When you think about decluttering, you probably think about your home life, and cleaning out your junk drawer and closets. But there are also ways to declutter your work life and tidy up both its physical and digital aspects.
My guest today explains the art of practicing minimalism in your professional life in a book he co-authored with organizing expert Marie Kondo. His name is Scott Soneshein, he’s a professor of business and management, and his book is Joy at Work. Scott and I begin our conversation by unpacking the benefits of keeping your work life neat and tidy, and then move into how to do this in regards to your physical workspace. Scott shares three questions to ask yourself when you declutter your office to help you decide which items to keep and which to throw away. We also take a useful aside into how to throw away your children’s artwork with less guilt. We then move into how to declutter your digital life by cleaning up your email inbox and smartphone. We end our discussion with several areas you may not think of in terms of clutter, but probably need some tidying up: your activities, decisions, network, and meetings.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- The benefits of keeping your work life tidy
- How to prevent tidying from becoming just another procrastination tool
- Tips for organizing your physical office space
- Dealing with kids’ sentimental crafts and artwork
- How can you keep paperwork neat and tidy?
- How has digital clutter changed the tidying game?
- Managing your overloaded email inbox
- What is “activity clutter”?
- Can you declutter your decisions?
- How can you tidy your networking?
- Making meetings better
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with Scott
- A Place for Everything, and Everything In Its Place
- Becoming a Digital Minimalist
- Decluttering Your Digital Life
- How to Manage Inbox Overload
- Shadow Work and the Rise of Middle-Class Serfdom
- One Mistake Never to Make When Leading a Meeting
Connect With Scott
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When you think about decluttering, you probably think about your home life and cleaning out your junk drawer or your closet. There are also ways to declutter your work life and tidy up both its physical and digital aspects. My guest today explains the art of practicing minimalism in your professional life in a book he co-authored with organizing expert, Marie Kondo, his name is Scott Sonenshein, he’s a Professor of Business and Management, and his book is Joy at Work. Scott and I begin our conversation by unpacking the benefits of keeping your work life neat and tidy, and then move into how to do this in regards to your physical workspace. Scott shares three questions to ask yourself when you declutter your office, to help you decide which items to keep and which to throw away, and we also take a useful aside into how to throw away your children’s artwork with less guilt. We then move into how to declutter your digital life by cleaning up your email inbox and smartphone. And we end our discussion with several areas you may not think of in terms of clutter, but probably need some tidying up, including your activities, your decisions, your network, and meetings. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/declutterwork. Scott joins me now via Clearcast.io.
Scott Sonenshein. Welcome back to the show.
Scott Sonenshein: Thanks so much for having me back.
Brett McKay: So we had you on three years ago to talk about your book Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less. You got a new book out, and it’s called Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life. And with this book, you teamed up with Marie Kondo, who is famously the Japanese lady who has gotten millions of Americans to pick up their tchotchkes in their house, asking does it spark joy. And you’re helping people become more tidy, and I’m curious, how did you… How did this partnership come about, to take Marie’s ideas about minimalism and keeping things tidy and applying it to the work, to our work lives?
Scott Sonenshein: Well, my research and writing has been on the power of less and how can we live a meaningful life and have a successful career when facing all kinds of constraints and challenges. And in Stretch, what I do is I explain that many of our greatest accomplishments and most satisfying moments happen when we are making the most out of our resources versus trying to acquire more and more things, money, time, information, and so on. And Marie had learned about Stretch, it had come out in February 2017. And in March, she had gotten in contact with me and wanted to learn more about how the ideas in my book were consistent with what she was doing in her work and what some of the science would say about her tidying perspective. So she invited me to her house, she was living in the San Francisco area at the time, and had a nice conversation for a few hours over some nice Japanese tea, and talked about how different aspects of our work were very complementary. And at the end of that meeting, we decided we would go ahead and write a book together about work.
Brett McKay: Well, that’s a cool story, ’cause when I first saw it, like, “How did that happen?” You know? I’m always curious when these unique partnerships show up. So she reached out to you, and so when you started looking at this, when you started organizing the book, you started thinking about this book together, you start off talking about the benefits of our work life when we keep things tidy. So, she has her philosophy, and you had this scientific research to back it up. What are the benefits of our work life when we keep things tidy there?
