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Simple Ways to Reduce Anxiety, Declutter, and Be More Productive

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This is a guest post by Ryan McRae. He is the creator of the blog, The ADHD NERD, a blog dedicated to helping people be more productive, successful and happy, especially if they have ADHD. He is the author of Conquering the Calendar and Getting More Done and it’s available for a free download today.


A buddy of mine, Abe, is one of the best woodworkers you’ve ever met. He’s the kind of person who makes toys for his kids, gifts for his friends and then in his spare time, makes kitchen tables that will make your jaw drop.

We were talking about the creative process and being productive and I asked, “What gets in your way of being creative? What’s the biggest hassle you face?”

He didn’t hesitate: “The clean up.”

“What do you mean?”

“See, I produce at a high rate. I’ve been doing this 25 years, but the clutter, the mess, and the cleanup get in the way all the time. If that’s in front of me, I can’t work well. If I’m going to make something with precision and beauty—I need my area to be clean.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. If I walked into a doctor’s office and it was in a shambles, I’d walk out. If my car mechanic had parts strewn everywhere, I’d doubt her ability to fix my car.

We can read all the memes and articles about how creative people are messy and disorganized, but when it comes to being efficient and creative, de-cluttering and having everything in its place saves us time and energy.

And in the long run, we can create more because we have the tools sharpened and we know where they are. We don’t struggle to find this file or that document. We don’t wonder if the bills got paid or the invoices still need to be sent.

But maybe you’re looking around your office right now thinking: “Oh, boy. I’m not there at all.” How do you get started de-cluttering?

Start with the Greatest Tool at Your Disposal

Mature man working in home office

Before you start to de-clutter anything physical or digital, you need to start with the mental side of de-cluttering. You might be trying to store all kinds of dates, facts and figures, to-dos and reminders in your head. But your brain is a terrible short term reminder system.

Your brain never wants you to forget anything. And it can act like a four-year old in the back seat of the car saying, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

But instead it mutters, “Don’t forget the milk. Don’t forget the milk. Don’t forget the milk.” With that noise, it’s impossible to come up with ideas, focus on ideas, much less anything else.

When I feel my brain gets cluttered, when there’s multiple four year olds shouting at me, I simply do the following:

I break out a piece of paper and write down everything that is in my head. Whether it is making a dentist appointment, sending out a birthday card, or planning a vacation, it all gets written down. This takes me about 10-30 minutes depending on the level of clutter that’s between these ears.

Even if you think you are done, try to think of categories that need some tuning: health, travel, financial, etc. You’ll start thinking of even more stuff that has been neglected and taking up your mental space.

When you’re done writing down every task you can come up with, it’s time for the next step.

Take your list and see the similar topics such as family, friendships, work, freelance, etc. Everyone will have different topics, but you want to label them so you can get an idea of what you are working with. (And these topics might trigger more stuff to write down and that’s fine. Get it out of your head.)

Once those are labeled by category, label them by occurrence.

How often do these tasks happen? Are they one-time instances like going on vacation, or do they repeat like going to the dentist or paying a credit card bill? If they repeat, simply put this task in your calendar and set it to repeat as often as you need it. For example, my credit card is due on the 25th of each month. So I have a reminder set that says, “Pay your credit card bill.” The rookie move is to have that set on the 25th—you may miss the reminder. So I have it set on the 20th (and if your bank allows automatic payments, simply go into your account and set it up so you never have to remember.)

Whatever you can do to fill your calendar with the reminders or have it automatically done for you—do it.

You have one last label when it comes to your list—priority.

Are these items things that need to be done now, later (2-3 weeks) or someday (next month or later)?

Go through them with brutal honesty (you have to have a good spread of these. If they are all “now” or “someday” it’s going to be hard to act. If everything is “now,” you are stuck and overwhelmed.)

When this is complete, you have a workable list of the tasks in front of you.

You can have multiple strategies to attack this list of to-dos.

