Seattle Community

Greg Marshall
Director of Community Education
Bellingham, Washington
Extraordinarily helpful
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Simplify or Die

The business world is pretty darn stressful for many of you right now. Everyone seems stressed out. REALLY #@$% STRESSED OUT!! Yep, time to simplify your business life.
Written Aug 30, 2010, read 3218 times since then.


The business world is pretty darn stressful for many of you right now.  You may be working more hours, scrambling to get more leads, or packing in more meetings and appointments into your schedule.  Everyone seems stressed out. REALLY #@$% STRESSED OUT!!

Yep, time to simplify your business life. 

This isn’t some back to nature, tofu-eating simplification process.  This is a new and modern business/life simplification that will help you lower your stress, and stay focused.  The more I work at simplifying my life, the more I realize that simplification is a base component of everything from organization theory, time management, stress reduction, and all those other issues self-help books tells us we need to work on.  Learn to simplify and you will make headway with all your other "problems" and save a ton of money on self-help books.

So my interpretation of modern simplification movement is this: “Remove the clutter from your brain and the areas around where you butt sits.”

Your brain, for all its wonder and ability, still processes in a fairly linear fashion.  Your brain really has a hard time remembering too many pieces of information for very long.  (Read Brain Rules by John Medina for a great and entertaining look at some of the new research on these processes) Basically, everything your eye sees, your brain has to categorize and do something with. Worse, if you brain sees a pile of files, it “thinks” about each file and not the pile as a whole.

So knickknacks on your desk create extra work for your brain. Piles of work create even more issues for your brain.  Your home is also a real problem for your grey matter.  If you have a real cluttered house, your mind doesn’t get a chance to rest.  As you walk in the door it’s categorizing everything it sees.  Your brain looks at messes and sub-consciously plans the cleanup effort.  So all that stuff piled around your house never helps you to relax as your brain is constantly counting and reorganizing it!

Even many of the systems we create to manage our time and remember things actually clutter our cranium with too many steps and too much to remember.  Many systems take more time and effort than they actually save. 

It’s time to simplify.

Starting with your desk and work areas, evaluate all the items sitting around you.  Are they really needed? Get rid of anything that doesn’t have a purpose.  This doesn’t mean you can’t have a picture of your family on your desk (we are not animals!) but do you really need 3 or 4?  Get rid of the pen cup.  How many pens can you use at one time?  Get one nice pen and keep it on your desk.  Put a highlighter and a spare in your desk.  Get rid of the remaining pens.  You don’t need a pen cup. 

Books, magazines, newspapers, DVD’s, and any other data should be seriously weeded through with 90% of what you have hoarded gotten rid of.  We are by nature hoarders.  Everyone thinks they are going to need it again, or use it again.  If you haven’t re-read or watched in a couple months, pass it on to someone else.  With the Internet, almost everything is available to us that has been printed or that has been released on dvd.  You can always find a new copy if you need it again later.  Better yet, you may be able to find a used or free copy.  This applies to home as well.  I got rid of 10 bookshelves of books.  I ended up with a lot more storage for the things I decided to keep and a lot less physical and mental upkeep went into books I never read.  Movies are the same way.  I don’t buy movies anymore.  With Netflix I can watch most movies whenever I want.  Why store bits of data when you can cheaply get the data when you want it?  I get books on my Kindle software on my iPhone.  I do miss the feel of a book in hand, but, I always have the latest business title to read at a moment’s notice when I have a little extra time.  I don’t have to arrange, dust, or maintain those books and other mediums any more.

You may have noticed in the last paragraph that technology has played big into my simplicity drive.  Technology is a big part of the new simplicity movement as it can replace many other items in your life.  Used wisely, technology can simplify your life and save you time.  Technology should never be used for just for the sake of using technology.

The last big area of simplicity is having a good calendar and task system plus good routines for the common procedures in your business.  I use Microsoft Outlook and access remotely through my cellphone.  The point is you want a system that you can enter things once and avoid writing things down on sticky notes and scraps of paper.  You want to be able to enter things that are happening in the future and forget about them until you need to remember.  You heard it right.  FORGET until you need to remember.  You want to clear your brain of clutter just like your home and desk.  You don’t constantly trying to remember everything that is scheduled for the next two months.  The “linear juggling” routine just tires out your brain needlessly.  A good calendar and task system, once used for a while, will become trusted.  Your brain will start to treat task and appointments more like a short order cook…only remembering items when they’re needed, freeing up mental energy to focus on the tasks at hand.

We can all joke about too many procedures, but have good routines and procedures makes your office work better saving time and energy.  Take a look at how the everyday tasks are done in your office.  Processing sales, handling phone calls, sending information to clients; anything that is done frequently and repetitively.  Make sure that process has the fewest steps possible and uses technology to get rid of paper or steps.  Still writing phone messages on pink slips of paper?  Why not send an email.  Still mailing brochures to customers?  Why not send a .pdf file via email.  If you think this process is silly, think again.  I work for a college as Director of Community Education.  We teach 200+ workshops per quarter.  Last year we re-evaluated our process of printing and mailing copies of evaluations to instructors and switched to scanning and emailing.  Last year we saved $4,000 in printing and postage and another $1,000 in staff time.  Not bad for changing just one procedure.

