Focus On This Podcast

53. How to Have a Full Focus Workspace



You arrive at work every day laser-focused on your Big 3. Then you walk into the office. Unread reports are stacked on your desk, so you rifle through them. You can’t find a red marker so you run to the supply closet. You open your Planner, then notice it’s sitting on top of that book you have to review. Better start now. You realize it’s lunchtime, and you haven’t started your first real task of the day. How did this happen? 

The real villain here is not you or your workload. It’s the clutter in your workspace. It constantly tugs at your attention, finally wearing down your ability to focus. But we can fix that in just a few simple steps. 

Follow this easy plan, and you’ll have a clean, inviting workspace that points you toward your top tasks every day. You’ll feel relaxed and focused on your work. And you’ll leave each afternoon feeling a greater sense of accomplishment.

In this episode, you’ll discover—

  • The negative impact of physical distractions on your work.
  • What you must do before you ever tackle decluttering.
  • Why you have to make a bigger mess before you can clean it up.
  • How to overcome your emotional resistance to decluttering your workspace.
  • Practical steps on how to group, sort, and select a home for everything.

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Episode Transcript

Verbs: Welcome to another episode of Focus on This, the most productive podcast on the Internet, so you can banish distractions, get the right stuff done, and finally start loving Mondays. My name is Verbs, and I am here with the one and only Blake Stratton. Blake, good to be back in the chair with you there, sir.

Blake: It is good to see you again, my friend. How are you?

Verbs: I’m doing well. I feel like we’re flip-flopping now that Courtney is absent on this episode but you’re back.

Blake: She is. Don’t turn that dial, friends. I know you’re disappointed she’s not here and you’re stuck with me, but Verbs is here.

Verbs: I am. I’m here for the full run.

Blake: What are we talking about today, man? What can you and I reasonably tackle without Courtney’s help? Should we talk about…what do you think…sneakers?

Verbs: Oh. That’s a whole other podcast.

Blake: I’m shopping for some sneakers right now. I need some help.

Verbs: Okay. We’ll talk later. I’ve got you. So, here’s a question I want to pose to our listeners. Do you have one of those squeaky-clean offices? Is this you? Are you that person? Or do you just have a massive pile of everything that just lives on your desk? Or has this ever happened to you? You get to work laser-focused on your Big 3, and then you pick something up off your desk, and it reminds you of an urgent task, and that derails you for your entire day.

Blake: I’ll go first. I couldn’t hear any listeners chime in just now, so I guess I’ll go. I don’t know that I have a squeaky-clean office, and by that I mean I currently do not. I’m definitely somebody who will be benefiting from what we’ve developed for this episode myself, but I’ve been there before. I think, for me, my pattern, my rhythm… My workspace, literally, got interrupted, adjusted, thrown off earlier this year with all the coronavirus stuff, working remotely.

I kind of bounced around different places. I was at home, being in different places in my house. I’ve recently landed back into a workplace, a standard place I can come every day, a small office, so I’m really excited. It’s almost like… When you get a new phone, Verbs, do you do the thing where you import everything or do you like to start from the clean slate, like, “What apps am I going to use?”

Verbs: I normally import everything that was on my prior phone.

Blake: Oh. See, I like starting from the clean slate and just being like, “What’s going to happen?” You can’t see this, dear listener, but I have many bookshelves behind me. This office came with an exorbitant amount of bookshelves for an Audible subscriber like myself, so there’s a lot of empty space. You could call me a minimalist at this point.

I’m curious for how I can create a workspace that is conducive to focus. I’ve been there before, but I feel like I’ve let that slide in the other chaos of this season. Maybe you listening feel that same way, where sometimes your desk or maybe even your home… The level of clutter kind of mirrors the level of stress or clutter you feel mentally. How about you, Verbs?

Verbs: You know what? As you’re talking about that, I feel like… You know when you have a certain goal going into the holidays that could relate to how much dessert you might intake on the upcoming holidays, and then you get into the holidays and you just say, “You know what? Hey, January 1 is coming. I’m going to set a new goal.” I feel like that’s kind of my desk situation during this whole pandemic season.