Batch Items

When I look at what I have to do, if I have multiple phone calls, I tend to do them all at once—I batch them. I sit down, and just bang them out. My brain doesn’t have to switch channels. It’s just making phone call after phone call. I do it with a pad of paper in front of me to take notes and have a checklist of what phone call is next.

Delegate Them Out

I sometimes find items that I’ve been procrastinating on. Whether it is research or something like cleaning the bathtub, I simply don’t want to do it. If these are taking up major bandwidth in my mind, preventing me from moving forward, I’m simply going to delegate it out. One of the best decisions I ever made was to pay someone to clean my house once a month. I’m not a slob, but I’d rather spend the time writing and designing instead of scrubbing the nooks and crannies of my apartment. I don’t do it often, but the psychological benefit is astounding.

I have a friend who detests laundry—but he loves mowing his lawn. He simply arranged a trade with his neighbor—they do his laundry and he does all of their lawn care. (During the winter, he has a laundry service do it and he says it’s well worth the time.) Find the items that you want to delegate out that will help you succeed where your energy and time is served best.

Bust Out That Red Pen

Maybe you have something on your list that nags you, something that you don’t necessarily have to get done, but it just gnaws at you. One of mine recently was “learn guitar.” I’ve had that on my to-do list for years. Finally I made a decision that for the next year I’m not going to learn guitar. I’m not going to ponder it or wish I took the time. It just simply isn’t a priority for me. I’ve never bought a guitar and when I think, deep down—why do I want to learn guitar?—I can’t come up with an answer. Sure, I like music. And sure, I like deliberate practice, but there is simply so much more I’d love to do besides playing guitar.

So I simply crossed it out. I came to a realization that I’m just not going to be the guy at the campfire who plunks out a Coldplay song. I moved to acceptance and that’s cleared up a lot of creative room.

Now that you have a list of your tasks done and they have been categorized and planned accordingly, what about the other clutter in your life?

Clear the Decks

I’m the kind of person who has a ton of knick-knacks around my desk. I have little things that people have given me: cards, action figures, little signs of wisdom, but soon this was starting to take over my space. I’d knock something down or struggle to find something. Sure, these things have sentimental value to me, but it was starting to look like a toy factory had exploded on my desk. I soon found myself working on my laptop on my couch so I could have a better space to work.

I finally mustered the courage to clear off my desk with a deep and spiritual vengeance.

I took everything off my desk except my computer, mouse and keyboard and put it in a bin. EVERYTHING. I wiped down my desk and rearranged the cables.

After one week, anything I pulled out of the bin and used every day stayed on the desk. Everything else got stored somewhere else (and I admit, some of it got thrown out.)
I noticed that my propensity for being distracted and daydream-y when I need to get stuff done diminished greatly.

Completely clear your workspace and only have things there that increase your productivity and your peace of mind.

Tidy Your Digital Life

Your files can start to be a burden once you start accumulating years of images, projects and designs. Now, it’s a terrible waste of time to go through every single file and determine if you need it. You want them organized, but you want it to be a a very low maintenance task. I tend to hang on to my files just in case a client needs them or I’m audited.

But I have discovered a great way to see the value of my files quickly. The first thing I do is create a “smart folder.” I tell it to find me only documents and of those documents, only things I haven’t opened in the past five months.

Hazel

All of those files then get moved to an external hard drive. I haven’t opened them for awhile—so they have to leave my computer.

Other programs such as Hazel can also manage your digital clutter—you simply create rules that manage when and where you files are moved. Hazel sweeps and cleans your desktop and files according to the rules you create. I couldn’t live without this cheap little program.

Secure Your Backup

I can’t tell you how many friends of mine have lost all of their information because it wasn’t backed up. When I ask them what happened, they don’t say, “I never got around to it.” They say, “I thought everything was backed up.”

Take some time today and prove to yourself that all of your files are backed up.

I back up most of my stuff on Dropbox. I write on Evernote and Ulysses, but I also store my files on a portable hard drive using Time Machine on a Mac.

I simply make sure that everything is good to go about once a month. (I also live by the belief that Evernote and Dropbox could close shop one day without giving notice. Then my stuff will be gone. I know that’s a little cataclysmic to believe, but I love having offline backups.)

