De-clutter your way to greater productivity & focus

By Paul Milano


  • How cluttered is your life? Be honest.
  • This post examines how physical and virtual clutter blocks your pathways to more productivity
  • How to create a productive mindset and free up mental space to get more done each day with greater focus

Read Time: 7 min


One of the biggest productivity tips I ever received was simply to clean up the clutter we carry in our lives, so we can take back our mental energy and focus and put them toward tasks that really matter.

It’s hard to be at our most productive when our mind is bombarded by all of our “clutter” around us.

When we have 100 things in front of us calling for our attention it can easily lead to overwhelm and anxiety. This then leads to not knowing where to start (procrastination) and when we don’t know where to start, we usually put things off even further and don’t end up doing anything.

At the end of the day looking back, we are then both disappointed and now feel even more overwhelmed and anxious because we got nothing done and our to-do list is even larger.

Sound familiar?

If you’re on my email list,  I recently wrote about how I lost it and deleted 10,000 emails at all at once.

Seems drastic, but basically my own personal “clutter” simply boiled over.

What do I mean by clutter? Let’s break it down into two categories.Then I will issue you a challenge for 2016…


What is Virtual / Mental Clutter?

Virtual clutter can be summed up as small, subtle distractions from the electronic world that slowly chip away at our focus and attention until it consumes so much space in our mind that it’s actually challenging to focus on any one specific task.

These can come in many forms.

Unchecked emails, Facebook and social media notifications, note taking software, text messages or anything else your phone, tablet or PC can throw your way.

We tend to file all these away thinking “oh I can use this later”, of course we never do and then every time we open these up again we see a mountain of stuff we never actioned, all of which are now taking up space in our mind again.

mental clutter

The feeling of overwhelm and anxiety comes in when all of these notifications keep piling in faster than we can acknowledge them or action them.  They are all competing for your attention and as they build up, so does the mental energy it requires to process all of them.

Here is a typical scenario:
An email comes in and you see it, with the thought that you will check on it later. As you file that one away in the back of your head to review later, 15 more come in shortly after it.

Multiply this by days, then weeks and now every time you open your email you feel mentally drained, having had all these emails you meant to check still taking space in the back of your head.

Cue anxiety to pop up now because you have not actioned them yet and  you feel like you haven’t done anything.

Another source of clutter comes from the loving world of social media updates. I’m sure recently when scrolling through your news-feed you have come across some status update or shared story that just absolutely enraged you.

I feel like right now especially there is far too much negativity, fear and hatred going on. Every time you see one of these, you are going to have a negative emotional response and it is going to eat away at your mental focus.

So now your mind is bogged down by your mountain of un-actioned email, all these unchecked notifications on your devices and you’re still pissed off about that ridiculous status update someone posted early.

How are you possibly supposed to be at your most productive with all of this going on? You can’t…

When this overwhelm happens, we tend to “default” to what is easy, mindlessly reading emails, scrolling through Facebook feeds or browsing for the next cat video on YouTube. (In my case I actually prefer to watch videos of sloths recently…don’t ask)


What is Physical Clutter?

Physical clutter has the same effects of virtual, except you can actually see and touch it.

Here is a typical scenario:

I will be at home trying to get some work done.  There are some dishes sitting on the counter from when I made breakfast that I know I need to clean, a pile of laundry I know needs to be done at some point, a book sitting on the table that I want to read and so on…

I’ll be trying to focus but my mind is completely distracted by all the mess around me.

A Princeton University Neuroscience study was actually done on this stating the following:

“Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.”

Or in simpler terms, when your environment is cluttered, the chaos negatively affects your ability to focus and process information.

This all holds true when you “hoard” items as well. Do you still really need that Sweater you haven’t worn in 6 years? That first IPhone you bought 5 years ago? That laptop from when Seinfeld was still airing live in the 90s?

Don’t neglect your corporate office space as well… I find in most cases, an easy way to get a peek into someone mind is simply by how much useless stuff is on their desk.  You have to love those folks who still have the technical manual of “Microsoft Excel for Windows 98” still on their desk…

Are you guilty of any of this?

Here are the steps & systems to resolve this:


1.) Practice Inbox zero:
If you have an inbox with thousands of emails in it like I did take the following simple steps. Archive the important ones you need to separate folders and then delete the rest.
The objective to get your inbox down to ZERO and keep it that way. As emails come in, archive them to organized sub folders after you’ve actioned them or simply delete them if they are not important.

2.) Un-follow emails:
Do you get a lot of garbage emails you never read? I used to subscribe to Groupon and all those discount coupon service until I realized I never actually buy anything from them. I then promptly un-subscribed to all of them. Only keep subscriptions you find you are getting great value from.  When you clean this up implementing step #1 above becomes much easier.

3.) Control your Social Feeds:
Much like we can control and organize our email, we can do the same for our social feeds.  This one usually gets folks a bit more on edge but if someone is constantly posting really negative updates that flare up your emotion and negative energy, you need to ask if you are better off not seeing them.

While you don’t need to un-friend these people, you can just un-follow them. Create your news feed to be one of positivity and energy boosting messages as opposed to ones that drain you. Along with that, don’t engage in pointless arguments or comment wars on Facebook, in almost all cases your energy could be channelled to far more productive things.

4.) Clean up your home office or get out:
If you are trying to work from home and suffer from the same problems I did above, you essentially have two options. Drop everything and clean up the clutter, or get out and go work somewhere you won’t think about it, like a coffee shop or library.  As long as that clutter is present and in your mind you will not be at your most focused.

5.) Remove your physical clutter:
Invest some time going through everything in your possession and auditing if it is truly needed or not. I also implement systems to maintain this. For example for clothing, if I have not worn it in the past 12 months I donate it to charity. This same thing can be applied to pots, pans, glasses, electronics etc. In most cases with a few exceptions, if you haven’t used something in the past year you will probably never use it again.

A great opportunity to do this is if you are moving. In my last move I threw away, recycled or donated probably 50% of my possessions. It is incredibly liberating and you feel so much more lightweight.

Above any apps, to do lists, goals or anything else, cultivating and creating a mind capable of being more productive is the first step.  This is why when I sense any of the above going on, I now drop everything and take care of it.


Your Action Steps:

Take some time this weekend to truly de-clutter your life and start the new years right. When you’ve done this you will feel like you’ve dropped 20 pounds of weight from your shoulders and have more energy to make 2016 awesome.



  • […] When I’m in a confidence re-charge mode, I try to limit my time with both these types of people and influences to protect my mental mood and energy. I implement a “No BS” policy.  For more info on this check out my article on decluttering your physical and virtual worlds. […]

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