The Clutter Paradox

We all have at least a couple of workmates who are the opposite of organised, who seem to be beyond help and can never seem to get anything done at the right time. These people are late to meetings, forget to pay their bills, can’t seem to save their work in the right folders etc. 

And at the other end of the spectrum, there’s that one person who carries labelled and colour coded folders, takes notes meticulously at every meeting and exudes this air of complete control. This person’s life is perfectly organised into neat little folders. As children, I’m sure such people never had to be reminded to put their toys away neatly, or to make their bed. The Monica Gellers of the world.

And then there’s the other 95% of us, oscillating between the two extremes, trying to find our ‘stable state of clutter.’ 

Every now and then, we find a new way to restore order in our lives. We make lists, we put post-it notes on our desk. We buy folders, coloured pens and set out on our planning evolution. More often than not, we misplace the coloured pens and lose all enthusiam.

People like me, they can’t keep up with all the papers and folders and pens. Instead, they install applications on their phones and tablets and laptops to help them through this evolution. And what do we do when we find a new app that promises to turn us into organisation gurus?

  • Read reviews. Get all excited.
  • Install app.
  • Create folders, sub folders, start filling it with thoughts and priorities. 
  • Feel a sense of achievement. Like the brain is lighter. Much like Dumbledore would have felt each time he transferred his thoughts into the Pensieve.

At this point let’s define a KPI, because you know, everything needs a KPI. I’ll call it the Clutter coefficient. And I define it as number of cluttered documents^2/number of filed documents. Why the squared term in the numerator? Because the dissatisfaction from 10 cluttered documents is a lot more than the satisfaction from 10 filed documents. The squared term gives me the added drama I need.

Month 1:

Everything is looking great. All my bills are paid, to do lists are in place, boxes are getting ticked, and I can see myself rising above the Muggle world and transforming into the Wizard of Plans. As a ‘paper’ planner, I buy more folders and more pens. As a ‘digital’ planner, I  recommend the app to everyone I know. Clutter coefficient ~ 0.

Somewhere between month 2 and 3:

  • I now have notes that need filing but I can’t decide where to file them
  • I have realised that my multi layered (real/virtual) folder nest is not the universal cabinet I was so sure it would be
  • I have no energy to restructure, so I start piling things up in my folder and decide to restructure later. After all, I need to use the Pensieve on priority basis. Thoughts are spilling out of my brain uncontrollably and I can’t stop to change folder structures!

A few more months later, say month 6.  My clutter coefficient exceeds its limiting value where intervention of some form is bound to take place. I do one of the following: 

  • As a paper planner, I open up my entire folder, set up shop on my desk and stare at the mess for a few very long minutes. I start re organising, lose steam half way and shove everything else into my locker/drawer.
  • As a digital planner, I conclude that the app is useless. Delete the account and search for another app.
  • Read a book or do something else unrelated. This one is for the ostriches with their heads in the sand.
  • I take the matter in my hands and persevere until the ‘Plan Phoenix’ is born out of its ashes. A few cups of coffee later, feel like my life is back on track.

So why can’t we seem to be able to organise ourselves despite all the promising coloured pens, folders, post its and applications? Because each one of us has a different clutter coefficient. And no amount of stationery or technology can change our will to not change!


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