activity.
Thankfully, those of us who ever resented that age-old interview question about multitasking (because it was not our forte) have been vindicated. Multiple studies have now shown that multitasking does not work when competing tasks demand a lot of thinking. Keller dives into more detail: we can switch tasks rapidly and do two things simultaneously, but we cannot focus on two things at the same time. Apparently, multitasking wastes 28% of workdays. Additionally, I have read that it takes our brains up to twenty minutes to return to focus after dealing with a distraction. Thus, multitasking truly seems to be a losing proposition.
“A disciplined life”
For anyone who feels guilty about a lack of discipline, fear not. Keller argues that what we enviously witness in others is not a rare quality buried deep in the DNA of high achievers. Instead, what we are seeing is a heavy reliance on habit. High achievers only need enough discipline to repeat the necessary task until it becomes a habit. Their daily routines help them reach their goals. They do not have to white-knuckle it through each day with a massive amount of discipline. What a relief to those of us who never felt like we had giant stores of discipline ready to be used at any moment.
Completing large decluttering projects becomes much easier when we engage in habit formation. Clients and I spend time removing roadblocks and collaborating on realistic strategies. Those strategies sustain habits that not only help reach organizing goals but also keep clutter at bay. (For more information on habit formation, see my articles on The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits.)
Numerous pop psychology articles reference a twenty-one-day time frame to create habits. This number always felt unrealistically low to me, unless we are talking about easily formed bad habits like eating too much junk food or spending too much time on social media. Indeed, Keller references a 2009 study determining that it takes, on average, sixty-six days to create a new habit (some took as little as eighteen days and others two-hundred fifty-four days). Last year I learned that it could take longer for those with ADHD. All this news might feel disheartening if you thought it only took twenty-one days, but I consider it to be good news. While it might take longer than initially expected to create a habit, it now means we have a more realistic timeframe. Hopefully, we will be less likely to quit a new habit on day twenty-five because we erroneously thought it should be old-hat by then.
“Willpower is always on will-call”
Similar to discipline, we cannot always rely on willpower. Keller references studies that demonstrate diminishing returns. The more we use willpower, the less available it becomes. So, it becomes imperative to tackle our most important tasks first, rather than burn through our reserves on more menial tasks.
“A balanced life”
For many years, pop culture touted life “balance.” In Keller’s opinion, one cannot reach outstanding achievements without getting out of balance. We have to invest a lot of time and energy into reaching big goals. It naturally means that other tasks will be left undone. We have to learn to be comfortable with the “chaos” of unfinished business.
Luckily this does not mean that we abandon everything else forever. What good is a life goal if we sacrifice friends, relationships, and health to achieve them? Probably not much, he insightfully argues. Instead, he instructs us to use “counterbalancing”: we cannot get so far out of balance for so long that we lose everything. He argues that it is ok to be far out of balance in work-life to reach lofty goals. In personal life, it is better to avoid those extremes.
“Big is bad”
Many of us fear success because it might mean sacrificing too much: dealing with massive levels of stress, losing social connections, or abandoning health. The good news is that as we work towards that big goal, we adapt. We learn how to manage the stressors better as we grow.
"The Focusing Question"
After addressing fallacies, he dives deeper into the Focusing Question: “What is the ONE Thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?” We might be tempted to drop “such that by doing it” because it feels redundant, but he argues that it is crucial: “This qualifier seeks to declutter your life by asking you to put on blinders. This elevates the answer’s potential to change your life by doing the leveraged thing and avoiding distractions.”
Quite frequently, I advise clients to adorn make-believe “horse blinders.” When decluttering, it is easy to get distracted with related but non-essential tasks. By putting on “horse blinders,” we can more easily focus on the most rewarding decluttering action.
The Focusing Question is adaptable to both large and small goals. We can insert “right now,” “this year,” or other verbiage after the phrase “that I can do” to fit the need. We can also add qualifiers to address different areas of our lives. For example, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do today for [whatever you want] such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” Ask this question every morning to stay on track.
The answers to the Focusing question are crucial. Solutions can necessitate “doable” action, “stretch” action, or activity in the realm of “possibility.” Avoid “doable” steps to reach those all-important life goals because they use our existing tools.
“Stretch” activities will take us farther. We might need to research what others are doing so that we can do the same. The task might “stretch” us to the edge of our current skillsets.
