What good intentions are buried in that clutter?

Professional organizers like to say that clutter represents delayed decisions.* Sounds catchy, but in my experience it’s more complicated. Clutter also represents reminders (“must pay bill today”), postponed actions (“I don’t have time to file this now,” “I really should call the insurance company”), current actions (i.e., active projects).

And intentions. Some of my most stubborn clutter has to do with well-meant attempts to inspire change. I’ll read something, or hear a tip in a workshop or teleclass, that suggests a different way to act or respond. A technique for writing more efficiently. An aphorism. A confidence-builder. A new way of thinking about an old problem.

So I’ll put a sticky note on my desk, or a workshop handout near my computer monitor, to inspire me to use this new plan. Pretty soon my work space is covered with these notes, and they’re part of the landscape and I don’t notice the messages. Though on some level I think I’m still affected by the sense of undone-ness they represent.

Same with articles I’ve read that I want to absorb / assimilate. I put them back into the reading pile to read again, which means the stack never gets smaller. This is discouraging. And messy. When I read the article again, do I assimilate it better? Not sure about that. But I know it adds to the nagging feeling of things-undone.

Writing about this, I realize (finally! duh!) that it doesn’t work very well. There’s a system breakdown here.

What would be a better way to get myself to act on Good Ideas I Run Across? How better might I address this system breakdown, so I don’t feel so pressed-in-on by good intentions?

I could visualize myself doing the new thing. Put a reminder in the calendar to visualize it daily. (Nah, too earnest.)

I could put the papers in a file called “inspiration” or “things to try.” (Hasn’t worked so well in the past. I never look at the file again. Though at least it gets the papers off my work surface.)

I could connect the idea to some kind of action that would reinforce it. (Sounds promising. Not all ideas translate to clear actions, though. Getting warmer.)

I could talk to someone about the idea. Explain it. Examine it. Debate it. (Another promising “maybe.”)

I could trust that my accumulated life experience and insight, and my ongoing commitment to study and growth, will lead—is leading—to gradual change and that the individual ideas in these papers have no magic power. I could let them go. (Haha! Is that all! Letting go: not so easy. But I like this possibility.)

I could be friendly to myself about the need that I’m hoping to meet through this piece of paper. The dream of doing everything optimally. Of sidestepping difficulty once and for all.

Some combination of the above.

I could blog about it. (In the course of writing this post, I did file away a few papers that had been sitting around for months. Hm. That did not take long at all.)

*I think it was Barbara Hemphill who popularized this idea.


  1. I have a love-hate relationship with the saying “clutter represents a delayed decision.”

    Love it because there *is* truth to it.

    Hate it because it’s not the *whole* truth, and because it’s so easy for the saying to become a judgment. As in, Why can’t you just decide, already?

    So I’m definitely loving the “intention” aspect of clutter. Because there really is so much good intention behind it. And so the clutter hangs around because I’m not ready to let go of the underlying intention.

    Hmmm…lots to think about here!

  2. Gina says:

    This. Is Me. Every word. Um, are you my long-lost twin?

  3. Sarah Bray says:

    I love the part about trusting your accumulated life experience. It reminds me that all of this great information shapes us gradually as we allow it to seep in. It takes repetition of ideas before it sinks in, and thankfully there *is* a lot of repetition in our lives. So maybe we can trust that it will take eventually.

  4. JoVE says:

    This definitely resonates with me. I recently got rid of a whole pile of magazines I’d been meaning to read through but that were just annoying me from teh corner of my desk. I took an hour or so to skim through them, cliping relevant articles and putting them in a binder.

    I like the “I could trust…” option. When I look back on some changes I’ve made I can’t really pinpoint how they came about. I think I come across ideas and they are in my head in a really amorphous way. And eventually things shift as a result of exposure to things. But I could get rid of the initial stimulus and still have the impact.

    Sometimes the impact of new knowledge isn’t direct or immediate. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t had an impact. Just that the impact is hard to measure.

  5. Wow, Janet, I really resonate with this (again–you keep DOING that!). I also put things **back into** my reading pile, and not just articles. Books, too. Because I feel like I can’t assimilate enough the first time through.

    Sometimes I’ll underline key bits in pencil as I go, and sometimes if I’m *really* feeling motivated I’ll take notes in an external notebook or journal as I read. I usually never go back to the underlinings or the notes, but somehow the extra time and attention that I spend in considering what’s important enough to underline or write out helps me absorb the material a little more deeply on the first read-through.

    I don’t do this at ALL consistently, but at least it’s an idea I can toss out here…

    Although I like your “I can trust” option, too. Trusting that while I may not get a permanent handle on it all (which is just my Inner Control Freak trying to have her way as usual), I will come across, remember, and use whatever information I need as I need it. Oh, how hard it is to trust and let go like that! But you’re right–I think it’s something worth striving for.

    Gently. :o)

  6. Love the trust and let go option.

    I think our good intentions are a lot like all the great ideas we generate. I used to become frazzled, thinking that I had to commit and act upon most of my good ideas. At some point I decided to just enjoy the good ideas and fantasize about seeing them to fruition, as I am something of a daydreamer. Then I could pick and choose the ideas or intentions to commit to, keeping in mind my goals. No clutter necessary.

  7. Janet Bailey says:

    @Victoria – Nice articulation of the issue: “the clutter hangs around because I’m not ready to let go of the underlying intention.” I’m playing with thought that I can let go of the clutter, and still have the intention.

    @Gina – Separated at birth, and reunited on the blog!

    @Sarah, @JoVE – I wonder if, when the intention is there, we’re more alert to information related to it, and find it in multiple forms…so it can continue to shape us?

    @Michelle – I too find that underlining and notetaking help me pay attention in a different way—I’m interacting with the material. Your observation has me asking myself whether I could interact even more by challenging what I want to remember, asking questions about it.

    @Sharon – Love the possibility of just enjoying and fantasizing about ideas, without feeling compelled to act on them.

  8. Beniaminus says:

    I’ve always liked tickler files from the GTD tool kit, but never found a place for them in my work flow. Reading your article makes me think that the tickler file could work for intentions, to review in the definite future.

    Then again, perhaps I should daydream about them, then just let them go. It seems like more fun, less work.

  9. Janet Bailey says:

    @Beniaminus – Tickler file for intentions, yes—and you can see how and whether they’ve ripened when you get to the review.

    OTOH, there’s a lot to be said for the more fun, less work approach of daydreaming. I think we may assimilate things differently (better?) without all the stress.

    Whichever approach, I’m leaning toward friendliness and lightening up as key.

  10. Anna says:

    Hoorah for daydreaming! I do what Barbara Sher suggests in Refuse to Choose, which is to have a big notebook where each idea gets a two-page spread for scribbles and doodles and clips-pasted-in, and I keep brainstorming and expanding it and adding facets and it can become a huge worldchanging extravaganza. And then the next day (well, usually more like a month or two later, but whenever) I just turn the page and start over with the next idea.

    So I guess my file would be labeled not “ideas to try” but “ideas I have loved: a steamy memoir”.

    Right now I’m loving the idea of trusting in life’s repetitiveness. And actually come to think of it, filing ideas away does facilitate running into them again.

  11. Janet Bailey says:

    @Anna – Steamy memoir—love it! What a delightful way to work (play) with ideas, without having to commit to them. I’m going to get a notebook and try this.

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