Scott Sonenshein: Well, I think the first thing to realize is that there’s real damage that comes from messes, especially in the workplace, so surveys show that about 90% of Americans believe that physical clutter has harmed them, and it turns out they’re right. We know from physiological studies that having physical clutter around increases cortisol levels, it makes us moody. And then beyond the physical, there’s just all kinds of other messes at work that we’re dealing with, drowning in emails or poorly organized meetings. Just the annual bill in the US for poorly organized meetings is about $400 billion a year in lost productivity. So when we tidy, we get things organized and we end up with several important benefits. So the first and most important one is we just feel better. So, tidying is about making intentional choices about what our environment looks like, what activities we’re doing. And when we do that it gives us more work satisfaction because we feel more in control over our work, and we know from the research that this sense of control is one of the most fundamental human motivations.
Beyond feeling better, we’re also more productive because we’re just not wasting our time looking for things, whether they be physical things or things in our digital space, our time is better spent in meetings and the rest of our days. And then lastly, I would say our reputation improves, and we know from perception studies that people who are tidier are viewed by others as more intelligent, harder working and also kinder.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Yeah, that idea that it makes you just feel better. I was a research assistant for a professor in law school, and he was really old school. And so when I’d research things online, he’d want me to print off web pages. And he collected, and so instead of having stuff on his computer, he just had stacks and stacks and stacks of paper everywhere. And you’d go into his office and you had to kind of navigate, like it was a small maze, and I just felt really… I don’t know, I felt bad. I just felt like small and cramped and it wasn’t a pleasant experience going to the office, I always tried to go in there only when I absolutely had to go in there.
Scott Sonenshein: Well, as a professor, I hear where he’s coming from, and I’d say that most of my colleagues are like that too. We tend to be some of the worst hoarders out there, and not just of paperwork, but especially with books. And actually, one of the things I did when I first started deciding to work with Marie, is I said, I really have to fully embody her perspective to make sure I can go ahead and write a book with her. So I went through my office, which probably looked very similar to the office [chuckle] that you were just talking about when you were a research assistant, and my problem was books. And I had, I don’t know, at least 400 or so books out there, and I threw them all on the floor, and I picked each one up and I started reflecting about whether or not this book was still important to me, if it was still sparking joy, if it was still useful. And I realized that so many of these books were just relics of the past, they were previous projects I did, or other activities or interests I used to be into that no longer were important to me, and I ended up getting rid of about half of my books and donating them and making my space a lot more organized, so I hear you on… Some of those professorial offices, they tend to be some of the worst offenders, I think. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: But I’ve read research where it says that messy environments can actually make us more creative. Is there anything to that?
Scott Sonenshein: Oh, yeah. And that’s a good question because of course, a lot of my work and a lot of other people’s work really depends on creativity, and there is this notion or this popular belief that messiness just inspires and sparks creativity. In fairness, there is a study that’s done, that shows that messes can create some creativity. But the way that this study is done is it’s looking at differences between what they call a “orderly room” and a “disorderly room,” and what they mean by that is where things are actually put in the room as opposed to the sheer quantity of what’s in the room. And one of the things that you get when you tidy is you’re making intentional choices to keep things that you love in your work environment and on your calendar. And that puts you into a headspace that really is conducive to sparking creativity because it increases positive emotions. We titled our book “Joy at Work” because this method is meant to bring about more joyful feelings throughout the workday, and as a positive emotion, joy broadens our thoughts and expands our creativity.
Brett McKay: So you mean, so, tidying definitely makes you feel good. ‘Cause whenever I’m feeling bad, and I’m not in control, typically the thing you wanna do is tidy, and it feels great. But I also have noticed I’ve used it as a procrastination tool. It’s like if something’s hard and uncomfortable and has to do with work, and I really don’t wanna do it, I find myself organizing my desk drawer. How do you prevent tidying, because it does, as you said, it feels good, to becoming a tool to procrastinate with?
Scott Sonenshein: So with tidying, what you get is a process that when you do it once, you really don’t need to do it again. Marie likes to talk about how people who physically tidy don’t rebound. And what she means by that is they don’t end up with a lot of clutter that would provoke them to have to start this process all over again. On the non-physical side, for example, I talk about what you can do with your inbox. And people who have a tidy inbox are not the people who are constantly checking their email and distracted and trying to move things into different folders as a way of avoiding work. In fact, one thing that you can think of is that clutter is the ultimate tool for procrastination. Because instead of doing what we’re supposed to be doing in our work, instead of engaging with the work that we love, we end up cluttering ourselves whether it be just having more things around, having more stuff on our calendars, going to more meetings as a way of not doing the work that we should be doing.