“Hold All My Calls”

Our phones have become this constant interruption maelstrom. It’s a never ending machine of pings and beeps that demand our attention. Simply putting our phones on silent and then moving them into another room will cause us a huge amount of anxiety because we have reduced our dopamine fix as well as stirred up our fear of missing out.

But once we know that the phone will be there, nothing will be missed and the world will actually still be around without us looking at our phones for 30-90 minutes, we can take a deep breath and get to work.

One Soundtrack for One Month

Whenever I would sit down to write, I would search through Spotify and other playlists and try to figure out what should I listen to while I compose the great American novel. Music drowns out the conversations in the coffee place I frequent. (Sometimes a gaggle of teenagers descends and I need some defense from their chatter.)

This went on and on—and I would fine tune it, add this song, delete another.

I noticed I spent 5-15 minutes figuring out my music selection every day that I sat down to write. What a waste of time.

So on the advice of a friend, I now do this instead: play one soundtrack and keep that soundtrack for the entire month. It can’t have lyrics and it has to be something mellow.

So in my repertoire of soundtracks I have Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Gladiator, and Arrival.

This took away the decision making and has saved me hours, since I write five days a week. It also trained my brain to get into writing mode quickly. Once it hears the first song, my brain knows it’s writing time.

Look through your music selection and find the soundtrack or collection of music that relaxes you—nothing upbeat. Find the music that says—it’s time to get to work.

When the Anxiety Builds

Walk in breathtaking light of the autumn forest

When I feel my anxiety start to erode my productive work, when my focus is being dismantled no matter how hard I grit my teeth—I will push away from my desk, put on my shoes and set a timer for about 20 minutes.

I get out of the house and hit a trail right outside my back yard and simply take a walk.

I’m not walking to figure out my problems or to figure out what the next bit of code is I need to write. I simply put in some headphones, put in some favorite music and think about how grateful I am that I get to do this work. I think about how much this work offers and the freedom it gives me creatively.

I think about how my work impacts others and makes their lives better.

I remember the struggles I had earning my first $1. My first $10. My first $100.

I remember to be grateful for all of the people who have led me here of their own charity and grace.

When a negative memory pops us (like when my third grader teacher told me what a terrible writer I was or when I failed a midterm in grad school), I imagine crinkling up that image like a worthless piece of paper and tossing it into an incinerator. Then I give a small incantation: “This memory serves no one.” And I continue to focus on what I am thankful for.

With a small beep I’m reminded to head back to the house, and I continue to write, produce and code with gratitude—not toil.


This is a guest post by Ryan McRae. He is the creator of the blog, The ADHD NERD, a blog dedicated to helping people be more productive, successful and happy, especially if they have ADHD. He is the author of Conquering the Calendar and Getting More Done and it’s available for a free download today.

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5 Comments

Posted by Brooks Duncan  | February 1, 2017 at 7:57PM | Reply

Karen, a Hazel alternative on Windows is DropIt http://www.dropitproject.com/. It’s not as fully featured or pretty as Hazel, but it does the job.

Posted by Ryan McRae  | January 28, 2017 at 1:20PM | Reply

I know hazel has some tutorials and youtube has a grip of them. I start there and I just use their basics until I get a feel for it!

Posted by Ryan McRae  | January 28, 2017 at 1:19PM | Reply

Thanks Joshua! I really appreciate it!

Posted by Karen  | January 20, 2017 at 1:08PM | Reply

This is an excellent article. Is there anything like Hazel or a tutorial for managing documents on PCs? Maybe there are certain blog posts you can point me to?? I am drowning in my documents. HELP!

Thank you! Love your podcast!

Posted by joshua bhizai  | January 20, 2017 at 6:16AM | Reply

Hi Ryan McRae!

An awesome post there! i sure enjoyed every part of it.

The principle of De-cluttering deserves a BIG WOW!.. you just put it so simple and straight forward, i like it. Just couldn’t restrain myself from writing notes.

Keep up the great work @ The ADHD NERD !

joshua bhizai

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