More than we give them credit for, clutter keeps us from moving forward with our lives. Helping you identify the things that hold you down, host Penny Zenker sits down with the founder of the Productive Environment Institute, Barbara Hemphill, to talk about how you can let go of the clutters that prevent you from accomplishing work and enjoying your life better. Barbara shares with us the five-step process to understand the letting go of clutter psychology. We need to let go of the clutter that stands in the way between us and the goals, joy, and balance we want to have in our lives. Become a master of your life, and let go of the clutter in this episode.
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Letting Go Of The Clutter That Prevents Us From Living Better Lives With Barbara Hemphill
On this show, we are looking to help you be smarter about how you do things and, at the end of the day, be more productive, focused, and reach your goals faster. I always have some great guests on the show, and the next one is no exception. Barbara Hemphill is here with us. Let me tell you something about Barbara.
She is the Founder of the Productive Environment Institute. She has helped thousands of business owners and professionals decrease anxiety and overwhelm due to clutter without having to scan or throw everything away. We’re afraid of letting go of things and declutter. She’s passionate about helping people eliminate physical, digital, emotional, and spiritual clutter that prevents us from accomplishing work and enjoying our lives better.
Her career is spanning many years with the cutting edge of this growing industry. She’s appeared on the Today Show and Good Morning America. She’s been in Reader’s Digest, USA Today, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, and The New York Times. This list goes on. She’s also a past President of the National Association of Professional Organizers, a winner of the Founder’s Award, and a two-time winner of the President’s Award. Barbara is accomplished. She’s going to help us deal with the clutter in our way and what stands between us and the goals, the joy, and the balance that we want to have in our lives. Barbara, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, Penny.
I believe that it’s important to deal with what’s in our way. Many people want to give us new strategies and new things to do, but they’re not dealing with helping us with what’s in the way and why we don’t do what we know.
They become clutter.
Tell me first, how did you become so passionate about clutter?Clutter is just postponed decisions Click To Tweet It started a long time ago. This was a long path. I moved to New York City from India with my first husband. We had adopted three orphan children, and one of them had special needs. My husband worked for a nonprofit organization that didn’t make enough to pay for living in New York. I decided that I needed to contribute to the family income, but I wanted my children to be first. I decided the best way to do that was to find a problem in the world that I could solve that people would pay me for. I would be in the playground with my children, and I would hear people talk about challenging, managing their time, space, and information. I took $7 out of the grocery money. It was a big deal. I used to walk twenty blocks because I didn’t have $0.50 for the bus. It said, “Disorganized? I organize closets, files, kitchens; you name it. Call Barbara Hemphill.”
What made you launch that business? How did you know that this was something that you were good at? Were you super organized at home? What made this the thing that you decided to do?
I have to give complete credit to my parents. I am not a naturally organized person. I was diagnosed with ADHD. I’m fine as a musician. I’m an artist. I’m right-brained.
It almost doesn’t fit.
That’s right, but that’s why I’m good at what I do. I don’t look at other people’s messes and say, “How did you do that?” I know exactly how they did it. I do practice what I preach. It’s not a case of where I don’t do it; I do it. People can come to my home and office at any time. Having said that, I will tell people over and over, “If you came into my home or my office unannounced, you might look around and say, ‘They pay you money for organizing?’” I’m not naturally neat. The difference between my clients and me is if you give me a maximum of 30 minutes, everything will be put away, and it will be put away in the right place. It won’t be stuck somewhere to be hidden. It’s all about systems. That’s what my whole passion is about, helping people create systems.
I have consultants all around the world. One was from South Africa. He came up with the acronym for SYSTEM, which I love, Saving You Space, Time, Energy, and Money. Every time there’s something you have to repeat, whether it’s your laundry or responding to an email that people ask you all the time, you need to have a system for it. That’s what we’re all about. I grew up on a farm in Nebraska. My father was a dairy farmer. There were systems for planting, cattle breeding, and things like that. My mother was the administrator to the president of a bank for 46 years, the same bank and the same man. She used to show me what she was doing. In our home, it wasn’t always neat, but there were systems. There were ways that we did things.