There’s this notion that for some people, email has become their job when the reality is, is email is simply a tool to get their job done. So it’s the clutter itself that tends to be the tool of procrastination. And once you develop a system for tidying and you do it once, there’s little maintenance that’s needed. So it doesn’t become this thing that you can always turn to and say, “Okay, let me reorganize my desk and tidy it again.” If you’ve done it once the proper way, you don’t need to do it again.
Brett McKay: Right. So if you don’t have to do it again and you wanna procrastinate, you gotta find something else to do.
Scott Sonenshein: You gotta find something else.
Brett McKay: You can’t use, “Oh, I did something good here.” Alright. So this book’s broken down into two sections on the how-to part. So the very practical. And first is Organizing Your Physical Space, and then Organizing Your Digital Life. Let’s talk about the physical workspace. What type of things are we focused on here?
Scott Sonenshein: Well, in the physical space, we’re talking about things like books, paperwork, and this miscellaneous category, which tends to be a lot of things. It could be office supplies. It could be electronic devices or cords for those devices. Sometimes there’s job-specific items. So maybe product samples or customer collateral, personal care items you might bring to the office or working from home, in your own home space that are in your workspace. And then food. And so these are the main physical things that you would have in your workspace that you could tidy.
Brett McKay: When you and Marie were working on this book, and I’m sure you talk to people about what stuff consume… What was the type of clutter, physical clutter, that really caused a lot of problems in people’s physical workspace?
Scott Sonenshein: Well, I think paperwork is a big one. There’s this sense that people just wanna hold on to paperwork. But then, I think, everyone has their own idiosyncratic thing. So food items is another big one. Some people have pantries in their workspace and have just a lot of food, some of it well past the expiration date. Office supplies is another big one. How many paper clips do you really need in your desk? Do you really need more than a handful of pens? But some people would have dozens, if not more of these pens. So I think there’s a lot of variety out there. But I think the general themes are: Too much paperwork, too many office supplies, and then something idiosyncratic usually for a person, whether it be food for one person or maybe some personal care items for another one.
Brett McKay: Yeah, books are a big problem for me ’cause people, companies and publishers are always sending me books, and they stack up. And then I’m always like, “I should hold on to this. This is a book.” But, yeah, I sometimes I’ll just have stacks and stacks and stacks build up before… Until it becomes so overpowering, I have to just donate them all to the library.
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah. And books again too for me as a professor are really hard, but then you realize that someone else can benefit from the book too, and so maybe it’s spoken to you at one point or maybe it doesn’t even speak to you, and you can give it to someone else. I’d say another thing that is probably worth mentioning is just the struggle through that. People, especially with kids, have around sentimental items. And I know I struggled a little with this one, too, which is namely, my kids artwork. And you could have artwork that goes back 10 years, and you hold on to everything that your child’s done, and you’re proud of it, and you should be proud of it. But people really have a hard time parting with those items. And those stack up over time, especially if you have more than one kid.
Brett McKay: I think there was an Onion headline where it was like, “Mom Asks 30-year-old If She Wants Folder Full of Middle School Artwork.” And I think every person can relate to that ’cause I’m sure every person’s mom kept their middle school artwork. [chuckle] And they’re like, “Why did you keep this?” “Well, I thought you’d need it one day.” It’s like, “I don’t need this anymore.”
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah. There’s actually a study, really fascinating study with a simple trick for when you’re struggling with discarding sentimental items, what the study shows is taking a photo of it makes it much easier to get rid of the physical relic. So obviously you’re taking a picture and that’s taking up a little space, but that’s far better than keeping the physical item. So whether… If it’s in the office, if it’s in your home, taking a picture of that sentimental item tends to give yourself permission to discard the physical item when it no longer sparks joy for you.
