Get Rid of Clutter

by Hank Lindborg

In his most recent book, Mind Set!1 futurist John Naisbitt focuses on 11 purposeful cognitive tools that contribute to successful anticipation of and adjustment to change. These are stated as principles or guidelines.

Mind-set No. 10 is about leveraging quality: “Don’t add unless you subtract,” Naisbitt says, citing examples:

  • Professional sports team salary caps requiring a player to be traded or otherwise removed from a roster before a new player is added.
  • Jack Welch’s annual release of 10% of GE employees who didn’t fit his “vitality curve.”
  • Naisbitt’s own practice of limiting the size of his library and improving by disposing of a book each time he purchases a new one.

For me, subtraction is the most challenging mind-set. Why? We are beset by clutter: Old electronic devices and games pile up; stacks of papers grow just in case they are needed; electronic files proliferate on the gigabytes of memory in our pockets; clothes belonging to our earlier and smaller selves mock us from our closets.

Lighten Up! Free Yourself from Clut-ter2 by Michelle Passoff includes a subtitle that suggests just how deeply felt our bondage to junk may be: “Create the space for miracles by freeing yourself from too much stuff.”

Miracles are always hard to come by—especially when we face a daunting type of change. Rolf Smith classifies cutting and doing away with things as a “level four” change, incrementally more difficult than effectiveness, efficiency or improving.3

In quality, we associate this kind of change with eliminating what doesn’t add value. For decades, first in Japan and then in the United States, quality professionals have preached and applied 5S methodology, which is deceptively simple on the surface. The first S (in Japanese, seiri, meaning straighten up) requires that we “differentiate between the necessary and the unnecessary and discard the unnecessary.”4

Know What Is Necessary

We can’t carry out quality work without this first step, followed by imposing order and instituting discipline. If Smith is correct—and based on my consulting in quality and coaching in time management, I’d say he is—the first step might in some ways be the most difficult but the one with the highest payoff.

One difficulty of subtraction lies in knowing what is really necessary. Peter Drucker, our most influential management thinker, advocated “planned abandonment,” referring to enterprises or practices that no longer fulfill a corporate mission or efforts of limited success that won’t go away.

In an interview late in his life, Drucker applied this principle to leadership, recommending focusing on the vital few mission objectives and formulating a critical question for leaders:

“When do you stop pouring resources into things that have achieved their purpose?” Drucker asked, adding, “I always advise my friend Rick Warren [author of The Purpose-Driven Life], ‘Don’t tell me what you’re doing, Rick. Tell me what you stopped doing.’”5

Declutter Your Career

So, what have you stopped doing to benefit your career? What career clutter have you accumulated? As with other kinds of clutter, this sort is an impediment that reduces efficiency, consumes resources and keeps us focused on the past—on things that have already achieved their purpose.

First, take a look at your surroundings. If you’ve become disorganized because of accumulated things and tasks, your job—to say nothing of your career—might be in peril, especially if your boss has adopted Welch’s practice.

Declutter. Examine your activities. Which contribute to results? Keep track of what you can get rid of and can stop doing. Be ruthless. Then turn to deeper issues: What are you needlessly hanging on to in your career?

This is especially important if you’re beyond its midpoint, when renewal is in order. Why? Nostalgia? Self-image? False hope? Security?

For example, how much time do you spend advocating or defending good ideas or projects you generated that aren’t going to happen or previously had mediocre results? What emotional resources do you expend in regret over job choices, over large-scale social and economic changes you can’t affect, or over your achievements that have gone unrecognized?

Letting go might not open you to a miracle, but it can at least increase your efficiency and maybe even liberate a new sense of purpose at work.


  1. John Naisbitt, Mind Set!: Reset Your Thinking and See the Future, Harper Collins, 2006, pp. 93-97.
  2. Michelle Passoff, Lighten Up!: Free Yourself From Clutter, Harper, 1998.
  3. Rolf Smith, The 7 Levels of Change: Different Thinking for Different Results, second edition, Tapestry Press, 2002.
  4. Masaaki Imai, Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, Random House, 1986, p. 233.
  5. Rich Karlgaard, Peter Drucker on Leadership, November 2004, retrieved November 10, 2006, from

HENRY J. LINDBORG is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board.

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