Coaching: Remove the clutter

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One of my clients, who we’ll call Rubin, is a very successful executive who has held top positions within several organizations in his industry, always improving his status and income when he changed jobs.

At the beginning of the year, in the organization where Rubin is currently on the senior management team, a new CEO was hired. After the CEO had been around about six months, he asked for a meeting with Rubin. Meetings with bosses had always been positive experiences for Rubin, so he walked into the CEO’s office with a jaunty step and a smile.

The smile didn’t last long. The CEO had a list of about 10 things he wanted Rubin to change. At the top of the list was the condition of Rubin’s office. “Cluttered, piles of paper everywhere, how can you find anything? I can’t even stand to go in there.”  The CEO had a look of disgust on his face. He went on about Rubin’s productivity, his need for Rubin to focus on long-term strategies, and his belief that clear thinking was impossible in that cluttered environment.

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Rubin’s work history provides evidence that he’s quite competent at thinking strategically, and somehow coping with his tendency to create leaning towers of papers on his desk. He did admit that his cluttering habits had passed a threshold recently. In the past, he said, he was able to separate his mental activity from the mess around him. He told me that after he recovered from the shock of that meeting, he realized that the clutter was growing out of control and his ability to compartmentalize and perform in spite of the clutter was eroding.

Well, this was a timely topic for me to address. I’m just coming up for air after moving my residence – including my home office – from Whitefish Bay to Florida. I moved to a condo about half the size of my previous one. I know that I work – and live – best in an orderly environment. Still, going through this move gave me glaring evidence that my space was cluttered with a whole lot of stuff that I don’t need – and would have to get rid of in order to fit into the Florida residence. I gave away, sold and contributed loads of that stuff. The shredder became my friend. Even with all that, when I got here I still had too much. So, more giving away and a new big box for Goodwill.

Office clutter can affect an employee, a team, and eventually the whole system.  Remember when we kept all those empty boxes after unpacking computers, printers, fax machines – you name it? Just in case, we were told, you have to ship something back. David Logan and John King, in their book, “The Coaching Revolution,” explode the prevalent myth that the busier people are, i.e. the more they do, the more clutter they have. Actually the opposite is true. People who manage their clutter actually are able to do a lot more. That myth is in the same family as the one that proclaims harried, over-scheduled, chronically late-arriving people are more important than the rest of us. Not true.

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It’s all too easy to blame other people, too much work, incompetent assistants, small work-spaces. Truth is we can overcome this invasive, destructive force called clutter. 

I was fortunate to be a student of the late Thomas Leonard, founder of Coach University. Thomas created bookcases full of materials, notebooks and forms to help us coach clients. (Some of this did get purged in my recent move – hope you understand Thomas wherever you are.) One program of his that I’ll never toss is the CleanSweep process. Nearly all of my clients complete this exercise, which helps streamline all areas of life – physical environment, health, relationships, etc. Thomas was all for de-cluttering. He felt that most clutter came from deferred decisions, whether individual or organization-wide. All of those undecided issues create mental and physical clutter – from a sea of post-it notes to worry that keeps us awake at night. Thomas, Logan & King, and Walt Disney all preached, “Do it immediately.”

If an entire team is buried with clutter, the members can work out a system of doing a clean sweep, and holding each other accountable for time lines along the way. If everyone stops blaming and assumes responsibility for an orderly environment, near miracles can happen. And the war against clutter can spread throughout the system.

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Rubin devoted a weekend to re-claiming his office from the paper towers. He enlisted his assistant’s help in developing new habits. He curbed his creeping tendency to defer decisions – after realizing the tendency was an offshoot of his perfectionist streak.

And here I sit in my new office which does double duty as a dining room. Everything is tidy and working, partly because my daughter Ann, a systems engineer, drove over yesterday and dedicated her entire day to organizing my electronic “stuff.” If I even think of acquiring anything new, I’m determined that something I already have will have to go first.

The Sunshine State is living up to its name, so time for a walk to the beach – which will definitely whisk away any sneaky, lurking mental clutter, and I’ll be smiling.

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