Brett McKay: Well, I do that with my kids artwork, I’ll take a picture of it ’cause your kids make you stuff and are like, “Here, I’m giving this to you.” And it’s basically the same drawing that they’ve done over and over again, and you’ve collected 20 of them in the past week. And then if you throw it, you can’t throw it away, ’cause your kid’s like, “Why did you throw it away? Did you not like my thing?” So what I do is I take a picture of it before because I wanna keep on to it, it’s nice to see that. Or I’ll scan it. That’s another thing I’ll do.
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah, so those are all good tools. And then you can surreptitiously throw it out and hopefully they won’t notice, right? [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Right. Put it at the bottom of the garbage can. So with paperwork, any tips there on keeping that tidy and clutter-free?
Scott Sonenshein: Well, the reality is, is that most paperwork, we simply just don’t need to hold on to. Most things can be digitized, we don’t need to digitize everything, if it’s not needed. We go through a three-step process, so unlike the home, where you can just ask, does it spark joy? And then decide if you wanna keep it or not. At work, and this is true for physical clutter, and is true for non-physical clutter as well, we basically go through three questions. You have to ask, first, is this item necessary for my job? There are some things we just simply have to keep because they’re part of doing our jobs. Two: Is this helpful for a joyful future? And by that, what we mean is maybe it will help you advance in your career or it will teach you something that you wanna know, but it’s gonna help bring about that type of future that you will find joyful. And then third, Does it spark joy? And if you answer yes to any of those three questions, then an item is worth keeping. For a lot of paperwork, the answer is no to all three of those, and those can be shredded or discarded. If you still need to keep it, scanning it tends to be better than having the physical copy be there.
Brett McKay: And there’s lots of… You can go online, people have developed systems about digitizing your paperwork, if you need to do that, where you can just buy a scanner and then you scan it, and it goes to a digital inbox somewhere. And it’s there if you need it, but it’s not taking up your physical space. So with physical space, pretty easy. So just stuff that’s cluttering your desk, so when you’re doing this, is this like… You said it shouldn’t be a continual process, how do you know when you’re done? How do you know when you’re tidy enough on your physical space? Or even this could apply to the digital space.
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah, so what you’ve gotta do is you’ve gotta have your starting place, so kind of like your first go at this, and you’ve gotta do this in kind of a condensed time period. This is not a process where you’re gonna spend an hour this week, an hour next week. There’s a sense of having to put everything in one place because a big part of the method is to realize just how much you have, whether it be how much physical stuff you have, how many emails in your inbox, how many meetings you go to every week. So you wanna make these piles, either, literally these piles, or metaphorically these piles, so that’s a process that has to be done in a condensed period of time.
So you go through that initial process of… And let’s just take the physical space as an example here. And you could spend half a day going through the physical process, going through books, paperwork, miscellaneous stuff and sentimental stuff. And then after that, as you go through that process and you apply these three criteria we talked about: Is it necessary? Is it helpful for the joyful future? And does it spark joy? You’re not only choosing what to keep, you’re also teaching yourself an important lesson about what you value, what you prioritize, how you’re spending your time. And this is a set of criteria that’s going to stay with you, that when you encounter something in the future, it could be a piece of paper, it could be a request to do something, it could be an email, you’re gonna be able to more quickly and more accurately and more effectively apply these three key criteria and make the decision: Is this an item or an activity that I wanna keep? So after you go through that first process, which is the most time-consuming part of it, afterwards you’ve internalized these rules that make subsequent decisions so much faster, that you never really have to go back and do all of that initial work again.
Brett McKay: So it becomes second nature with practice, basically?
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: Which is what you’re going for, okay. So let’s talk about the digital space, because physical space, you can see the stuff, it’s in front of you, you trip over it, so I think people get that, they can feel the clutter. But your digital life can be cluttered as well. What type of things… I mean, how has digital clutter changed the tidying game?
Scott Sonenshein: Well, it’s changed a lot because as a lot of the world is moving online and digitally, a lot of the clutter is naturally following through, so we’ve got over-stuffed email inboxes, hard drives that are packed with files and phones that are full of apps that are constantly chirping and buzzing and beeping at us and just annoying and distracting us. So the bigger challenge with digital clutter relative to physical clutter is storage space just seems endless, so it’s so tempting to just say, “Let me just keep everything. Why do I need to bother getting rid of anything, because I have more or less unlimited space?” But the challenge is that, that clutter creates downstream effects. So, for example, never deleting a file on your hard drive ends up cluttering your file system. That makes it more difficult to locate documents that you need. Emails just take up a lot of time and people just have a hard time deleting anything, that when they need… When they actually need an email that they should have kept, they can’t… They can’t find it. And phones, by just constantly having apps on it are just… You’re just providing more reasons for the phone to be interrupting you.
