Organization as a Secret Weapon to Better Mental Health: Why a Clean Desk Really Isn’t a Sign of a Sick Mind

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Of all the work I do with clients, I find organization to be one of the “secret weapons” to better mental health. From Fortune 500 high-fliers to those struggling just to get enough to eat every day, finding a way to collect, control, and act on all the “stuff” in life increases not only productivity, but also peace of mind. And if you understand organizing, you also understand several concepts central to the therapeutic process.

Getting Things Done with “Getting Things Done”

Personal organization tends to be associated with particular systems and tools. I want to acknowledge right up front that I’m a devotee of the Getting Things Done [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?) (GTD) school of organization developed by David Allen. I use this system both personally and with my clients. I’ll briefly touch on some of the topics in Allen’s system, but you can refer to his books as well as the huge body of literature on the web for a more complete account of GTD.

Collect

The first step of GTD is collecting all the “stuff” that matters in your life. This “stuff” could include material things like bills and emails, but also ideas like “build business” or long-standing problems like “make peace with Mom.” The guiding principle of GTD is that everything which attracts your attention needs to be part of this collection process. This rule is based on the observation that people worry about things they aren’t sure they’ve captured. If some detail of your life isn’t captured in your external system of organization, chances are it’s cluttering up your mind in some way, leading to distraction and anxiety. The flip side of this statement is that when you get 100% of your stuff captured, you feel a freedom to think only about what needs to be handled right know, secure in the knowledge that you’ve stored everything else somewhere where you can find it when you need it.

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Show up in your therapist’s office and a similar collection process is likely to unfold. You’ll probably be asked to “check in” — to review the events of the last week, how you feel about them, and what’s on your mind at the moment. Very much like GTD, “getting it all out there” with your therapist can be incredibly liberating as vague worries and feelings may come into focus. Whether you’re cataloging your receipts or your fears, having a complete list prepares you for another important step of organizing (and therapy).

Reflect

Once you’ve collected all your “stuff”, the question naturally arises “now what do I do with it all?” If this is your first time doing collection, there may be a lot more than you expected and some people will feel overwhelmed by all the stuff they have unearthed. GTD helps by providing a way of sorting stuff according to meaning. Some stuff (and maybe a lot of it) isn’t really meaningful at all. It’s just something that’s in your way. Into the trash or recycling bin it goes! Some stuff (like a bill) requires action. Other stuff, like starting a business, can’t be handled with a check and a postage stamp. These are projects, and projects, given enough reflection, break down into sequences of actions. GTD proposes still other categories into which you can sort your “stuff” but my aim is just to convey the gist of the sorting process, and not all the gory details.

Your therapist may also encourage you to do a similar going through of your “stuff.” Mentally, where we put our “stuff” depends on the meaning we attach to an event, an idea, or a feeling. One way that clients make progress in therapy is to find definite places and labels for experiences. For instance, if you feel uneasy dealing with a certain person, given time and reflection you might begin to discover the recurring patterns in your relationship. The therapeutic world is crammed with different “filing systems” that sort personalities and behaviors into different negative patters like narcissism or passive aggression. Even if the other person’s behavior doesn’t change at all, gaining understanding helps you adjust your expectations, and learning new skills allows you to deal with difficult personalities and situations with less difficulty.

Review

If, one fine day, you had everything in your life perfectly organized (not that that could ever really happen), it wouldn’t be enough. Organization, like gardens, need care and tending. Clean, folded clothes in your drawers end up in the laundry hamper. New bills arrive. Above and beyond the day-to-day upkeep, your life is changing all the time whether you want it to or not. You might be laid off, or offered a fantastic new job half way around the world. You might be getting out of a relationship or into a new one. Yesterday’s perfect organization is tomorrow’s dysfunctional system. While certain principles remain steady over time, how you use them and what matters most in your life can change wildly over time. Review is a way to keep up with and acknowledge all the changes that have happened since the last time you “checked in” with your organizing system. These reviews can be a second-long glance at the calendar to recall what appointments you have today, or a month’s vacation in solitude to refine your life’s direction. In either case, it takes continued effort to do both the upkeep and the realignment necessary to make your organizational map match the actual territory of your life.

Similarly, while it would be great if you could conquer your issues with a single visit to your therapist, it almost never works this way. Therapy takes time for a number of reasons. First, it can take time to trust your therapist enough to bring out the real issues. Second, reflection takes time, so what looked like the problem might not be the actual problem. If your therapy has a focus on developing new skills, you’ll need time to practice those skills out in the world. Furthermore, sometimes problems live underneath other problems that you discover as you go along. The argument you have with your current boss might be driven by old feelings and maladaptive skills learned from people in your past. Finally, life moves on whether we want it to or not. Often the most pressing thing on your mind in this week’s session may have been completely unknown to you last week. Given all these influences, it’s not uncommon to touch on the same subject week after week. Sometimes it feels like being stuck, and sometimes you are stuck, but as often as not, repetition ingrains the work you’re doing so it can hold with you over the long run. On the other hand, therapy can seem to jump around at times from subject to subject. If this seems uncomfortable or unproductive, by all means bring it up in session; yet it may just be a reflection of how your life is in flux.

Whether you’re cleaning out your junk drawer, or sorting through emotional baggage, it helps to understand some of the principles and processes involved. And when you look at it a certain way, the mundane skills of organization have implications for emotional healing and personal growth.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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