I have this team of Certified Productive Environment Specialists. We always say there are four questions that you answer to determine whether something is organized. One is, “Does it work?” This applies to your calendar, laundry, and your life. Number two, “Do you like it?” I think about the CFO of a movie production company. He said, “My desk and office works, but I don’t like it. I would like to have a spotless desk, but every time I clean it off, I can’t find things again.” In his case, it worked, but he didn’t like it. We fix that. We put it in our finding system, and he said, “For as long as I can remember, I come in one Saturday a month to clean up my office, and I’m never going to have to do that again.”
The third question is, “Does it work for the people of impacts?”
That’s your family members, the people you care about in a company. If you are an employee, the information that you’re organizing does not belong to you. It belongs to the company. It’s your responsibility to organize it in such a way that if you were not there, somebody else could find it. If you own a company, you’re going to have a hard time having a system or a team if they can’t figure out what they want. Does it work for other people it impacts?
The fourth one relates to what we’ve already talked about, which is, “Can you recover quickly?” It doesn’t mean you’re going to be a neat freak. I’ve told my husband a million times, “I wish there were a pill I could take that would make me neat.” I’m not neat, but I can recover quickly. I tell everybody, “You need to have an idea of what level of clutter you’re willing to live with and how long you’re willing to fix the problem.” In my case, it’s once a week. For me, every Friday afternoon, everything in the office gets put away. It has to take me less than 30 minutes to declutter and organize. If I can’t do it in 30 minutes, it means that there’s something wrong with the system. Something has gone wrong, and I have to go back and fix it.
I want to highlight people who are reading. They may say, “I hate systems,” or “Systems feel restrictive.” Systems are what make things work. If people might be having some resistance to this, what could you say to them to get started and accept that systems will make things easier for them and help them work? How would you break through any resistance?
James Clear said it better than anybody. He wrote a book called Atomic Habits which is in credits. It’s a great book. He said, “You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems.”
I say something around, “You fall to the level of your thinking.”
They’re both true. It is your thinking which helps you develop the system that you need.
It’s a thinking system that we get into a pattern of the way that we think. Everything is a system. That makes a lot of sense. “I’m still in resistance. Help me. I hear you saying that, but.” There are many people out there who got those “yeah, buts.”The most difficult thing in the consulting business is that we want things for people more than they want it for themselves. Click To Tweet The most difficult thing in our business is that you want things for people more than they want it for themselves. Penny, I’m sure it’s true in yours, too. Some people are simply not willing to change or be helped. As the old saying goes, “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’re getting.” If you’re happy with your life, then keep on doing it that way. Entrepreneurs are some of the most disorganized people in the world. They’re idea people. They have big ideas. They meet people all the time. They’re terrible about it. I wrote an article published in many places called Why Clutter Hurts Your Leadership and What You Can Do About It. When you’re a leader, and your desk or office looks like a bomb went off, people will look at it and say, “You can’t even organize your office. What makes you think you can organize your company?”
If someone says they can’t get organized, that’s a lie. What it says is their vision; their ‘why’ is not big enough. Some people spend their whole lives organizing, creating systems, and reorganizing things. They never get anything done. Organizing in and of itself has no value. It is simply a tool, a system to help you accomplish your work and enjoy your life. That’s why after many years for me, it’s still fun. If your why is big enough, there’s always a way to get what you want. That’s what I call the art of organizing. I don’t cram people into boxes.
I’ve got a client that I worked with, with one of my consultants in a training program. This client had hired three organizers in two states and paid almost $10,000. She said I’m worse off than I was before. She wasn’t going to hire us. I got her to test that. One of the things we will often do is we’ll say, “Let’s work for an hour. We won’t charge anything for it. Experience this for an hour; if you like it, fine. If you don’t, we’ll say goodbye.” We worked for her for an hour, and she was happy. I said, “Can you tell me what’s different about what we did than what the others did?”
She said, “Two things. One was you helped me understand that something I never knew in the 40 years that I’ve been struggling with this, which is clutter is postponed decisions. I have these piles everywhere, and the computer desktop has so many icons because I don’t make decisions. I just never made that connection.”
That’s what my business has been based on. I learned it from closed closets. Closed closets fill up because you haven’t decided whether you’re going to lose the ten pounds you need to lose or the exercise equipment that looked great on Home Shopping Network. It could be the candlesticks you got from Aunt Sally, and you love Aunt Sally.