And we know from the research that a single interruption from a phone, it could take as much as 26 minutes for the brain to recover and go back to the place that it was at. So it’s not benign to just say, “I’ve got unlimited storage space, let me just keep all of this stuff around.” All of those things turn into distractions.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I know when I first started using Gmail, that really changed the way I used email because it was just like, “Oh, you can just archive it, and then just pull… Do a Google search, basically, in your email inbox and find whatever you need whenever you need it.” But then you have to start thinking, “Do I have that? Is that even a thing?” You have to start maintaining a file in your head, which can just cause a lot of problems.
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And it’s extreme. I think the Guinness World Record Holder, a guy by the name of Joey Manansala with 4.2 million emails in his inbox. But you don’t really need to be Joey to have a problem. I think a lot of people struggle with digital clutter because they don’t… They either… You end up with different ways that people handle this. There’s people who just will never process an email. It will stay in their inbox, and if they need to find something, they’ll have to rely on the search function, which could help a little, but they still are gonna end up with a lot of hits to have to go through. So for example, let’s say you’re working on a PowerPoint presentation for a client, and you search for “deck,” and you end up with your home improvement project popping up. So you’ve got issues like that. And then you’ve got issues of sometimes you wanna be able to look at a thematic set of emails, which is also difficult if you’re simply keeping everything.
But at the other extreme, you’ve got people who’ve got just hundreds and hundreds of folders, that the folders themselves become a problem to just try and think, “Ooh, what folder does that go in?” or, “What folder is this email that they need to go reference in?” So what we recommend here is to have a pretty limited set of folders, so no more than 10 folders. There’s lots of… The research on digital processing shows that even when you provide an overwhelming amount of evidence to someone that one system is more effective than the system they’re using, they’re just very resistant to change. So I think in this aspect of tidying, we’re a little more flexible than in some of the other aspects. But what we do recommend is limiting it to about 10 folders that are meaningful to you. For me, I basically have three main folders. I have a Current Project folder, these are things that I’m currently working on, and I’ll have a sub-project for each current project I’m working on.
Just a Records folder, these are email records that I need, and then just a Saved Work folder where I would have other things that I need to save. And then you can either delete things or sometimes, like in my business there are things and records I actually need to maintain for 10 years just for scientific purposes. Those can go to a separate part of your email, so they’re not returning when you’re searching for other things and don’t clutter up the rest of your space. But I think people need to be less afraid to delete messages that they’re no longer going to use and to really think of the inbox just like you think about your desk. “This is a space where I process work that I’m currently working on. It’s not a space to archive my entire career, what I’ve been doing in my entire life and every conversation I’ve had.”
Brett McKay: And what’s your recommendation on processing? ‘Cause there’s different systems out there like Inbox Zero, so every day, your inbox should be zero, and everything should either be read, responded to, deleted or filed off somewhere. What’s your take on that?
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah, so I don’t do Inbox Zero. I think it’s fine if people wanna do it. I think there are just some messages that it just takes more than a day to respond to, and so they create an artificial limit and say, “I’m not ending the day until I have no messages in my email box.” That to me is a bit extreme. But if you think about, “Okay, these are the things that I’m currently working on,” and you wanna leave those in your inbox, that’s fine. But you don’t want your inbox to really get bigger than what you can scroll on the screen because that creates visual cues of overwhelmingness. And you turn on your computer the first time in the morning, and you don’t wanna see a whole bunch of visual clutter. That sends some pretty negative signals to the brain about feeling overwhelmed. So you do wanna keep that limited, but it doesn’t have to be zero. And I recommend doing email in a few batches a day. So it could be in the morning, in the afternoon, at the end of the workday for you, whatever works for you. What you don’t wanna do is get in the habit of every email you get, you feel like you need to respond and eliminate immediately. Because when you do that, that’s just gonna take over your day and create a much bigger mess than the email itself.
