Sweep It: How To Clean Up the Mess that Adds Up Over Time


image“The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.” — Marie Kondo

What do you do when a mess gets out of control?  You Sweep it.

Sweeping is a technique I learned back in Microsoft Developer Support.

The idea is simple: periodically “Sweep” up the mess that builds up over time.  For our “Sweeps”, we would schedule a block of time to focus and clean up our mess in a batch of concentrated effort.

Sweeping Helps You Whip Things Back Into Shape

You can use Sweeping to periodically whip things back into shape.

Rather than try to keep everything perfect all the of the time, embrace the fact that things erode over time.   Sweep things up after enough mess has built up over time, so that it’s worth spending your time to tackle the mess.

When you use the 80/20 Rule to get results, there’s always a little mess that adds up over time.  Sweeping helps you tackle it in a batch and use your time more effectively.

Why Use Sweeps?

Some things are really hard to maintain as you go.  Either it’s diminishing returns, or the added overhead creates a big drag.  This daily drag wears you down.

Rather than pay the price on a daily basis, you let the problem add up.  Eventually, it will be worth your time to spend a block of time, cleaning things up.

How We Used Sweeps to Clean Up Our Knowledge Base

In our case, we would Sweep the Knowledge Base.  Over time, the content in the Knowledge Base would get stale or we would learn better ways to organize the information.

To Sweep our Knowledge Base, we would block out a chunk of time, say a Tuesday night, or a Thursday morning.   During our sweep, we would clean things up.  We would organize things better.  This was easier after the fact, than trying to do it upfront.

When we tried to do it upfront, we over-engineered things, or didn’t exactly know the best way.  But after the fact, it was easier to clean things up because we learned from actually using it.

By doing our maintenance in a batch, we learned as a team.  And, we had more fun.  We made a thing out of it.

Each sweep was like a fresh start and a breath of fresh air.

The Power of Sweeping

The beauty of the sweep is that rather than try to perfect things up front, you focus on “good enough for now,” knowing that you’ll get a chance to improve it later.

More importantly, you’ll improve it with real feedback,

When I first joined the team, it was common for our articles to sit unpublished for a few months.  In fact, the longer something sat, the more likely it would go unpublished.  People would lose interest or it would end up out of date.  Meanwhile, we missed the windows of opportunity.

The most important change I made in the process was to use frequent Sweeps to clean things up.  This helped debottleneck the process because perfection was holding things back.  Once people got to see that they could fix things, the content flowed faster.  It was alive.  The reality was our Knowledge Base was not static.  It was a living system of information.

Keys to Effective Sweeping

Here are the key I’ve found to effective sweeping:

  1. Pick something that matters.  If you’re going to spend your energy sweeping, then spend on it on something you care about.  One way to prioritize it is pick something that is taking energy away from you or getting in your way on a regular basis.  Use some focused energy to improve it.
  2. Team up.   Sweeping is a great team sport.  When we swept the Knowledge Base, we would find a small team of people that cared the most about it.  We made it a game.  We had fun.  What made it work though was having the right people working on the right things.  Some people were better at customer perspective.  Some people were better at technical accuracy.  Some people had more expertise in certain areas.  Teaming up got more done, simpler, faster, easier.
  3. Tune and prune.  Cut the dead wood.  Sometimes things are just past their time.  It might be better to start from scratch, than the work it would take to improve something.
  4. Carry the good forward.  Find the good stuff and bring it forward.  Sometimes this is the fastest way to build momentum.  Find the stuff that’s working for you or you are proud of and take care of that first.
  5. Get Over perfectionism.  Sweeping gets you over perfection.  Think of it as versioning your perfection.  It’s easier to put good enough into practice when you know that you’ll make time down the line to improve it.
  6. Each sweep is a new chance to improve.   Think of each sweep as a new chance at bat.  You can make incremental and iterative improvements.  It’s a way to version your perfection over time.
  7. It’s the solution to death by 1000 paper cuts.  All the little extra overhead adds up.  You can push them to a sweep where you can batch and focus.  Batching is the ultimate answer to death by a 1000 paper cuts.
  8. See the forest from the trees.  Sweeping helps you see the forest from the trees.  In a sweep, you gather all your rocks.  This gives you a new vantage point.
  9. Fix the leaks.  Sweeping fixes the leaks.
  10. Flow value.  Sweeping helps you flow value.
  11. Revitalize what you have.  Sweeping helps you revitalize what you have.
  12. Learn and improve.  Sweeping helps you learn and improve.
  13. Go from built to last to built to change.  Sweeping helps you shift from build to last, to built to change.
  14. Find the short-cuts.  Sweeping is how you find the short-cuts.  When you have focused, concentrated effort, you’ll find ways to be more efficient.

