Getting Things Done: Collecting the Clutter

As I mentioned in my previous post about how to get things done, I’m embarking on a project to sort out my personal and work life. Having moved to a new place it seems like the right time. What’s interesting along the way is to think about what the problems in my system of organisation are, and why they arose in the first place.

A few weeks ago I began step 1 of David Allen’s program: collecting. The goal of this is to capture, in a physical way, anything that needs something done and get it into an ‘inbox’. A lot of that is represented by paperwork, but sometimes it’s an item that needs putting away or giving away, something that’s broken or needs reorganising, or the many items floating around in your mind that represent things undone and subtly cause anxiety.

My collecting began one day when, trying to work at our dining table, I was too distracted by the clutter and decided to take action. I pushed it all into a box and then went around the flat collecting any other out-of-place items. I also made quick lists of every single thing that popped into my mind that I wanted to do, now or sometime – it amazed me how many things I easily thought of in the space of five minutes. Over the following week I tossed lots more into the box, which by now really was a large box containing more than just paperwork. Here are some of the things that ended up in my inbox:

  • Bank statements and car documentation
  • Receipts culled from the corners of my handbag and shopping bag
  • A million USB sticks (okay, not a million, but we have a lot lying around)
  • My dad’s old name badge from work, which I keep as a sentimental item but which floats around and never has a home
  • A half-completed crossword puzzle
  • Some gift vouchers from our wedding
  • Our wedding guest book
  • A stack of music
  • The box of a puzzle that I’d been tripping over on the floor for weeks
  • A printer cartridge
  • A ribbon
  • Two ‘collect six stamps’ loyalty cards from a local nail salon

In my ‘mind-sweep’, I wrote down little lists on separate sheets of paper of projects that were on my mind in some form. These things included:

  • Get joint bank account
  • Buy swimsuit
  • Start a blog
  • Hang pictures
  • Get rid of the box of wedding decorations
  • Invite people over for dinner
  • Spring clean
  • Get a new passport
  • When should I footnote check my thesis?


Why is all this stuff even here?

Technically, if I had a functioning system for dealing with these things, it would never get to this point. So what’s going on that I was able to fill a whole box with things that weren’t finished, decided, or where they belonged? What was most puzzling to me was that, in general, I consider myself a reasonably organised person; I generally have a filing system, an up-to-date diary, a procedure for dealing with receipts, a tidy closet, etc. So I thought through the items in my inbox and noticed a major trend.

Much of the clutter that entered my perception, either as physical items or as mental ‘notes to self’, was the result of things getting hung up because I couldn’t or wouldn’t make a decision about them. My dad’s old nametag was there because I repeatedly couldn’t decide where it should go. I had the loyalty cards from the nail salon because I couldn’t decide whether I would go there again, and thus whether I’d want the cards again. The letters and bank statements were there because neither I nor my husband had made a decision about where to put them or whether they required any action.

So many of these things are really minor, and in fact in many cases it wouldn’t even matter much what decision I did make. I could have tossed out the loyalty cards from the nail salon back in January when I first got them, and even if a few months later I had decided to go back, it wouldn’t really have been that bad! In that case, any decision would have been a better use of my time and energy than what actually happened – which was that I shuffled the cards from place to place in the house for a month and a half, each time feeling irked, each time putting off making a decision.

The reason for my indecision emerged as I sorted through the items in the inbox. I realised that, from the minute ‘put this ribbon away’ task to the major-life-project task ‘finish thesis’, I felt equally anxious and aware of everything from the smallest to the biggest undone items, the most urgent to the most long-term. I had as much trouble deciding what to do with a little piece of paper as with a chapter of my thesis. As ridiculous as this sounds, I’ve begun to realise that this kind of indiscriminate anxiety is characteristic of many of my decisions, and the reason I often avoid making decisions. I treat even small decisions as if they were huge ones. Collecting the clutter around my house just revealed the physical evidence of that indiscriminate anxiety.

In his book, David Allen makes just this point: that an item undone is, in our minds, ever-present as something which we ‘ought’ to be doing every time we remember it or see the piece of paper that reminds us of it, or the picture sitting against the wall that we keep meaning to hang. Realising ‘It’s not important until six months from now’ or ‘It’s relatively unimportant compared to other things’ isn’t something our minds automatically do in response to a reminder of an undone task. That’s why, he argues, it’s important to pass everything through an inbox and have a system for dealing with it, however minor a thing it is.

Collection is only the first step in getting things under control. Stay tuned for what happened to that box of stuff!

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