Blake: Your desk has been to three different staff Christmas parties?

Verbs: Staff Christmas parties, different relatives’ houses, especially that one aunt who knows how to really bake a pie. I feel like that’s kind of where my desk is. There’s a place I would desire it to be, but working from home and being here hours of the day, I get visited by my children a lot who bring me gifts, and those gifts end up living on my desk. Plus, I have these little inspirational figures I keep around my desk just because I’m that kind of a guy. So, I’m anxious to hear these steps as well as our listeners are, I’m sure, just because I know this is something I’m working at to get better at.

Blake: Clutter is like this constant drip. I was listening to some old Death Cab for Cutie records, taking me back to my college days, and there’s this one where he makes reference to a leaky faucet, and it’s this constant drip. I feel like that’s what clutter is like. Nick, our producer, can’t remember what song it is. You can tweet at me what song it is, friends, if you get it. Or actually, Nick, you can search Google now. I’ll let you know if you’re right.

There is this effect clutter has on us, where it distracts us in subtle ways. It’s almost exhausting. You can step into a cluttered workspace, and it’s almost like your body can feel that tension or that distraction or that lack of peace. That subtle chaos actually can sap mental energy from us. That’s why this is so valuable.

We have a podcast about focus, and most of what we talk about is mental or it’s the rhythms. The tool the Full Focus Planner is really designed to organize thoughts, but your physical environment plays a huge role in that. I see that our content team dropped in some knowledge, some actual research. Verbs, do you see this quote? Can you read this quote for us?

Verbs: This quote comes from Erin Doland, and she’s summarizing the findings of researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute. It says, “When your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter makes you distracted and unable to process information as well as you do in an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment.” I pretty much think that underscores what you just said about walking into an environment and just feeling that peace or not.

Blake: So, what you’re trying to say is I’m essentially as smart as a Princeton University neuroscientist. That’s what you’re saying. Those are your words. Those aren’t my words.

Verbs: The dots seem to be connecting. Yes.

Blake: Okay, cool.

Verbs: So, let’s talk about some ways that we can actually kill the clutter and organize our workspace for maximum efficiency. We have five steps for you today. When you do these steps, your workspace will be clean and inviting. You’ll feel relaxed and focused on your work, and you’ll accomplish your Big 3 almost every day. Blake, are you ready to get into it?

Blake: Let’s do this.

Verbs: All right. Step one: set aside time to declutter.

Blake: This is an obvious but important one. We always say, “What gets scheduled gets done.” There is nothing seemingly less urgent than a cluttered office or a cluttered workspace. It’s not going to make or break an urgent to-do list item, typically. Unless your office is currently on fire, it won’t push itself onto your to-do list. Right?

Verbs: Yeah, if your desk is a fire hazard in itself, this should happen today.

Blake: Exactly. If it’s breaking some kind of code, maybe that made it on your list. Otherwise, for the rest of us, put it on the calendar, literally. In fact, right now, maybe you’re on the treadmill or you’re on a walk. Take out your phone and find 20 or 30 minutes or, if you know it’s going to take a while, you could plot a couple of hours worth, depending on how big and how cluttered your space is, to really dive deep and complete the rest of these steps. But put it on the calendar.

I would say, if you can only get 15 or 20 minutes to start, it’s going to help, but if it has been a long time, you want to look at even two or three hours. “When could I actually almost get back to a place of new normal? I want to reset the standard of what my office feel is.”

Verbs: And that time may be based upon what is on your desk or what is living on your desk, because it will take a moment to sort through some of those items. But that’s step one: set aside time to declutter. Now step two: put all of your items in the center of the room. Blake, why is that important? Or what does that help us accomplish?

Blake: I did this after reading this book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. No one has ever confused me with being as smart as her, but it was a great book, and I did this with my wife a few years back in our house. It was a massive… I mean, we needed more than a couple of hours for that project for a whole house. But that’s what she recommends to do. The interesting thing about that is when you do that, it’s this big, ugly pile, but what happens is you get visibility on everything all at once.

