The Best Productivity Hack: Tidying


“The rich person has so much stuff that they have no place to even shit.” — Marcus Aurelius

Is our stuff making us happy? In her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo instructs prospective tidy-ers to throw away all things that do not bring joy. The theory is that when you are surrounded only by things that bring joy, you will develop an inner-peace that will resonate throughout your professional and personal life. Marie delves into strategies and philosophy of her tidying method that I won’t go into here (although you should definitely check them out), but I do want to talk about how all of this stuff can impact our perceptions, happiness, and even work ethic.


The Facts

First, a few facts:

  1. The average home in America has over 300,000 items (LA Times)
  2. 25% of people with two-car garages have no room to park a car (U.S. Dept. of Energy)
  3. Since 1998, more than a billion square feet of secondary storage space has been created (Alternet)

In other words, we have so much stuff that we have to move our cars outside of our garage. But, we can’t fit it all in there, so we have to buy more storage outside of our homes (coincidentally in garage-like spaces). Forget the 300,000 items, can you even list 100,000? How about 1000? 100? Most people aren’t even aware of what they own, so why do we own it?

An Object’s Purpose

No matter what item you are currently thinking about, that object’s purpose likely wasn’t to provide sentimental value or to be worn someday in the future. If that object isn’t being used for its purpose right now, and thereby contributing joy, more than once a year, then why do you own it?

Some people like the “options,” others are sentimental, and most “know” they’ll need that someday. All of these are perfectly normal reasons to keep things, but it doesn’t mean these are acceptable reasons. Think about the last time you thought about that ugly sweater your best friend gave you for your birthday, or the letter your grandparents sent you for your high-school graduation. In most cases, you think about these types of things only when you are in the process of deciding what to keep or not keep during your semi-annual house cleanup. You felt remembered when your best friend gave you a birthday present and you felt loved when your grandparents wrote that heartwarming card to you for your graduation. But, now that those purposes have been filled, these objects are just collecting dust. Even the most sentimental objects, like the childhood toys of your grown children, have served their purpose. They made your child happy and they created a memory for you. If this memory or sentiment is important and strong enough, then ridding yourself of those toys will not rid yourself of the memory.

Realizing that the purpose of an object is deeply personal and not one of utility, allows you to evaluate objects differently. Those that continue to serve a purpose of value should be kept, those that are hidden in closets (or worse attics and garages) should be evaluated again and (most-likely) thrown away.

Controlling Your Surroundings

Our evolutionary ancestors invented the home. It was a key factor in the psychological well-being of early humans. For them, the home was a center where they could cook, plan their work, rest with family, and escape the dangers of the pre-civilization world. Today, we still seek the evolutionary security that our ancestors found in a home. The importance of having a home that you can control, where every object is under your control, is a key factor in the unpredictable world we still live in. In a tidy household, you may have had a bad day at work, but when you come home you can be sure that you will be surrounded by an environment that is in your control.

Safety, predictability, and control are things that humans crave. Once we have fulfilled our evolutionary needs, we can move our attention toward the things that matter like our work, passions, and loves. By tidying the home, we put ourselves in a position to succeed.

What about productivity?

Tidying has professional implications as well. Those of you who are always seeking out productivity hacks to maximize efficiency, are probably aware of the “task switching cost.” If you are working on a task, say writing a blog post, and you switch to another task, say checking email, your brain takes on a sort of penalty. Switching tasks forces your brain to spend effort to reframe its context. The more you switch back and forth between various tasks, the harder your brain works, and the more severe the task switching cost. So, to prevent this, one should rarely switch tasks. It is better to work on three successive tasks, rather than three tasks at the same time. Those of you with lots of browser tabs open or an everpresent email may be able to relate to the constant angst and fatigue you may feel.

Now, how does this relate to tidying? Well, like an email notification, an unclean work area is a constant distraction to your brain. While working on that thing you need to get done, your brain can’t help but notice that bill on your desk, or those unclean clothes on your bed, or those dishes that need to be cleaned. Every time your brain notices these little things, it will inhibit a task switching cost, reducing your productivity. There is a saying that goes something along the lines of: a cluttered area equals a cluttered mind. This may be what they are referencing.

So, get to SIMPLIFYING!

Whether you want to improve productivity, increase well-being, or spark joy, tidying and thereby simplifying should be one of the first methods you attempt. The best thing that can happen is you become an incredibly joyous person, who feels secure in your home, and is more productive than any of your peers. The worst: you spend some time throwing out some stuff you don’t need and you have a home that feels tidy. It seems like a win-win to me.


Originally posted on www.renzoebox.com