Bernie Anderson
BA blog banner_no text.png

the blog

Current musings, whatever they may be. 

Productivity and Mind Space (or "How to clean your messy room. Easy.")

My room was not just a disaster. It was an insane disaster.

I was 8.

I remember being completely overwhelmed by this situation. Mom had required a room cleaning. Rightly so. It looked like the dump truck full of my things did indeed roll through the nitroglycerin plant. And didn't make it.

I sat in the mess with this incredible feeling of overwhelm. Hopeless. Wailing in despair. You think I'm exaggerating. I'm not. I remember this childhood moment vividly, and I was convinced I'd never get out of my room again. I could plot my escape, But it was pointless. I'm trapped on the second floor. All optimism had flown away with the winter birds.

But I learned a secret.

I want to say I learned this secret from one of my parents. I don't remember this part. This sounds like something my dad would have done. But someone taught me the tactical secret of room cleaning. This was my deliverance from overwhelm for the rest of my life.

Here's what I did.

Clear the floor.

Get everything off the floor and onto the bed. It doesn't matter what it is, where it belongs, or what I think I might do with the thing. Leave nothing behind. Clear the floor. Clear all of the floor.

Once everything is on the bed and the floor is clean, something magical happened. I had momentum. I had clarity. My stuff began to fall into categories.

  • Clothes
  • Books
  • Crayons
  • Garbage
  • Broken toys
  • GI Joe stuff

I could begin dealing with items one thing at a time. One category at a time. Soon the bed was clearing. Soon the room was clean.

Most importantly the overwhelm as gone.

What does a child's room have to do with productivity, creativity, and leadership?


I still get to this state of overwhelm. My physical room may not be in quite the shambles it was at 8. (Although, I confess, there are times when my home office is much less tidy that I'd prefer.) But my digital life is often a disaster. My mental life can be in disarray. Too many projects. Too many spheres. Too many deadlines.

It's easy, at that point, to sink into a place of utter despair and hopelessness; operating under the assumption I will most likely die young and stressed. They'll find my body in my hoarded mess of projects and tasks stuck in my head. (Which is a tad Kafkaesque, but you get the point.)

The solution is as simple as it was when I was 8.

Create a physical space.

Clear "the floor".

The physical space was my bed, as a kid.
It's now an empty table in my office.

Each becomes a physical inbox. Now, everything goes in the inbox.

If it's a physical object that needs action, that's simple enough. Put it on the desk.

But here's the most important thing: if it's a project in my head, it gets physical representation and goes on the table. I like blank 4x6 cards. But blank sheets of copy paper do just as well.

Once the floor space in my brain is clear, creative thinking is possible. Projects begin to come together. It's much easier to execute. One item at a time.

Clearing out mental space is the only path to creative thinking. So much head noise causes ideation traffic jams - which (at least for me) affects execution. Clearing the space, containing the clutter, and giving substance to the intangible are my first steps to dispelling overwhelm.

And gaining clarity.

Your mind is for having ideas. Not holding them
— David Allen