Have you ever tried to have a conversation amidst a lot of background noise? Read the paper with the TV blaring? Focus on work with your kids arguing around you? Or even worse, having someone yelling at you while you’re trying to concentrate on, well...anything? These situations leave most of us feeling stressed out and downright grumpy, not to mention unproductive.
But sound isn’t the only thing that makes noise. Stuff...clutter...mess create visual noise that can distract and stress us out just as easily. If you are surrounded by disorder and frequently feel yourself tensing up for seemingly no reason, it may be time to quiet your environment. It’s not as hard or time-consuming as you may think.
Obviously, the best way to maintain a visually quiet atmosphere is to purge your excess belongings, designate homes for everything you own, and then put things away as soon as you’re done using them, but getting that set up doesn't happen overnight. And if you have a spouse, roommate or kids, you know they excel at foiling those plans or at least at slowing your progress in reaching that noble goal. But regardless of your situation, there are still a few things you can do right now in just minutes to muffle the visual noise in your home until you have a chance to stifle it permanently. All it takes is regular (1-3 times daily) sweeps of the common areas where you spend the most time to do the following tasks:
Except in extreme circumstances, these tasks will only take 1-2 minutes each at most and the more frequently you sweep, the quicker it will be each time. After a while, it will become second nature and you won’t even have to think about doing it. I like to begin and end my day with a sweep of the main level and also do one before leaving the house. It rarely takes me more than 5 minutes. Doing everything on the list during your sweeps is ideal, but even just doing a few will make a big difference.
It won’t come as a surprise to those of you with little ones that kids are negatively impacted by too much visual noise, too. They often act out or have difficulty focusing in a cluttered environment. Get them to participate in the solution while they are still young enough to enjoy helping. This establishes in them the habit of regular and frequent tidying, underscores that home maintenance is everybody’s responsibility, and creates a baseline level of tidiness they will strive to maintain moving forward. If they are used to living in clutter, they will become desensitized to it (until it reaches an overwhelming or crippling level). If they are used to a more orderly environment, they will be more likely to maintain it.
Even very young children can share in the room-sweeping task before you leave to go play at the park. Assigning them a different “occupation” each day makes it sound more fun. Here are a few ideas:
If you’re not used to regular tidying, it can feel like a big chore to start. You may even try to convince yourself that it’s just a waste of time to put things away that you’ll be using again later. But remember that the purpose of keeping a tidy home is not to just have a tidy home...it’s to avoid feeling frustrated, stressed and anxious. When things are tidy, you will focus more easily, feel better about yourself, and relax knowing that you can find what you need. You’ll actually enjoy your surroundings more without your mess constantly yelling at you to clean it up!
With a quieter environment, life will become a whole lot easy peasier!
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I never used to be an anxious person, but parenthood and home ownership changed all that. And then Covid happened. Stress and anxiety seem to have set up a permanent residence in my life, but that doesn’t mean I have to allow them to make themselves comfortable here. Understanding what feeds them helps me keep them in check.
For me, it’s all about control (or a lack thereof), so it should come as no surprise that I’ve learned to use my organizational skills to my advantage. When my house is tidy, I can focus and I don’t lose things. When I have dinner already planned, it’s one less thing for me to worry about. Maintaining lists of all sorts (shopping, to-do, projects, etc.) ensures fewer things fall through the cracks, and keeping a strong grasp on my schedule means I am better able to control my time. I wasn’t always this organized...it happened gradually over many years as I realized how much better having everything in order made me feel.
Facing the unknown is another trigger. Worrying about how much a home or car repair will cost, fear of not knowing how to accomplish an important task, anxiety over what a future situation will look like so that I can be adequately prepared (especially when it comes to my kids) are the things that keep me tossing and turning in bed. Experience has taught me that research is my friend. The sooner I learn the answers to my many questions, the sooner I can relax. Sure, I can worry that I won’t be able to pay for a new air conditioner, but maybe I don’t actually need a new air conditioner. And if I do, I can research the various options for financing it until I find one that will work for me. Knowledge leads the way in finding workable solutions to the things we all worry about.
Background noise, distractions, and the physical aches and pains that accompany old age have also become bigger issues for me in recent years. I’m not able to do as much physical work in one stretch as I used to be able to do, and sometimes this creates stress, especially when time is of the essence. Finding ways to recharge my batteries, improve my focus and soothe my senses relieves tension and makes me more productive in the long run.
I’m learning that it takes a lot of energy and effort not to slide down the slippery slope into negative thinking. Focusing on the half of the glass that is full instead of the half that’s empty takes practice. How I talk to myself matters. Occasionally I need an injection of positivity from outside sources. Maintaining healthy, supportive relationships that build me up instead of tearing me down keeps me on a positive trajectory. I look for inspiration and motivation from the experiences of others. And a bit of humor goes a long way in reminding me not to take it all too seriously.
Realizing each of these triggers, I’ve identified four primary ways to quiet my stress and anxiety when they become too unruly:
Unexpected circumstances happen all the time and breed stress and anxiety in all of us. Sometimes just the realization that something will eventually arise to derail our best-laid plans makes us feel anxious. While you can’t plan for every contingency (you’ll drive yourself crazy if you try), there are many things you can do now to mitigate the stress and chaos that rear up when it does happen:
C’mon, you already knew I was going to say this, didn’t you? But it is true that organization makes you more nimble in a crisis. When your home is in order, you can locate necessities in a hurry, other people are better able to assist you, and repair people have easier access to areas requiring attention. Having a firm handle on your time and to-do list facilitates rearranging your schedule at the last minute and delegating responsibilities to others. Maintaining current contact info and keeping important documents at your fingertips also speed up everything when time is of the essence. Finally, planning meals in advance (including an emergency back-up dinner plan for those surprisingly hectic days) ensures you maintain your healthy eating plan and avoid the fast-food drive-thru, even on the busiest night.