You can see the context of everything, and the natural importance, the natural categorization almost reveals itself. If you’ve read any Marie Kondo stuff or watched her show on Netflix, you know she has this thing about “Oh, does this spark joy?” You can very quickly see the things that are sparking joy or sparking utter disgust or just sparking a crinkled nose because it has been in the back of a closet and it doesn’t smell good. This is kind of a monster sort of task, depending on how many things you have, but it is effective.

Verbs: Sure. I guess one of the ideas behind that is you’re not trying to sort out or organize it at this point. You just want to get it all out there to where you can see it and take stock of what’s there.

Nick: Hey, everybody. It’s Nick, your favorite producer.

Blake: Hey, did you remember the Death Cab song?

Nick: Yes, I did. By remember I mean I looked it up. It’s “Marching Bands of Manhattan.”

Blake: Ding, ding, ding! Verbs, will you send Nick his coupon for 15 percent off of Chipotle, or whatever he gets for that?

Verbs: At the Full Focus store.

Blake: At the Full Focus store. Exactly.

Nick: I actually am curious about the emotions it takes to grab everything out of a closet and put it in the center of the floor. I just don’t want to pass over this. I have not done this. I’ve watched all of Tidying Up on Netflix. I know the book. I know about sparking joy. I think that’s the kind of step, Blake, that people will hear, and they’ll go, “Okay. Great. But I’m not actually doing that. ” I’m really just curious about the emotional journey you undertook to start it and then to do it.

Blake: I think you just contrast it with the emotional state of what the clutter is causing. Honestly, for us, when we did this with our house, it was “I never feel really settled even in my own home,” and that saps a lot of things. If you want to fast-track sapping the romance out of your marriage, just make sure your house stays totally cluttered all the time. Or in your workspace, if you want to feel distracted all the time and anxious…

If you’ve never tasted what it’s like to feel totally at ease, you should go to my coworker Trey’s office, because his office is so cool-looking, and it always feels great. It’s really nice and tidy. He can always tell if I’ve been in there on a stolen Zoom call, because he keeps it really nice. So, for me, Nick, you’re not going to do this unless you schedule the time.

You can’t do this step if you only scheduled 15 minutes. It’s not feasible. But if you did schedule a couple of hours worth, then you just go, “Hey, you know what? This is going to be…” To be honest, I was kind of excited about it. Once you start doing it and start putting stuff in the pile, you’re like, “Oh man. Yeah.” I think the shift that happens is I’m in control of my stuff, not my stuff is in control of me.

Verbs: That’s good. I think that’s an important statement, because as it’s growing, you feel like it’s out of control, and that kind of puts you back in the right seat. So, that was step two: put all of your items in the center of the room. Moving on to step three: make a list of all of the natural groupings.

Blake: So, natural groupings… We just mean the possible categories of things you have. Look at the pile. If it’s an office, you’re looking through audio or computer equipment, maybe photography stuff, supplies, you know, paper or pens or things you keep as backup, maybe reference material if you have to keep a lot of paper on hand in your office, miscellaneous items, books, that sort of stuff.

Just begin to write down what those categories are. In this step, you don’t necessarily have to take the time to separate everything and have a half dozen more piles. You’re really just taking note of what the possible categories are and taking stock of that to prepare you for the upcoming steps.

Verbs: All right. That’s step three: make a list of all of the natural groupings. Step four is decide what is going to go where. Blake, you mentioned Marie Kondo earlier, and I think that’s a smart option to go with. Sometimes, when we know we’re coming to a weekend where we need to really focus on housecleaning, my wife and I will normally throw on an episode of Hoarders just to terrify us, so if we do have to survey anything we feel like we need to hold on to, immediately, everything needs to go before we even approach that sort of clutter. So, what do you have for us on step four?

Blake: This is kind of cool. Our team at Michael Hyatt & Company recommends this five-zone organizing system, and I think this is really, really smart. Essentially, what you’re doing is you’re organizing according to your frequency of use.

Zone 1 are items you use daily. You use them all the time. You want that zone to exist on your desk. Have a big enough desk for Zone 1. Keep these items at hand…a pen, your computer, keyboard, Kleenex, you know, those things that you’re working through and using all the time during your day. It goes without saying, your Full Focus Planner would be in this zone. Hint, hint.