The candlesticks were not your style, but if she came to Thanksgiving dinner, she’d love to see them on the table. That was the one thing. The second thing she said was, “You didn’t tell me what I should do. You asked me, ‘What are you willing to do?’” If you’re why is big enough, then all we have to do to get organized is to figure out what you’re willing to do.
I had another client who was a solo entrepreneur. His wife had relegated him to the basement corner because his stuff was all over the place. She didn’t want him to mess up the house. It got him depressed because he was down there. He didn’t like cleaning up the clutter because it was boring, and he had more interesting things to do. He finally understood that the clutter was depressing him and that we could put a system in place, which we did. I followed up with him, but he still wasn’t doing it.
We said, “What level of clutter are you willing to work with? How long are you willing to clean it up?” We came up with that he needed to clean it up every day because the clutter dragged him down. When your client figures out what to do, that’s the best thing. He figured out that if he went into his office first thing in the morning, cleaned up all the clutter, it took less than five minutes. It felt good. He realized that it got his day off to a great start.
The key is for people out there to recognize that they’ve got clutter that needs to be cleaned up. Those are great questions, “What are you willing to invest in terms of time? How important is it to you?” You said something about, “What are you willing to live with?” Tolerating clutter is a distraction. It’s a big problem. How do you deal with that in terms of the fact that we tolerate more than we need to and more than we should?
We have a five-step process that we use that we call the productive environment process. We define a productive environment as an intentional setting to accomplish your work and enjoy your life. If you are trying to fix anything like, “I’m tired of the clutter on the kitchen counter. When I go to cook that food at night, I can’t do it because there are papers all over.” That’s one. We use five steps. The first one is to state your vision. It goes back to why. What is it that you wish for a different thing you’re putting up with to use your tolerance?
The reason people need to think about that even more, that question about their vision, is it’s so easy when you get caught up in the day-to-day to get disconnected. It reconnects you back with what’s important. I believe that we need to do that regularly. I love that the process starts with getting them in the habit of connecting with that.
There’s something to say about that vision. Unfortunately, there is a large number of people who don’t know what their vision is. The interesting thing is it is the clutter that is preventing them from seeing their vision. Oftentimes, we will work with somebody who’s not sure and can’t say what their vision is. I tell a story where I learned this. I was married for the first time for several years. Suddenly, my husband decided to divorce me. I was devastated. No one in my family had ever been divorced. We had these three adopted children. I just started my business. I thought I was going to die and wishing I could. It was awful. I sat in the counselor’s office, and she said, “You have a blank slate. What do you want?” I said, “I don’t know. I was Mrs. Tom, and I expected to be Mrs. Tom for five decades, at least, and I don’t know.”
She made a statement that changed my life, and then I used it with all my clients. She said, “Let’s start with what you don’t want,” which is clutter. Many people don’t deal with the whole issue because there are some things they don’t know how to deal with. They don’t deal with any of it rather than saying, “Let’s start with what I know I don’t want.” I have seen it happen hundreds of times. When people start saying, “I don’t know what I do want, but I know I don’t want that,” then it’s like peeling the layers of an onion. You peel it off, and your vision appears.
It’s interesting how it’s all connected. I can tell you that when I get emotionally uncertain or cluttered, I clean my physical space. So it’s as though, I emotionally let go of clutter to gain clarity. It’s something that I can be certain about. Share with us the other five steps. I’m sure you’ve got so much more content. We can drive people to where they can find out more about you.
The first is to state your vision. The second step is to identify your obstacles. The third step is to commit your resources. The fourth step is to design and execute your plan. The fifth step, which is the one where most people fail, is to sustain your success. Notice the common word in all of those is “your.” It is all about you. Your dreams, your hopes, your vision, what will you do? Everything that you say, think, or feel about an issue you want to get organized is one of those five things. It’s either part of the vision, an obstacle that you’re afraid of, or that you already have, a resource you need, or a resource that you have that you’re not utilizing. The fourth step is the most important. That’s 80% of it. Design and execute your plan to reach this vision, overcoming these obstacles with these resources; here’s the plan. Most people start organizing before they’ve done the other stuff, and therefore they just keep doing the same things over and over.