Maintain an emergency fund
Home and car owners know that Murphy’s Law is real. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong at some point, guaranteed! Those unexpected repairs can cost beaucoup bucks in addition to the sheer inconvenience they bring. Setting aside money from each paycheck and keeping it in an easy-access account saves you from having to borrow (often at high interest rates) or worsening the damage by delaying a much-needed repair until you can afford it.
Assemble an emergency kit
Actually, make several. Gather you are likely to need in an emergency and store them in a convenient spot. Here are just some examples:
Back up electronic records
Technology is great...until it isn’t. Our heavy reliance on electronic storage of information comes at a disadvantage when we can’t access our usual tools due to a power outage or internet disruption. Keeping a written list of your passwords, account/policy numbers, prescription drug and other key medical info, and even your driver’s license and social security numbers in a safe and secure place can be a lifesaver in such circumstances. I once had a client whose husband lost all of his identification (passport, driver’s license, social security number and birth certificate). Replacing each lost document required having at least one of the others. It was a nightmare! Fortunately, his wife thought that maybe she remembered his driver’s license number...and she did! It saved the day!
Quick communication can make all the difference in an emergency. Keep your phone adequately charged (unlike my kids who run it all the way down before recharging). Make sure you have updated contact information handy at all times for the following:
Choose an “Emergency Buddy”
Identify someone reliable and trustworthy who lives locally but not with you and ask them to be your Emergency Buddy. Give them a copy of your home and car key/s, tell them where they will find your various kits, and grant them permission to pick up your children at school/daycare, if necessary. Add them to your list of emergency contacts and make sure they know how to reach other key members of your circle and vice versa. This way, they can assist if you are incapacitated or need help retrieving key items from your home during an emergency.
Devise escape and meetup plans
Especially if you have young children, it is crucial to practice what to do in case of a fire, tornado or other emergency. Devise escape routes and designate a meeting spot in case you get separated. Help your children memorize your phone number and address and teach them when and with whom to share this information (and when not to). Make sure they know where to go for help if you get separated from them while away from home and when/how to call 911. Ensure that everyone in your household knows where to find the spare key and/or how to contact your Emergency Buddy.
With a little organization and advance planning, even reducing the stress and anxiety that accompanies life’s curveballs will be easy peasy.
“The gentleman at the next table has ordered you a large portion of unpleasantness. How would you like that served?”
“I’ll have it procrastination-style, please.”
“Ok, so on a bed of dread with a side of guilt then... served cold?”
If you really want to savor the bitter taste of tasks you wish you could avoid, procrastinate. Sounds yummy, no? Then take action to get them off your plate as soon as possible. The only thing worse than being faced with something you dread doing is prolonging the experience and adding to it feelings of guilt, inadequacy, stress and anxiety.
But first, it’s worth asking yourself why you are procrastinating in the first place in order to figure out how to stop doing it. There are many reasons you might put off doing things:
1. You find them unpleasant.
Figure out how to make them more pleasant, or at least less unpleasant. Work with a friend, listen to music while you work, make a game out of it, plan a reward for afterward, or break it into smaller, more manageable chunks.
2. You would rather do something else.
The quicker you get your task done, the sooner you get to focus on the things you enjoy. Not only that, you’ll actually revel in those activities more when you aren’t encumbered by a sense of dread and/or guilt at not tackling your unpleasant task first. By getting the awfulness out of the way, you won’t have to worry about having adequate time to complete it properly.
3. You think if you wait long enough you might not have to do them.
This might be correct, but if that turns out to be incorrect, the delay will shorten the time you have available to do it. This will increase your stress level and likely yield substandard results.
4. You aren't sure how to do them.
Your first step should be finding the information you need. See this experience as a chance to learn something new and feel accomplished. When you change your attitude and approach it as an opportunity instead of as a chore, you are less likely to dread it. The next time you’re faced with a similar situation, you’ll feel more confident in your ability to meet the challenge.
5. You don't know where to start.
Begin with a “preparation step”. Buy supplies you know you’ll need, line up help from a friend or family member, research some information, schedule an appointment, or ask someone else for advice on the best place to start. Once you take that first step, the next one will come easier. The worst thing that could happen is that you miss an important step and have to start over again. At least then you’ll know where to begin, right? And remember, not taking the first step will never get the job done. Where you start isn’t nearly as important as just starting somewhere.
6. You lack the resources you need.
Whether you need money, information, assistance, or time, identify and create a plan for acquiring the resources you need. Even if this means you have to wait awhile until you have them in order to begin the task, you can still make progress just by working on obtaining them.
7. You’re afraid of what you might discover.
Realize that uncovering a problem is always the first step in fixing it. If you’re avoiding a medical appointment, doing your taxes, or calling the plumber simply because you’re afraid your worst fears will be confirmed, putting it off won’t improve the situation. However, learning the truth sooner may. Perhaps your fears are unfounded (imagine the relief!), or maybe finding out about a problem now will mean fixing it before it gets even worse. At the very least, you’ll reduce your uncertainty and all the anxiety that comes with it.
Side note: I'm not usually one to procrastinate...anymore, but when I do, it's almost always because of 4 or 7. It requires lots of self-awareness and conscious effort to avoid falling back into the old habit of putting things off under these circumstances. But I realized a long time ago that it's worth the effort in order to avoid the anxiety-laden aftertaste of my self-indulgence.
Whatever your reason for it, procrastination definitely contributes to your level of stress and anxiety. The only remedy is action. Organization can help.
If you find yourself with a heaping plateful of tasks you’d rather avoid, season it with a generous blend of confidence, determination and just a sprinkle of organization, and then gobble it up before it gets cold.
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.