Reaching lofty life goals necessitates “possibility” actions that are well outside of our current limitations. Similar to “stretch” activities, the first task is to ask, “Has anyone else studied or accomplished this or something like it?” Unlike “stretch” tasks, the answer to that question now becomes our bare minimum effort. We need to go in the same direction as the best performers and then go beyond or potentially plot an entirely novel course. Whether the goal is personal (e.g., decluttering your home) or professional (e.g., becoming an expert in your field), “possibility” tasks are the ones that will get us there.
Taking “possibility” action net more significant rewards in the distant future, but how do we avoid the temptation of less critical tasks that net immediate (albeit smaller) rewards? Use his
“goal setting to the Now” technique to connect emotionally to distant future rewards, rather than to the smaller immediate reward.
We connect someday goals to immediate goals through a series of questions.
He argues that we cannot skip any of these steps because each phrase keeps us emotionally connected to that bigger goal, rather than menial feel-good tasks that take us off course. Avoiding this necessary technique is “why most people never get close to their goals. They haven’t connected today to all the tomorrows it will take to get there. “
So now that we know precisely what that ONE Thing is, how do we commit to it amidst competing distractions? We use time blocking. We block off sufficient time on our calendars to devote to the ONE Thing. Everything else needs to happen around this time block.
To make blocks work, we need to “get in the mindset that they can’t be moved.” First, we block out free time since we cannot sustain arduous effort without rest. Then we block off four hours to devote to the ONE Thing. He used the popular 10,000-hour theory to create his calculation of four daily hours. (For those who have not started decluttering because it is far too intimidating, try starting much smaller. Even fifteen or five minutes of decluttering a day is better than no minutes, and the fear of starting with just fifteen minutes is much smaller than four hours!)
There are a series of moves we can make to protect our time blocks:
We need to have the mindset of mastery to stick to time blocks. This essentially means “becoming your best,” which is a life-long process. When the ONE Thing becomes this important, we are more likely to commit. Additionally, we cannot stop when we reach the current limits of ability. We should use the Focusing Question to determine what we need to learn or what we need to do differently to achieve big goals.
Last but not least, we need to beware of the four “thieves” that can take us off track:
"A Life without Regrets"
In summation, he argues that the best way to live a "life without regrets" is to strive towards those lofty goals. To do that, we must always focus energy and time on that One Thing that will help us get there.
So how about it? How many tasks are on your to-do list today: are there too many to realistically complete? Are you setting yourself up to feel like a ping-pong ball in a match between Olympic athletes? Give the Focusing Question a try. You might end your day feeling great instead of exhausted because doing the ONE Thing helped you get that much closer to your most important goals.
Real-World Examples of How to Use Tactics from James Clear’s Atomic Habits to Declutter your Space
Piggybacking to my last article about Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is a synopsis of Atomic Habits and examples of using his strategies to declutter. Hopefully, by presenting them back-to-back, it will leave you with a very robust way to instill new organizing habits and get rid of old ones that work against the goals and dreams you have.
James Clear bases his book on B.F Skinner’s “stimulus, response, reward” system that he developed in the 1930s and on Charles Duhigg’s “cue, routine, reward” system in The Power of Habit. Clear’s four-step model of “cue, cravings, response, and reward” and his “four laws of behavior change” add additional information to the conversation.
Why do I seem so infatuated with habit formation? It’s a large part of my organizing process for those whose clutter has decreased their quality of life. Clients not only want to get organized quickly but want to keep it that way. I could have a blast helping a client declutter, but if we don’t spend some time setting up systems and working on new habits, they can easily land right back where they started in a few months or years.
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” Clutter and disorganization can sometimes be an outward manifestation of internal challenges like ADHD, hoarding disorder, depression, anxiety, etc. In many cases, though, it can result from bad habits compounding on themselves over long periods of time. If someone goes shopping each time they feel badly, only a small pile will accumulate in a week’s time. As the habit continues, though, the piles continue to grow and impede the ability to use one’s space as intended.
Sometimes we quit a new habit because we don’t see progress quickly enough. James Clear calls this the “Valley of Disappointment,” where you’re working but don’t yet see progress. A big win might be right around the corner, and we miss it because we’re disappointed and stop too soon.
