Worn out, burned out, and drowning in to-dos? It seems that most of us are, with one in five Americans reporting being extremely stressed (an "8," "9" or "10" on a 10-point scale), according to the American Psychological Association. And while solutions like deep breathing and meditation can work wonders, there's another way to find relief that doesn't involve sitting still with your own thoughts (though we do recommend it!). Those who are stressed to the max may find that de-cluttering and getting organized can lead to a more Zen-like existence. Besides improving work performance, eliminating messes may leave you feeling less frustrated, more relaxed and help you get in touch with your creative side.
However, if organizational tactics become too rigid or overly ambitious, they can leave us feeling even more stressed and overwhelmed, continuing the vicious cycle. So how can we achieve that just-right amount of daily organization to stay calm, cool and collected? Read on for tips on how to de-clutter your physical (and mental!) space, and increase efficiency—without going overboard.
The organization-stress connection
"The brain is constantly scanning the environment," says Heidi Hanna, PhD and CEO of Synergy and author of Stressaholic and The SHARP Solution. "It's looking for cues that signal a need for an energy investment, such as taking care of work or home obligations. When we have chaotic surroundings or a fragmented mindset, the brain can perceive this as a sign that there is more demand for energy than our current capacity, which triggers the stress response," she says. Of course, we shouldn't always perceive stress as a bad thing; it's simply a stimulus for change. But when we don't have the energy we need to deal with the change, that's when the chronic stress response is initiated, says Hanna. It "prepares us for an energy deficit, resulting in harmful imbalances and inflammation that damage both the brain and the body," she says.
Enter organizational tactics, from de-cluttering our desks to sorting through our e-mail inboxes. "Being organized helps with a sense of control," says Ari Meisel, entrepreneur, organization guru and founder of Less Doing, More Living, who focuses on optimizing, automating, and outsourcing daily tasks to reduce stress. "We all need some control in our lives in order to stay motivated."
Organization on overdrive
You have nine lists going at any one time, and you're unable to live without constant access to your smartphone calendar. Sound familiar? It may work for some, but if you notice that these attempts to manage your busy life are making you anxious or panicked, take a step back. "The whole point of this kind of stuff is to allow you to have more freedom, not less," says Meisel. "Filling a schedule is not the same as managing a schedule," he adds.
"If we become too rigorous with our list making or scheduling, we can become rigid in our thought processes, which can provide a different type of potential threat," says Hanna. We enter perfectionist mode—constantly waiting for the ideal situation or moment to move into action—and as our to-do list piles up, it creates more pressure. "As deadlines creep up on us, our body will release stress hormones in a last ditch effort to get things done," she says. While this can be the kick in the butt we need every once in a while, relying on this as a regular energy rush is unhealthy. Hanna compares it to borrowing money; the use of stress hormones can build up an energy debt in our system, causing long-term damage such as anxiety, depression and fatigue.
RELATED: 11 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress Now
Do it now: What to tackle first
Since organizational techniques can help or hurt stress levels, it's important to find your personal sweet spot. "Strategic organization is helpful when we are able to prioritize in a thoughtful way, assuming it leads us to action," says Hanna. Strategic being the key word here, since chronic organization can provide a false sense of progress–and a seemingly worthy distraction–that ultimately keeps us stuck, or even falling behind, notes Hanna. (Hanna, admittedly, is a fellow chronic organizer as well.) Follow these strategies to simplify your life "to-do" list.
1. Set healthy limits.
First things first, Hanna suggests dedicating time each morning to organize, plan and prioritize yourself. But be sure to limit how much effort you put into getting your life in order. "Set a timer to cue when organizing time end and action time begins," she says. "Allow yourself smaller sprints of time to organize throughout the day, such as 10 to 25 minutes for every two hours of productive time. Figure out what timing works best for you."
2. Find worthy (organizational) causes.
"I suggest people look at areas of clutter in their lives—their inbox, their junk drawer, their filing cabinets, their garages—and set artificially restrictive limits," says Meisel. "Then, work backwards to figure out solutions to achieve them." For example, Meisel only has three programs on his computer: Google Chrome, Dropbox and Skype. By making these his only programs, his computer runs fast and smooth, and he can seamlessly sign on to any other computer and access all of his information.
3. Go paperless.
Stacks of unwanted mail, bills and receipts can contribute to quite a bit of clutter for most of us. That's why one of Meisel's top tips to reduce stress is saying buh-bye to paper. By using apps like Genius Scan, you can capture and scan receipts, whiteboards, documents, and even photos, by tapping a button on your phone. This app automatically corrects perspective and enhances image quality, and then allows you to share all of your paperwork to the cloud. The fewer stacks of stuff to contend with, the more space you'll have for the things that matter most to you.
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