Brett McKay: I Imagine… So one of the goals of this, if it’s sort of the spark joy philosophy, this tidying philosophy, so you just do it once, and you basically don’t have to do it again if you don’t have to. With email, we sign up for stuff all the time. That can be a great place to go see like, “Where am I getting these recurring emails that I don’t even need?” and unsubscribe from those, so you don’t get them anymore.
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah, I think that’s one of our recommendations, which is at one time you were really excited about these email lists. You probably forgot about half of the email lists that you were signing up for. You can go through the process of literally unsubscribing from each of them and then saying, “Okay, do I really wanna resubscribe to it? Does this list really spark joy?” and then go ahead and resubscribe to those. And what you’ll realize is you’ll engage more with the messages you care about because the rest of your inbox isn’t cluttered with a bunch of stuff that you really don’t wanna read.
Brett McKay: What about your smartphone? What’s the big problem there with our smartphones with clutter?
Scott Sonenshein: Well, I think with smartphones, it’s mostly apps. We tend to, on average, add 12 apps a month to our phones, but we only delete 10 of them. So simple math tells us that over time, we’re gonna have more and more apps on the phone. And it’s not so much the battery power or the storage space that they take up with. It’s really just the constant nagging and beeping and the distraction of those. So the advice there is to only have apps on your phone that, again, are necessary, helpful for that joyful future or spark joy. And as many as you can, silence the notifications, turn off the notifications, so you’re in control over when you want to engage with the information. Otherwise, the phone is gonna be in control of what you’re doing. And you kinda see it as you’re kind of around, and you see other people, and you see their phone beep. And it’s almost like they have this instinctual biological reaction where they jump as if something unbelievably important is happening on their phone. And it might just be the fact that on Facebook their friend posted they were at the donut shop.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, so another place where clutter can end up, we don’t think about where clutter could end up, is our calendar, our schedule. So what sort of activities do we find typically cluttering our day that just make things harder for us to get stuff done?
Scott Sonenshein: Well, so, in the book, we talk about this kind of new class or new way of thinking about cutter, which is activity clutter, which is really doing things that aren’t making a difference. And a lot of times, we end up with activity clutter as a distraction from work that we really care about. So we don’t wanna do the more important work, maybe it’s working on a difficult project or having a hard conversation, whatever it might be, so we end up just picking up side activities as a distraction. Email is one of those distractions. It’s certainly not the only distraction. So, with activity clutter, we’ve got to be careful because it really takes us away from the work that we ought to be doing, and that, hopefully, brings us a lot of joy in doing. So what we wanna do in terms of avoiding activity clutter is, again, thinking about that metaphor of what it would be like to bring your physical stuff into one space, you really wanna do the same thing with your time and make what we call a task pile, which is a pile of… Could be index cards of all of the things that you’re doing in a week and kind of see how are you actually spending your time, and are there things that you’re doing that are not really making a difference.
And what most people find when they go through this exercise is that there’s a lot of the things that they can eliminate. It could be a report that you produce that no one ever reads, and everyone in the office, everyone in the workplace, knows that no one reads this report, yet, you’ve always been doing it. Or there’s a presentation that you give to inform a decision that’s already been made. Or the weekly meeting that just constantly gets held because it’s Monday at 3:00 o’clock, and we’ve always held a meeting at Monday at 3:00 o’clock. So this is really a technique to be much more intentional with how you’re spending time, and for people to realize that when you say no to things, you’re making space to say yes to things that matter more.
Brett McKay: Love it. So another place we can declutter are decisions. So what’s going on there? How do we accumulate decision clutter?
Scott Sonenshein: Well, with decisions, there’s two types of clutter, basically. There’s one we make far too many decisions than we have the capacity to make. There’s different estimates of this. We make a lot of decisions subconsciously, but some people peg the number at about 10,000 decisions in a single day, which is just an astronomical number. The second challenge we have is that within any given decision, we end up with a lot more choices than are optimal. So you can think about this as you just go to the grocery store and you see 50, 100 different varieties of cereal, that also tends to overwhelm the brain. So what we wanna do when we tidy our decisions is focus on the higher stakes decisions that are gonna be the most impactful, and trying either eliminate, outsource, or delegate decisions that have lower stakes. There’s decisions we can automate. There’s decisions that we really don’t need to spend time thinking about, what brand of copier paper do we want, what kind of font do we wanna put on the presentation, instead, focus on the content of what’s in that report or the substance of the presentation. Those are decisions that matter a lot more.
