Does this sound familiar? You're on your way out the door and can't find your keys. Looking around, you find stacks of junk mail, magazines, clothes you've worn once but are not ready to wash. After 15 minutes of searching, you're late for that lunch appointment. Now imagine this. You're up late finishing a presentation, and you're really struggling. You look at your computer desktop and it's a total mess. You feel like you're not in control. Letting physical or digital things pile up can cause you a lot of stress.
Critical Mass Of Clutter
Here's what I think happens. When you reach a certain level of clutter, you start experiencing significantly more stress. This is how I imagine it:
The amount of clutter at some arbitrary point A is the "critical mass of clutter". At this level of messiness, you to start losing bills or feel like you can't quickly clean up when it becomes distracting to the work at hand. In other words, going from pristine to a causes you some stress level of C, but getting to the slightly messier B suddenly doubles the stress to D.
Even without catalysts like the need to find something or an imposing work deadline, this heightened level of clutter also makes life less enjoyable. You start to decide against inviting friends over after a nice dinner out. You can't lounge in your favourite chair because it's now a receptacle for miscellany. You don't have enough room on your desk to draw.
Worse, clutter also creates a negative feedback loop that makes you susceptible to creating an even bigger mess. Economists who study littering have some interesting insights here. In one paper, two economists create a model that argues that those living in environments with lots of litter don't mind leaving a piece of litter because it only makes their surroundings a little bit worse (Anderson and Francois 1997). A more recent paper (Dur and Vollaard 2012) reviews numerous studies done on littering and concludes that:
With a few exceptions, these experimental studies find that people litter significantly more often in littered environments as compared to clean environments.
In sum: Critical mass of clutter feeds stress events, reduces quality of life, and creates negative loop of mess creation.
A Proposal: Maintenance Mondays
One of the challenging things about being at a startup (and other high velocity environments) is that there's always something to do in the never-ending lists of next actions. This means that maintenance tasks like improving performance or keeping our shared Dropbox folder organised are never a particularly urgent or important at any given moment -- until something bad happens.
We recently started doing Maintenance Mondays at Astrid, inspired by our co-founder Tim's themed days. On maintenance days, our engineers work on addressing our tech debt, performance, bug fixes and polish. Performance issues can be ignored in the short run, but piled up they can suddenly crash the website. Designating a day to address "maintenance" has been a good model for my personal life too. I've been using Maintenance Mondays to clear out my desktop and tidy up my room.
One Step Further: The One-Minute Rule
I also recently adopted the One-Minute Rule, which makes maintenance days easier. The rule is simple: if something takes a minute or less to complete, do it now. That means hanging up the coat when you take it off and filing a receipt you pull out of your pocket.
The trick is to create rules that take decision-making out of keeping your life in control. If it's 3pm on Monday, it's maintenance time. If putting away this box of cereal takes less than a minute, in the pantry it goes.
Critical Mass of Clutter [Henry Tsai]