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How to declutter your work life

Millennials, like me, are minimalists: from our iPhones to our fashion, we value efficiency, simplicity and aesthetics. When it comes to work, we want the same, but it’s inherently harder to get. Modern work is hairy: multiple tools and software “solutions,” flooded inboxes, uncertain expectations, and clashing coworkers and teams make for a complicated, chaotic workday.

Below are four ways to declutter your work-life:

1. Get control over time-cannibalizers

For many people, that’s email. I use Unroll.Me, which intersects and compiles subscription emails into one daily “rollup,” so you don’t have a million distracting, irrelevant emails popping up throughout the day. I’ve spent far less time on emails since getting Unroll.Me about a year ago because when I scroll through my daily rollup—which previews each new email—I realize how few of the emails I actually want to read or care about. You can also change your email process to reach Inbox Zero every day or week. I treat my inbox like a to-do list, and anything that isn’t an active priority gets filed into a highly specific folder or archived. So I’m routinely left with only essential to-dos, or a satisfyingly-empty inbox. Certain email providers, like Polymail (what I use), make Inbox Zero particularly feasible because you can file emails for “Followup” and “Read Later,” and the program will put the emails back into your inbox at the right time.

Meetings are another common time sucker, and unfortunately there’s no Unroll.Me-equivalent solution. But you can devise systems that thwart meetings from taking over your workday. For example, you can schedule all your meetings each day back-to-back, allotting a defined time slot for each. Meetings probably won’t run over, because that would mean being late for the next one. Another solution is scheduling all meetings toward the end of the day. Then you’ll at least have had most of the day for real work, and people will be motivated to end the meeting on time so they can go home.

But perhaps more time-killing than any externally-imposed work element is our own procrastination. Learn what your go-to procrastination activities are—Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, The New York Times, Nordstrom, whatever—and then monitor and control your use with a Google Chrome extension like Intent. Of course, no app can substitute for self-control: defeat procrastination by remembering why you need to do the thing you’re resisting.

2. Purge the unnecessary

Much of our work and life clutter comes from a sudden feeling that we “need” a certain kind of pen, a certain clock or watch, a certain wardrobe, and so on. This feeling is particularly acute around the holidays and the New Year, when we’re trying to become a “New You” — and convince ourselves that we need to spend money to do it. Unfortunately, over time these “needs” become clutter that weighs us down and stresses us out. Conversely, Arye Zucker writes on a blog for Unroll.Me, “The less we ‘need’, the more we start to have” — like presence, simplicity and peace of mind.

For example, the made-in-the-USA wood office products company Grovemade caters to people who “care and think deeply about who and what we choose to associate with.” But a few years ago their cofounder realized that, ironically, the Grovemade shop had become disorganized and full of unnecessary clutter. He and his team spent a month purging the shelves, donating what they didn’t need, and organizing all tools and materials into their own bins on wheels to embrace their mission.

You can do the same for your workspace. Go through everything at your desk and get rid of unnecessary duplicates: pens and sticky notes aren’t redundant, of course, but staplers and knick-knacks are. Be intentional about what stays. One clothing “hack” can also work for your office/cube: Put everything you think you might not need in a bin. Then donate whatever you never took out of the bin after six months.

Our digital lives are increasingly cluttered, too. Throughout the year, many of us acquire apps purporting to solve some problem. Sometimes we find a game-changer, but more often each new app winds up in a virtual junk pile. Download as few apps as possible, and delete or sync everything you can. I challenge myself to have all my apps on one screen on my iPhone. Bring It On screenwriter Jessica Bendinger jots down notes in an always-open email message draft, so she can constantly access them. Sure, sometimes larger note-taking apps like Evernote are nice, but don’t underestimate the utility of having everything you could possibly need in one easy place, like your email, or Google Drive.

3. Focus

“As technology has made the human experience easier, it has also created an explosion of content and choice, products and services, all ‘diluting’ us as individuals,” writes Jamie Mustard, who has consulted for Grovemade, on his website. It’s that feeling of being both scattered and drained at the end of a workday for which we don’t actually know what we accomplished.

Simplify your work-life—and reenergize your purpose—by focusing on what actually matters at work. This applies in small matters, like the Internet, where it’s easy to get lost in something and forget what you were even doing. For this you can use something like the Chrome extension Momentum, which is a simple Internet browser background with a daily priority that reminds you to stay on track. “It simplifies your day, removes distractions and lets you focus on what’s most important,” Momentum writes on their blog. Likewise, outside the digital realm, a simple desktop setup can help facilitate focus. You don’t need all the latest do-dads. In fact, you need very little to accomplish great things and feel fulfilled.

But the need for focus applies, most importantly, to your biggest priorities. What are you actually trying to do at work? Who are you trying to be? Focusing on these high-level goals, and why they matter to you, can help you immerse yourself in one thing at a time—and then master it. “If you’re immersed in things you love, especially in your work, what you create will have depth and meaning,” the Grovemade blog explains.

4. Find a better fit

After you’ve decluttered your work-life, you may realize that the clutter wasn’t yours. Some companies do an excellent job of organizing their workspace and focusing their priorities; others don’t. One employee raved about working at Journey Leader because things were “well organized and easily accessed” in the stock room. An employee at Target likewise celebrated that “It is an extremely up-to-date company. It’s super clean and well organized. I have no bad words for them in this area.”

The way employees gush about their employers’ organization and cleanliness hints at how critical it is. This sense of organization can be difficult to define, but most people know it when they feel it. For example, REI consistently tops best workplace lists, including kununu’s best office environment. What about working at REI is so simple, organized and meaningful? It’s hard to say, but countless employees relay this feeling. Find a company with such inexplicable order, and it will be easier to create your own as an employee.

At the end of the day, your work clutter isn’t just a messy desk: it’s confusion about what you’re doing at your job, uncertainty if you’re in the right place, and lost or misguided priorities. When you start to clean up, you get a simple-clear sense about why you’re here and what you want from work.

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