Brett McKay: And it sounds like as you declutter your physical space, or even your digital space, you’re also decluttering decisions in the process?
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah, no, absolutely, and you’re developing the capacity to make better decisions because one of the things with tidying is… People talk about the benefits of, the joy that it brings you, or how organized it makes you, but it also is like holding up a big mirror to yourself. It is inherently a process of self-discovery where you look at yourself in a mirror and you ask what are the things that I stand for, who am I, how am I actually spending my time? And it’s that self-discovery process that helps in other aspects of your life, and certainly making decisions, is one great example of where that helps.
Brett McKay: So a common piece of advice that you see in the business literature, whether it’s on blogs or books or magazine articles, that you have to grow your network so you can move ahead. But you make this case that spending all that time building your network, you’re basically just building up a lot of clutter, and it often bears little fruit. Why is that?
Scott Sonenshein: Well, there’s a distinction that we have to make between a large network and a large network of people who actually care about us and who we care about, because simply having a large network of people who we don’t care about and who don’t care about us isn’t gonna be a network that’s gonna be helpful when we need information, we need advice, we need other types of things. So, what we wanna do is we wanna focus on developing more quality connections as opposed to quantity. So I guess that the general rule here is to just stop being infatuated with size and focus on the quality. The brain and neuroscience research shows that we can only handle about 150 meaningful connections. Outside of that, we just can’t possibly keep track of that. So we wanna focus on quality, and what I mean by quality, is these are connections that we feel that we can be vulnerable with, who we are actively looking to try and help, and, in return, are actively trying to help us back.
Brett McKay: So, wait, how do you focus on building that high quality contact? Do you think it just sort of happens naturally? I mean, that’s where my… Been my experience. I feel like when I’ve proactively tried to network, it bears little fruit, but every now and then, I can just by doing the work that I’m doing, I run into people who we both find some mutual benefit and we both… Enjoyment out of the relationship.
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah, I think there’s lots of ways of building quality relationships, but through a natural process as opposed to being in cocktail parties, and I should just say, that’s one of the things I hate most is having to go to a cocktail party. As an introvert, this is one of the worst environments for me to be in. So that’s where my bias is coming from, but it’s very rare to build a meaningful connection that way. Certainly, if you have a shared interest with someone, a shared passion for doing something, that’s much easier. I think the trick here is really to be present in the relationship, so the amount of time it can take you to write, let’s say, a handwritten note to someone versus the amount of time it could take to like a post on Facebook, or to, you know, give a thumbs up on a LinkedIn post. I mean, those are very different experiences, and kind of the Facebook and LinkedIn and all the social media ones come across as really, just very cursory, and not very meaningful. I mean, in fact, they have pre-populated messages you can send on LinkedIn. So if someone gets a promotion, and you can just click a button and say congratulations. I mean, that’s not really how you build a connection.
You can imagine what that would be if instead, you actually wrote that person a customized email or even a handwritten note offering very specific and genuine congratulations, as opposed to simply just clicking a button. So that’s the first thing, is to really be present and to kind of not just do the bare minimum, but to show genuine interest in someone because that’s the foundation of a good connection. I’d say another thing you can do is just help people, that’s a great way of starting off a relationship is making the first move and in helping them do their best work, or solve a problem in their life. That builds trust and that trust tends to be reciprocated in relationships. If it’s not, that’s a signal to you that that’s probably not someone you want to form a high-quality connection with. But if it is, that trust then tends to build over time, and makes it easier to move to deeper aspects of the relationship.
Brett McKay: That sounds like what you and Marie did, right. She reached out to you, you had like sort of this the same interests. And this is what… You got a book now together.
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Brett McKay: So here’s something that I think people will be happy to tidy up, meetings. Everyone… No one likes meetings. But we have… Sometimes we have to have meetings. So how do we tidy those up? How can we figure out like when we absolutely need to have a meeting? And then when we do have those meetings, how can we make them effective without spending a lot of time in a meeting?