Zone 2 are items you use frequently, not necessarily every day, but this is something you want to be within reach. These are things that you can kind of just scoot your chair, take one step away…things you’ll use on a regular basis, but not necessarily all the time throughout the day.

Zone 3 are things you use occasionally, so, usually within a few steps of your desk…audio equipment or video equipment if you only use that when you’re doing a special kind of thing. It’s going to be different for everyone. I should mention, all of these items… I can list examples, but you’ll have to take stock of that yourself, because depending on your job, that’s different. Actually, maybe I’ll pause at Zone 3. What are some things, Verbs, for you that would be Zones 1, 2, and 3 items?

Verbs: I’ll start with this Zone 3, because we have our days where we do record podcasts, so I might have a few more cords closer to me on my desk which, at any other time, probably don’t need to be there and can move to a Zone 1 situation until I need them. So, I may be violating all of these zones currently, but I’m actually glad we’re walking through them.

Again, for me, my desk has also become kind of a toy hospital. My kids will come and drop off things that need to be fixed. I actually need to find what zone those can go on so they don’t feel slighted in any way and know that Dad is still on the job, but items like that I need to place in its appropriate zone.

Blake: What I like to have on my desk is a physical inbox, something that’s kind of a collection box for things that need to be processed. I use a virtual inbox in an app I use called Things. If you’ve listened to our podcast for half of one episode, you know we’re all about the Full Focus Planner, but even though that’s paper and pen, we still recommend using digital tools.

An app like Things… That’s a digital tool I use, and I will use it if I don’t have my pen or whatever else. When someone sends me an email, I’ll just forward it in, and it collects that. When it comes to my physical environment, I think it’s helpful to have one of those on my desk, a physical inbox. I’m just thinking about your kids, Verbs, and “Hey, I need Dad to look at this.” It’s maybe urgent to them, but it may not have to be urgent to you based on your workday or your schedule.

So maybe there is an inbox just for what the kiddos… Like, “Okay. Here’s your inbox, and I will get to these. I will process through this, maybe in my workday shutdown or an evening ritual.” But having an inbox physically, if it’s for documents, mail you get, you know, someone sends you something… It could be anything. You just put it in there, and then, as part of a workday shutdown, get to inbox zero in your physical inbox.

Verbs: Blake, I love that idea, because they will definitely let me know if it hasn’t been processed to their liking. What about Zone 4? Tell us about how you implement this in your own setup there.

Blake: Sure. Zone 4 are the rarely used things. Sometimes these don’t even fit in your workspace. We’re not mistaken. We know that not everyone has a huge office. Maybe you only have the physical space for Zones 1 and 2 and maybe 3. Zone 4, those rarely used things… There may be a closet in your office, and if so, that’s a great place for a Zone 4 item, some place to put it in storage.

At Michael Hyatt & Company, we actually have an off-site storage facility for extra planners, extra books, extra supplies, and that’s our Zone 4. We rarely need those things. On the occasion we do, normally we have lead time. Maybe it’s for a BusinessAccelerator intensive or a filming of something. We can go there to get that thing. That’s Zone 4. If you’re working from home, Zone 4 may not even be in your office. It could be in your attic. It’s something that you know where it is, it has a place, but day to day it’s out of sight.

Verbs: Sure. Now, this next zone is where that episode of Hoarders could come in handy. That way, any emotional detachment to something you absolutely need to get rid of can happen within one to two episodes. Zone 5. Tell us a little bit about how that’s best executed.

Blake: Zone 5 are the things you never use, so they are candidates for the trash or candidates for Goodwill. You can sell these things or donate them. Just get rid of them. If you never use this, assuming it’s not a piece of decoration… Like, maybe you have some memorabilia, something decorative, something that inspires you. It’s not necessarily a use type of thing. Obviously, there’s an exception there, but to Marie Kondos or the minimalists…

I’m friends with a minimalist author, Joshua Becker. He has great insights into this stuff. If you want some additional reading, Joshua Becker is brilliant. He has written several books about this. There is a lot of freedom in just taking something to Goodwill or making a few bucks and realizing, “Oh, I haven’t used that in years.” Just put it on Facebook Marketplace. That’s Zone 5.

