The Strategic Value of Clear Space

Are neat people more productive?

How easily you can make a mess is how truly productive you can be. Maximum freedom to generate and play around in creative chaos is the optimal condition for constructive thinking and work.

This is true on a project, in the kitchen, in your office, and at your writing table—anywhere and anytime you want to get real work done.

I don’t usually work in a neat fashion. Whether I’m writing an essay, arranging flowers, or making guacamole, I wind up strewing stuff all over the place. If you were to walk into my office while I was working or thinking about something, you’d likely see notes, books, and files strewn around somewhat randomly; a mindmap on my computer screen; doodles and words scrawled on my whiteboard. When I really get involved in something and my creative juices start flowing, it’s likely to look like something exploded in the middle of it. I have a singular focus, but it doesn’t seem orderly until it’s done. My best work happens that way. Yours will too.


The freedom to make a mess

But if you’re already in a mess, you’re not free to make one. If you have a desk piled with unfinished, unclear work; if you’re trying to repair something in your garage with tools and incomplete projects strewn everywhere; if you’ve got thousands of unprocessed emails in your inbox; or if you’ve just got a lot of issues and situations in your life and work on your mind—you’re going to be laboring under a serious handicap.

That’s why, when I’m not doing anything else, I’m cleaning up. I’m getting my inboxes to zero, getting my desk in order, clearing off the kitchen counter. I’m also capturing, clarifying, and organizing stuff that’s pulling on my attention. There’s an event, a problem, an opportunity coming toward me I can’t see yet. Something will emerge that I will need to focus and work on, coming from the outside or from my own inspiration. When that happens, I want to be ready. Things will get messy, but they will neither start nor end that way.


Begin in a clear space

To tackle something most productively you must begin in clear space. Physically you need all your tools in order and an open space for spreading your raw elements and assembling structures. Psychically you need an empty head, clear of distractions and unfinished business holding your attention hostage. From this starting point you will have your best chances for creative thinking, optimal ability to deal with surprise, maximum flexibility to come up with workarounds and innovative solutions. You’ll be able to take advantage of serendipitous, potentially valuable ideas.

If you have a problem to solve, limited resources to allocate, or an ambiguous situation to clarify, you’ll want to work from a clear deck. You are most productive when all of your available resources are present and accounted for, unencumbered with irrelevant pressures and dross, with an ability to apply relaxed but concentrated focus.

Zen practices refer to a “beginner’s mind.” The ready state for enlightenment is a consciousness devoid of preconceptions. Much of the training in the esoteric spiritual disciplines is concerned with de-conditioning the psyche, allowing the full experience and awareness of what’s fundamentally true in the present, without the illusory colorings brought on by interpretations from the past or projections into the future.

That’s the best place to come from—mentally, emotionally, and psychologically—if you’re developing the agenda for the staff meeting, formulating the best way to approach your boss about the delay in a major project, restructuring your board of directors, or planning the family vacation.

This is not a state from which most people live and work.


How do you get to clear space?

So, how do you get to that clear place? Can you only achieve it by dedicating years of disciplined asceticism on a Tibetan mountaintop? That’s one way, but there’s a nice shortcut.

In your physical space it’s pretty simple—just put stuff where it belongs.

In your psychic space it’s also pretty simple (though often quite subtle): you merely have to find out why things are on your mind, and eliminate the cause. Why are you distracted? What causes your mind to be unclear and inappropriately filled with unproductive thinking that makes no progress on what you’re focused on but which creates stress and disturbance that undermines your energy and focus? The basic cause is some decision you haven’t yet made and/or you haven’t parked the resulting contents into a trusted system.

“Mom” will only be on your mind if there’s something current going on in your relationship with her (her birthday? her health issue?) about which you haven’t clarified what outcome, exactly, you’re committed to achieve or what you’re specifically going to do about it as a next step to making that happen. And even if you’ve already clarified those points precisely, if you haven’t put the reminders of that outcome and that action step in places you know you will review at the right time, you’ll still have it impinging on your consciousness.

That’s going to be equally true about your son’s college choice, the status of your retirement account, your choice about hiring a new executive assistant, and your company’s strategic direction.


The bottom line

Decide the outcomes you’re committed to. Decide the next physical, visible actions required to move toward them. Place reminders of all of that where you know you’ll look at the right time. Keep everything in your life and work that way—clear, current, and complete. Discover the strategic value of clear space. Get ready to make a mess.


This essay appeared in David Allen’s Productive Living Newsletter. Subscribe for free here.


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