Scott Sonenshein: Yeah, I mean, I think when I talk to people, and I see this in my research too, is meetings are the thing that people just despise. And it’s, everyone’s in the room, no one wants to be there. No one feels anything is being done. Yet we can spend up to a third of our days in meetings. I mean, it’s just, you know, one of these things that is universally hated, but also universally done. So the question is, well, how did we end up in this position? And I think that’s a good starting place because it helps us solve the problem. And I’d say, part of this is as we’re getting into our careers, we become part of the problem. And what I mean by that is, we develop almost a sense of meeting FOMO, the sense that if I didn’t get invited to this meeting, it means that I’m not important, or I’m not valued, or I’m not going to advance in my career. So we clamor and clamor to get invited to more meetings, even though we know that we’re not going to enjoy them, and they’re not going to be productive.
And so that’s, that’s kind of the irony of what’s happening with meetings. So I think what you want to do is focus on those meetings where you feel like you can make the most contribution. And, you know, sometimes you just don’t have a choice. I mean, we work for supervisors, and bosses, and they might order us to go to a meeting. And I think, people underestimate how much agency and freedom they have, and realize that having a conversation, a diplomatic conversation about whether or not this is the most productive use of your time, I think people are reluctant to have that conversation. But again, if you think about the role of a the manager, which is to help optimize resources, that person he or she doesn’t want you wasting your time if it’s not valuable for you to be there. And so I don’t think people should be bashful about having that conversation. When you get invited to a meeting, I’d say, you know, first ask for an agenda. If the organizer doesn’t have an agenda, that’s probably a really bad sign, you might wanna politely suggest or have a supervisor politely suggest that they send out a meeting to show this is the structure of how we want the conversation to unfold. This is our objective.
If you have a meeting that, for example, is really meant just to spread information, disseminate information, as opposed to generate discussion, or make a decision, you don’t really need the meeting. So that information can be put in a message, a short email, it could be put into a video, you don’t need to have everyone in the room at a specific time to just spread information. But making decisions or generating new ideas, those are really what are good for meetings. So I think asking for an agenda is a really big part of it, making sure that there’s a clear objective at the end of the meeting, this is what we wanna do. Having the right people in the room is also important. You really can’t have an effective meeting, if the number is going more than 10. It’s just hard for everyone to be heard, everyone to feel like their opinions are mattering and counting. So you want to keep the numbers, you know, 10 or fewer. You wanna have a timeline. I mean, our attention spans are increasingly shorter and shorter. So when you’re going more than 60 minutes, I mean, you’re already pushing it at 60 minutes. So don’t go more than 60 minutes. I think that’s also important.
And, find a way of summarizing what you talked about at the meeting and, trying to say, “Okay, well, this is what we decided, or this is the ideas that we generated,” to not only kind of crystallize what the meeting accomplished, but to also kind of signal to people that says, “Hey, you know what, not every meeting has to be bad, and the problem isn’t that meetings are bad. The problem is that meetings are unorganized. And when they become organized, they could can be very effective tools for getting work done.”
Brett McKay: I like the idea of just like nixing all informational meetings, because I’ve been in organizations where the manager there wanted to do, or the person in charge wanted to just have meetings, where you just spend an hour where every person just sort of reported what’s going on. And it’s like, “How could this not have been done in an email?”
Scott Sonenshein: I mean, what a waste of time, if you think about just how expensive that is, in terms of people and time, when everyone could have just contributed to share the document on the drive, spent their two minutes doing the update, and everyone could have spent five or 10 minutes reading everything and got the same amount of information. But meetings for some people are more of a political tool, and they become a way of showing, “Hey, look, I’m important because the meeting I’m running, look how many people are here, or, look at how often we meet.” But the reality is, is you’re just killing the joy out of everyone who’s going.
Brett McKay: Well Scott, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Scott Sonenshein: The best place is my website which is www.scottsonenshein.com, and that’s S-C-O-T-T, S-O-N-E-N-S-H-E-I-N, and you can download some information about each of the books Stretch and Joy at Work, and you can also get some freebies in terms of I’ve got a quiz up there, I’ve got some book discussion guides, as well as some articles that I’ve written about these ideas in a variety of different magazines.
Brett McKay: Fantastic, well, Scott Sonenshein, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Scott Sonenshein: Thank you so much again for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest there was Scott Sonenshein. He’s the co-author of the book Joy at Work. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere, you can find out more information about his work at his website, scottsonenshein.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/workdeclutter where you can find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.
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