He also argues that we need to “fall in love” with the process that helps us reach that goal because otherwise, we’re never happy until we reach that goal. It also means that we won’t fall off the habit wagon as soon as we reach that goal. New clients often tell me that they were successfully able to declutter right before company came over but weren’t able to sustain it after the guests left. In chapter 1, he states, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Adding onto this argument, he says that the best motivator is your beliefs about your identity. He mentions a 2011 study by Christopher Bryan, Gregory Walton, Todd Rogers, and Carol Dweck. They found that the more you identify with a belief, the more you’ll act in a way that doesn’t contradict that belief. So, saying something like, “I’m disorganized. I don’t like it, but it’s just who I am” will make it harder to act in a way that doesn’t fit with that statement. If instead you say, “I’m an organized person,” and start to believe it, you’ll begin decluttering and organizing under that new identity. I love his quotation in chapter 2: “In this way, the process of building habits is actually the process of becoming yourself.”
Habits exist to help us solve problems. In trying not to become overtaxed, our brains always look for shortcuts to save energy. It looks for cues that will help you quickly move away from pain or move closer to a tempting reward.
He makes a great point of addressing those who think that habits (cue decluttering habits) will turn us into dull robots who never have spontaneity in life. He argues that those who have great routines free up more energy and time than those who don’t.
There are four essential parts to habits: cue, craving, response, and reward.
Your brain searches for cues of incoming rewards. When it finds a reward, it will create a craving so that we’re willing to do the hard work of getting that reward. If the reward was worth repeating, the habit starts to form.
His model states that there are “4 Laws of Behavior Change” that make a habit more likely blossom. When you want to start a habit, ask these four questions:
“How can I make it obvious?”
“How can I make it attractive?”
“How can I make it easy?”
“How can I make it satisfying?”
To break a bad habit, do this:
“Make it invisible.”
“Make it unattractive.”
“Make it difficult.”
“Make it unsatisfying.”
Just like we learned in my article on The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Clear notes that we have to notice the cues to change the habit. Without noticing, we continue to repeat the same patterns over and over without even noticing.
How can we start to notice something that we don’t see, though? It sounds like quite the conundrum. You can use his “Habits Scorecard” tactic. Write down every single habit you have from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep. Then rate each one as positive, negative, or neutral. If you’re not sure whether it’s good or bad, he suggests asking, “Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?”
As you’ve probably noticed, one habit can lead to another one. You can take advantage of this effect by stacking routines on top of each other. Charles Duhigg spoke about this concept as well.
Let’s say you enjoy a cup of coffee each morning, and you know that it takes four minutes to brew. You could take those four minutes to walk through your home and find one book you will donate. In 30 days, you could free up a large portion of a bookshelf, thus making space for books currently resting on the floor. Once you’re used to the habit of making coffee and decluttering while it brews, you could create the third habit. Perhaps every Friday morning, directly after you’ve washed your coffee cup, you put on your shoes and drop off your donated books.
Another part of the habit puzzle is to set up your environment to support your habit goals. So many might see a friend and say, “well that person is just naturally good at keeping their home organized, they run marathons, they never eat junk food, they just have a ton of willpower. It’s just in their genes. That’s not me.” Clear argues that it’s not their willpower or their genes, it’s just that they have set up their environment so that they’re less frequently tempted to fall off the positive habit wagon.
Here’s an example: imagine someone who stops by his favorite store on the way home from work each day. He knows that he will feel guilty later because he overspent and doesn’t have space for new purchases. He can start taking a different route home to avoid seeing that store in the first place. He didn’t need any willpower; he simply changed his environment. Just like Charles Duhigg, Clear explains that it’s nearly impossible to eliminate an old poor habit because “the mental grooves of habit have been carved into your brain.” Instead, work to remove the cue entirely so that the temptation shows up less frequently.
Many of you are familiar with the brain chemical dopamine. Clear remarks that dopamine is released when we anticipate a reward. That dopamine hit helps us take that action to achieve the reward. He suggests “temptation bundling”: link something you have to do with something you already want to do. Perhaps you want to listen to the next episode of your favorite podcast, but you’re feeling frustrated about the pile of clean laundry that always seems to accumulate on that bedroom chair you meant to use for reading. You could create a routine of putting laundry away each week while simultaneously listening to that new podcast episode.