That’s why it’s not sustainable.
That takes us to the fifth one, which is sustainable. If you can’t sustain it, you go back to those four questions. Does it work? Do I like it? Does it work for the other people it impacts? Can it recover quickly? You ask that about every few months because, in our society, something that worked a few months ago may be wrong and may not be working this time. It doesn’t mean it was wrong before; it just means things have changed.
If someone says they can’t get organized, that’s a lie. What it says is their vision, their why is not big enough. Click To Tweet
That aspect of flexibility and constantly check-in and see if it’s working is important. That’s the key to productivity in general. It’s to constantly step back and see what’s working and be able to readapt and reset priorities. Before we cut out, I noticed that you had a tip for us on email and how to deal with the growing problem of people having 5,000 emails in my inbox. What’s your tip around that?
It applies to email, or it applies to physical mails. The tip is, “Today’s mail is tomorrow’s pile or filled inbox.” Research shows that 80% of what we keep, we never use anyway. When most people try to organize something, they just start throwing things away, which means they’re never done. When they’re throwing it away, there’s new stuff coming in. We go in, and we say, “We’re going to ignore what you did in the past, and we’re going to put a system in place to stop the problem.” We’re going to figure out a system to manage your email or your physical papers. You can then go back and deal with the others. Today’s mail is tomorrow’s pile. Figure out what to do with today’s mail.
Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense to go back into the past to re-sort out everything. You just put it all in a folder. For some reason, you need it; then, you can use the search function and figure it out. Stop the bleeding first. Barbara, tell us where people can get a hold of you? You’ve brought so many great nuggets here, and we want them to be able to get access to you.
There two places that people can go to. One is you can go to ProductiveEnvironment.com. That’s got all of our information there. It has a scorecard that you could fill out that you can write yourself. You can’t change what you don’t measure, so it’s a good way for you to measure where you are in your own productivity. If you have physical papers in your personal life or professional life, maybe it’s just papers that you don’t have a system for, old papers, maybe you’re scanning most everything now, but you still have a bunch of old stuff you’re not sure what to do with. We have a fabulous activity that we do call Tame Your Paper Tiger. You go to TameYourPaperTiger.com. It is a virtual hands-on webinar. When you Zoom and you come to the event with a pile of papers or files, we teach you how to make the decisions. We give you some time to do it at the webinar. We’re there to ask you questions and to tell you how well it works. The last time we did, only one person dropped off, and the rest of them stayed the entire time. The majority of them stayed an extra 30 minutes because they were physically throwing out paper and wanting to ask questions. It works. If you have a paper you want to get rid of, go to that website.
Thank you, Barbara, for being here and bringing your expertise. It matters when you’re trying to solve the problem is to work with the right expert.
You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
You’ve got some great resources to help de-clutter. We only talked about the physical aspect; there’s also emotional and spiritual. We’ve got to start somewhere. Make sure you check out Barbara’s resources.
- Atomic Habits
- Why Clutter Hurts Your Leadership and What You Can Do About It – article
About Barbara Hemphill
The Productive Environment Institute has helped 1000’s of business owners and professionals decrease anxiety and overwhelm due to clutter without scanning or throwing everything away.
Productive Environment Institute’s Founder, Barbara Hemphill, is passionate about helping people eliminate the physical, digital, emotional, and spiritual clutter that prevents them from accomplishing their work and enjoying their lives.
Frequently referred to as “The Paper Tiger Lady,” Barbara started her company in 1978 with a $7 ad in a New York City newspaper.
Spanning a 40-year career on the cutting edge of a growing industry, Barbara has appeared on the Today Show and Good Morning America, in Reader’s Digest, USA Today, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, The New York Times, Real Simple, and Guideposts magazine. She is past president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, a winner of the Founder’s Award, and a two-time winner of the President’s Award.
A respected expert in the paper, information, and time management, Barbara’s books include: Kiplinger’s Taming the Paper Tiger series; Love It or Lose It: Living Clutter-Free Forever; Organizing Paper @Home: What to Toss and How to Find the Rest; and her latest book Less Clutter More Life.
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