Verbs: I love that, man. So, step four was decide what is going to go where. Last but not least, we’re going to talk about step five: place each item where it goes.

Blake: This is a really important step. Otherwise, you’ll be tripping over that pile in the middle of your office.

Verbs: Right. The pile remains.

Blake: There is something about everything… What’s that old saying? “A place for everything and everything in its place.” This is where that comes in. You can’t put everything in its place until there’s a place for it. When you follow this organizing system with these zones, it’s going to be very conducive for focus and for getting the right things done, which is what we’re all about. The idea here is when you’re done with this, it’s easier and easier to not be overcluttered.

You shouldn’t have to do something like this exercise more than maybe once a quarter. Maybe. Maybe twice a year. Maybe once a quarter you review “Hey, how is my setup?” You make it part of your quarterly preview that we teach in the Full Focus system. The idea is if something is loose, something is left out, you know exactly where it’s supposed to be, and where it’s supposed to be makes a lot of sense.

Verbs: And once you’ve established these zones, this is something you can incorporate into your workday shutdown or your workday startup, wherever you see something like this could take place in your day, which kind of keeps it up until those quarterly review sessions as far as when you’re asking yourself, “Is this setup working for me? Do I feel productive in my space?”

Blake: Exactly. Again, just to kind of tie all this together, we’re not the experts in interior design. We’re not Marie Kondo, but where we do have expertise is in accomplishing the right things and in goal achievement. If you’ve set big goals for yourself, if you’ve set a goal that is risky, a goal that’s exciting, something that’s going to stretch you to be in your discomfort zone, you know it’s going to take everything you have. It’s going to take a lot of overcoming resistance to achieve the goal.

So, by taking the time to do this, you are removing a very, very unnecessary but constant resistance that’s likely present in your life. That’s how this all connects. That’s why this is a Full Focus process even though it’s not something we teach on that much or it’s not in the planner. It’s so helpful because we know if you really want to have focus, if you want to accomplish your biggest goals this year… 2020 has enough resistance. 2020 has enough distraction. Right?

Verbs: Absolutely.

Blake: This is an easy win. If you feel like you could use more control over your year, this is an easy one. Start here and control the physical things in your workspace.

Verbs: So, if you’re being weighed down by all the stuff around you, we have a solution. Again, here are the five steps to decluttering your workspace for maximum efficiency:

  1. Set aside time to declutter.
  2. Put all of your items in the center of the room.
  3. Make a list of all of the natural groupings.
  4. Decide what goes where.
  5. Put each item where it goes.

You’ll feel better, you’ll be more focused, and you’ll get more stuff done. Blake, do you have any final thoughts for our Focus on This team that you can leave us with?

Blake: I’m trying to think of what Courtney would say in this situation.

Verbs: Something profound. The pressure is on, buddy.

Blake: Something profound, like, “Guys, just do whatever Blake told you to do.” No, I’m just kidding. She would say something actually profound. I don’t know if I can match it. Verbs, what about you? What’s your takeaway? Are you going to put it on the calendar? Are you going to declutter? What are you going to do? Get your kids to do it for you?

Verbs: No. The opposite would occur. What I love about what we talked about today is these zones, so I’m going to set aside some time where I can actually think through those zones in my current space and then remove some of this extra stuff off my workspace and be able to be a little bit more focused. So, I’m looking forward to that.

Blake: Excellent. Well, thank you all for joining us again for another episode of Focus on This. We’re glad you made time for us. We’re glad you stuck with us even though Courtney is not here. I know you love Courtney, but you stayed with us.

Verbs: She will be back, by the way.

Blake: Oh, she will be back. Okay, cool. I thought she was quitting.

Verbs: That’s important to know.

Blake: I’m just kidding. I knew she’s coming back.

Verbs: This is the most productive podcast on the Internet, so please share it with your friends. Remember #focusonthispodcast. We will be here next week with another great episode. Until then…

Blake & Verbs: Stay focused!