The beginning of a new school year is a great time start anew but sometimes it also brings in a little chaos. Parents are hustling to get extra supplies for their kids, the city has an extra bustle to it, and even the park squirrels are busy getting plump. Taking the time to pare down and make space for what is to come can help.

(Fun fact: The word pare comes from the Latin parare, to prepare.)

Clutter distracts our mind

With years of experience dealing with complicated or down-right shocking situations with kids, teachers and parents have mastered multitasking. With long work weeks, children to raise, and bills to pay, we could all use a little more clarity and a little less distraction. You know what I’m talking about – the stack of unread books on your nightstand, the old clothing you keep meaning to donate, and those receipts you thought you could claim on your tax return in 2012.

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D’s writes in Psychology Today, “clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.” Among all the things that distract us , clutter is relatively easy to fix, on our desks and in our digital lives. Computers, apps, cloud storage and everything in between are great tools meant to simplify your life; however, if they aren’t managed mindfully, they can also bog you down.

Aside from the more obvious roadblocks of clutter such as not being able to find documents or losing track of meetings, according to Bourg Carter, clutter also fills up the physical and mental space that we need for creative brainstorming and focused problem-solving.

There are three key steps you can take to clear your desk and your mind.

  1. Decide what you really need

Imagine what you would absolutely need if you lived in a 100 sq ft apartment. What can’t you live without? You’d probably keep your smartphone and not those Disney VHS’s from the 80s. Life Hacker’s Alan Henry recommends day dreaming. Sit in the park or in a café (not at home or at work) to write out those essentials objects that you absolutely need.

Not everything can be reduced to its usefulness. Make another list of things with which you have an important emotional attachment. It‘s a good idea to keep that little ceramic pot your niece made for you when she was five if you love it, but not the card from that weird guy that no one knew at your last holiday party.

  1. Sort and purge

Now is the time to sort. Take your time. Go room by room, or inch by inch depending on how wild your desk has grown. Start by dividing your things into four categories: keep, donate, trash, and store. If you’re finding it hard to let go of something, give it a second life by donating it. Henry also suggests digitizing photos, paperwork, books, and music. There are plenty of cloud storage solutions like Google Drive or Dropbox to help you out.

Once you’ve sorted, check back in with that list you imagined earlier. Do you really need the things that weren’t on that first draft? Are you are keeping them because you can’t decide if you need them? Be honest with yourself.

  1. Put things away immediately

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D. emphasizes that clutter is also about habit. “When you take something out of its designated space, put it back immediately after you’re finished. Sounds simple, but it actually takes practice and commitment.” Always leave a place better than you found it. We teach this to kindergarteners, but sometimes forget to apply it in our personal work spaces, both digital and physical. You’ll be less stressed and less distracted as a result.

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