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to simplifying.  The best thing to do is take is slowly, do some reading on the subject, and most importantly take the first steps toward change.  I took those first steps a few years ago and the payoff in less stress has been well worth the time investment for me.

Learn more about the author, Greg Marshall.

Comment on this article

  • Business scorecards / dashboards for QuickBooks / CPA 
Redmond, Washington 
Art Olsen
    Posted by Art Olsen, Redmond, Washington | Sep 08, 2010

    Good article Greg. I found myself relating to much of it. One thing I found useful some years ago was setting my browser homepage to Google. That way when I go to do some research I don't get distracted by all of those eye-catching artilces on Yahoo or the cool pictures on Bing. I tend to stick with what I was searching for instead.

  • Director of Community Education 
Bellingham, Washington 
Greg Marshall
    Posted by Greg Marshall, Bellingham, Washington | Sep 09, 2010

    That's a good idea. I've set my home page to a customized google page. It has a few things on it that I want/need to track. It's a bit distracting compared to just the google search bar, but saves me a lot of time on basic things like checking email.

  • Office Consultant & Organizing Coach 
Marysville, Washington 
Nancy LaMont
    Posted by Nancy LaMont, Marysville, Washington | Sep 09, 2010

    Well put Greg.

    As a professional organizer I find that people, in an effort to gain control, make things way too complicated.

    Their systems actually make more work and stress for their brains. Which means, they fail at their goal of control.

  • VP, Relocation & Business Development 
Alexandria, Virginia 
Jean Sackin
    Posted by Jean Sackin, Alexandria, Virginia | Sep 09, 2010

    Thanks for the great article. I particularly enjoyed the comment about "everything your eye sees, your brain has to categorize and do something with. Worse, if you brain sees a pile of files, it “thinks” about each file and not the pile as a whole."

    I get teased mercilessly about it, but one of my favorite means of simplification is color coding. I don't have to think about what it is --- the color tells me instantly what category "it" falls into.

    I was also told by a wise person that the key to success is to delegate and delete. These days, with fewer people to delegate to, that is not as easy as it once was. However, deleting the unnecessary has proven a necessity when literally "doing more with less."

  • Tax Professional and IRS Representation 
Blaine, Washington 
Bill Bradfield, EA
    Posted by Bill Bradfield, EA, Blaine, Washington | Sep 09, 2010


    Great article. I, too, find myself relating to much of what you said. I periodically clean off my desk, but then over a period of time it gets cluttered again. I need to make that a regular daily task, maybe at the end of the day to clean up and prepare for the next day.

    I have found that when I schedule activities, I tend to do them. When I don't I get distracted and they don't get done.

    Use of Outlook or similar program is really helpful in keeping you focused.

    Thanks Bill

  • Office Manager 
Bothell, Washington 
Maulitta Brown
    Posted by Maulitta Brown, Bothell, Washington | Sep 10, 2010

    As a professional organizer I also enjoyed this article. I will argue though, I like my pen cup.

    :-) Maulitta Brown

  • Consultant & CPA 
Evanston, Illinois 
Adam Bezark
    Posted by Adam Bezark, Evanston, Illinois | Sep 12, 2010

    Right on!

    What do you think of David Allen's "Getting Things Done"?

  • Director of Community Education 
Bellingham, Washington 
Greg Marshall
    Posted by Greg Marshall, Bellingham, Washington | Sep 13, 2010

    Getting things done is a good system. I don't use it as I have my own. I use my task list and calendar extensively in Outlook which is also hooked to my iphone.

    I also try and reduce the number of paper notes that I write and keep. If I take notes on paper in a meeting, I transfer them into the computer. Big fan of MS OneNote to store information.

  • Printing 
Seattle, Washington 
Kathryn Hack
    Posted by Kathryn Hack, Seattle, Washington | Sep 13, 2010

    I enjoyed your article very much. I thought I was organized, but you brought up cracks in my system that are causing me to be less efficient.

    Thanks for the good advice. I will put it to use!

  • CEO/Owner 
Woodinville, Washington 
Charlie Russell
    Posted by Charlie Russell, Woodinville, Washington | Sep 20, 2010

    Thanks Greg. Great article and lots of good comments. We are all now doing more with less and you have certainly helped remind me that we don't have to live with that "Stressed Out Feelin"

  • Professional Organizer 
New York, New York 
Stephanie Shalofsky
    Posted by Stephanie Shalofsky, New York, New York | Sep 21, 2010

    Great article! I can really relate to the points you stressed as I am organizing consultant and have lost track of the numbers of times that I have suggested to clients to keep it simple.

  • Director of Community Education 
Bellingham, Washington 
Greg Marshall
    Posted by Greg Marshall, Bellingham, Washington | Sep 21, 2010

    I fine that keeping my office as neat as possible keeps me very calm. It's very chaotic right now and piles do appear. Since I do take the time to fight the piles and stay organized, I do feel I'm a bit calmer than my staff and counterparts. I can focus on the task at hand and not constantly look at a pile thinking "got to get that done, got to get that done." It's a great time investment even when you don't have time.