Clear makes an essential distinction between motion and action. Motion is preparing to take action. We can fall into the trap of continuing to prepare so that we can avoid action altogether. Many clients realize that their efforts to declutter have not worked. Sometimes we determine that they moved objects around quite frequently, but they never made actual progress. That is an example of being in motion instead of taking action. As soon as clients start working with me, they move from motion to action. The more we repeat an action, the more durable the new neural pathways become, and thus the stronger the habit becomes, which is called “long-term potentiation.”
Another way to make habits more likely to stick is to make them as easy as possible. (Make bad habits difficult.) Clear references researchers who estimate that habits drive 40 to 50% of our daily activities. So by changing our habits, we can truly change our lives in significant ways. We need to make the barrier of entry very low. Clear talks about the “Two-Minute Rule”. The premise is to do the desired activity for two minutes to get accustomed to the action, and then we’re more likely to repeat it.
Finally, he talks about the need to reward new habits directly after the action. It helps feed into motivation, and you’ll be more likely to do the routine again. Habit tracking can be a helpful visual reward because you see your progress immediately after the action takes place. Clients and I brainstorm lots of ways they can immediately reward themselves after a decluttering session. It can do wonders.
On the flip side, you’re also more likely to continue a bad habit if there’s no immediate punishment, so keep that in mind and his “make it unattractive” mantra in mind as you try to break bad habits.
Eventually, the long-term rewards resulting from new habit formation will appear, and you won’t need to rely on the immediate rewards as much.
Once you’ve established your habit, you’ll keep it going by making sure that it doesn’t become too easy or hard to maintain. You can experiment with moving the reward timing around, but you will get bored at some points, so you will have to “fall in love with boredom.” Boredom sounds like a turn-off, but if you think about all the free time and energy that your good organizing habits are freeing up, you’ll have more time in your daily life for fun and relaxation; and spend less time decluttering!
The key is to continue to show up for your daily habit, even when you feel like it’s the last thing you want to do. You’ll master the practice if you show up, even on the hard days, and you can then focus on leveling up to your next goal or activity that interests you.
Reflection also helps. If you can spend some time multiple times a year reflecting on what goals you established and what hasn’t gone so well, you can then course-correct and move forward. That will help you stay on track.
I was happy to note that I already implement many of these practices with clients. Since adding others listed here, I’ve seen clients succeed in new ways. So with this new knowledge, what will you now do as you work towards your decluttering goals? If you’re feeling overwhelmed or you’ve lost track of how many times you have fallen off the decluttering wagon, it might be time to give me a call so you can get support. Forming organizing habits isn’t always easy, but you can get incredible returns on your investment. Those returns might look like having family and friends over, having a relaxing home environment, having space and time to devote to hobbies, or having more energy for your valued goals. I would say that’s a huge win.
I once worked with an individual who cleverly referred to organizing books as "procrastireading." I'd like to report my findings from relevant titles so that you can avoid the reading and get to the doing.
This week’s “procrastireading” corner is devoted to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I read this book nearly six years ago. I realized how valuable it was not only for me but also for my clients: when decluttering, it’s essential to prune and organize possessions. It's also crucial to set up systems and habits that will support ongoing organization.
When working with a client, I collaborate to create customized systems that will work for their lifestyle. Part of the discussion revolves around daily habits. We identify self-sabotaging habits and work to replace them with those that better serve their goals.
Here’s an excellent example of how habit comes into play with decluttering. I do quite a bit of paper organizing with clients who want a home office that is calm and supportive of their activities. As we go through piles of paper, we examine flow from the moment they come through the door to the moment they leave. We drill down on daily routines and roadblocks. We strategize how to replace old habits, such as piling unopened mail. We create game plans for new habits that will make paperwork easier to manage.
Here are key takeaways from The Power of Habit that you can put into practice today to aid your organizing efforts.
Charles Duhigg spends time explaining brain functions. Habits allow our brains to do routines without thinking about them, which frees up energy for other thoughts or activities. They play as big a part in our lives as memory and reason. The basic premise is that there is a cue/trigger, a craving, a physical or mental routine, and a reward. The cue triggers our brain to crave something. We then an automated series of actions or thoughts that lead us to whatever reward will satiate the craving.
According to his research, we can’t necessarily entirely eliminate bad habits. Still, we can change our behaviors if we put a new series of actions or thoughts into the middle of the habit cycle.