Examples of Some Things that Need Sweeping

Here are some examples of some things that could benefit from using periodic sweeps to declutter, clean things up, simplify, or make them better to use or enjoy:

  • Sweep your social media accounts.
  • Sweep your email system.
  • Sweep your blog.
  • Sweep your routines, habits, and practices.
  • Sweep your day.
  • Sweep your weekly schedule.

Just about anything you do or create will erode over time.  Just think about how a routine or process that you do got complicated over time.  Maybe it’s time to Sweep it to get back to the basics.

Rather than constantly trying to address the mess up front and get it perfect, periodically do a sweep from time to time, and you’ll find you improve your productivity and peace of mind.

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  1. Oh, seems like cool place to work – Microsoft Developers Support. Do they hire? 😉
    Do you think I can apply it to sweeping my life too?

  2. Sweeping, great idea. Sometimes you just get caught up in dead wood. There must be more to doing something a certain way than, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” 🙂

  3. Hi J.D.
    Sweeping, that is a great idea. I love how it will help over coming perfectionist and clear out bottleneck. Back in my computer tech days, I read a lot of KBs. So this post is very interesting for me.

    Thanks for the tips.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  4. @ Alik

    It was a cool place — I think I learned a lot of my best lessons on getting results there.

    There’s lots of ways to use sweeps for your life. One simple way is to pick a day and sweep your calendar. Reorganize your time to support you. Another effective sweep is to sweep all your in-flight work. Decide what to keep doing and what to cut.

    @ Louisa

    So true. Sweeping’s a great way to force a reality check. I use sweeping to get rid of practices that aren’t working for me and to identify potential new ones.

    @ Giovanna

    I think sweeping is what ultimately helped me get over perfectionism. It was refreshing to be able to defer improvement, and to focus on good enough for now. I really do like versioning perfection over time and I find it’s way more effective than trying to get it all right up front.

  5. I am intending to go through a routine of sweeping messes, instead of accumulating more for this year. It’s not easy to because things are always piling up in so many different aspects and all at the same time. Sweeping my emails for instance is an enormous task!

  6. Seems a little vague to me. I would have preferred more details on specific examples rather than a list of possible areas to sweep. I would appreciate more details on the actual process.

    Following is an example of verbage that seems vague:

    It’s called sweeping. The idea is simple. You periodically “sweep” the mess. You schedule a focused batch of time and sweep your mess…Each sweep was like a breath of fresh air. Our sweeps were fun because we would schedule a time to focus, order food, and team up. I’ve used sweeping since then in work and in life to periodically whip things into shape.

    While those sentences fill space, they don’t describe the process. Nowhere in the article do I find specifics that would help me “sweep”. The thing is I would like to find those things… I just can’t…

  7. @ Evelyn

    What helps me is I try to do a weekly sweep and a monthly sweep. I just block a small chunk of focused time on my calendar. The weekly sweep helps close out any email backlogs or administration. The monthly sweep helps with checking what’s working and what’s not. On my projects, I tend to schedule a sweep once it’s obvious that there’s enough friction or inertia in an area that’s doing more harm than good.

  8. @ Roger

    Here’s the prescriptive guidance:
    1. Identify the problem to sweep
    2. Schedule a block of time (if you aren’t sure, give yourself an hour)
    3. Write down a short list of what you want to accomplish from the sweep (these are your outcomes)
    4. Write down the key action items for your sweep (this is your execution checklist)
    5. Execute your sweep

    During your sweep, it’s more important to make progress than get stuck in analysis paralysis. Think of it like a SWAT mission. It’s laser focus and no distractions. Parking lot things if they start to become major road blocks and schedule them for another sweep. Schedule follow up sweeps if you have to work through a big backlog. Keep chunking it down.

    Does that help?

  9. OK. That’s a little more informative. The ‘sweep’ metaphor doesn’t exactly work for me but I can live with it. Thanks for the info …

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