It’s necessary to understand the craving behind our actions. Without that, it’s hard to create lasting change. Once you identify the urge, you can typically find an alternative series of steps to alleviate said craving.
Sometimes the craving is so intense that you need outside help in changing the behavior. Cognitive-behavioral work with a therapist, peer support models such as AA, or working with a professional organizer could all act as supports that help you to change your behaviors.
It’s also essential to believe that you can change. If you believe that you have always been disorganized (or a bad cook, or a “luddite,” or terrible at exercise, etc.) and that’s just who you are, then there’s not much motivation to change. We have to suspend disbelief to change some of our most ingrained habits. I’ve worked with clients who were willing to disbelieve that they were inherently disorganized. They were able to move mountains and were shocked at how calm and relaxing their homes became as they learned how to become and stay organized.
You’ll do well to establish “keystone habits” that seem small but allow us to believe that we are capable of change. They set off a cascade of other good habits that can start a positive seismic shift in our lives.
Let’s pretend John’s keystone habit is decluttering five minutes a day. It’s not half as bad as he thought it would be. Before he knows it, he has cleaned out his spare bedroom that was initially supposed to act as a home gym. He started hopping on that treadmill that was no longer posing as a makeshift closet. After a few months, John is feeling healthier and more confident than ever. He decides to throw a dinner party (play along with me, COVID shelter-in-place can't last forever). One of his guests brings a friend, and John hits it off with her. Eventually, they fall in love, get married, and travel together, and John even feels confident putting on his swimming trunks again. All this is thanks to the keystone habit of decluttering five minutes a day! Way to go, John!
Charles Duhigg mentions willpower being the most important habit you can create. I’m a bit conflicted because I have read literature that shies away from willpower and advocates the idea of setting up your environment in such a way that you don’t have to rely so much on willpower. I don’t want my clients to white-knuckle it through decluttering sessions because I want the process to eliminate anxiety and support simple maintenance. I haven't done exhaustive research, but it’s something to note. I do agree that it is helpful to do scenario forecasting. You decide beforehand what you’ll do when a cue tempts you to take the “wrong” action. (E.g. If I have to run to the grocery store when I’m hungry, what will I do when my nose is overwhelmed by the taunting smell of freshly baked donuts or fried chicken, and I want to impulse shop?)
Ultimately, he argues, “You have to decide to put in the hard work to identify the cues and find different routines, and believe that you have control over it and be self-conscious enough to use it.”
The Appendix dives into more detail. Start by identifying the routine because this is the easiest part of the habit to change. Charles was gaining weight because he would walk to the work cafeteria in the afternoons, grab a cookie, and chat with coworkers.
Then identify the cues/cravings that start the habit, which can be difficult to do. Instead, you can experiment with various rewards to see if they satiate the craving. In Charles' example, he tried substituting walks, donuts, coffee, and apples. He spent weeks trying out various scenarios that tested his hypotheses.
Record the emotions you feel right after testing each reward and then see if the craving is still present after fifteen minutes. If it’s still there, the hypothesized reward wasn’t the right one. If you ate the donut but still craved the cookie, then you weren’t craving sugar. If you drank the coffee and still craved the cookie, then an energy boost wasn’t what you needed. If you chatted with coworkers and your craving dissipated, then social interaction was what you were after.
Keep track of the location, time, emotional state, other people, and anything that preceded the action that might have cued the habit. Charles realized that he craved the cookie between 3 and 4 pm, and it wasn’t due to hunger or low blood sugar. He realized that he wanted a distraction from work. Talking with others for a few minutes alleviated that craving.
Once you have determined the cue and the reward, you can work towards a better series of actions or thoughts that will lead you to that same reward. Eventually, Charles was able to create a plan so that every day between 3 and 4 pm, he would talk with someone for a few minutes. His craving was satisfied, and he was no longer gaining weight from eating cookies.
So what “bad” habits are you hoping to change? Perhaps your mail has been piling up for months, and you want to create a habit of dealing with it before it creates so much anxiety. Maybe you have a tendency to leave items out to remind you of tasks, but the system has broken down because there are too many items out, and reminders are not leading to action. If you’re flummoxed, take a play from Charles Duhigg’s playbook: create a system of support, whether it be finding a clutter buddy or hiring an organizer like yours truly. We can create new habits that will alleviate stress and reward you with additional time and energy to spend on activities that you enjoy much more than decluttering.
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.