Your Messy Desk is Hurting Your Writing Career. Here’s How to Declutter

Your messy desk is hurting your writing career
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What does your #writespace look like? Share a photo on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest with the hashtag #writespace and tag us @thewritelife!

You want to write, but you can’t. It’s not writer’s block, a lack of ideas or a blank wall. Instead, it’s information overload with myriad to-dos fighting for precedence in your mind.

You start to make a list, but your desk is a mess, with piles of papers (all important), post-it reminders (even more important) and books (most important of all) haphazardly stacked on every inch of space. How can you begin to work in this environment?

Clutter’s effect on creativity and productivity

Clutter makes it difficult to focus on one task or object, according to researchers at Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute. Your brain has a limited ability to process information, so a disorganized work environment pulls your attention in different directions — and away from your writing.

And it’s not just physical clutter; a digital build-up of emails and social media notifications can be just as bad for us, according to Mark Hurst in Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload.

What does that mean for writers? Dividing your attention between several stimuli — like your novel’s plot hole, your messy desk and your Twitter feed  — often results in increased stress and decreased creativity and productivity.

Try these strategies to take control of the clutter and manage your writing space, both external and internal.

Declutter your physical space

Clearing the detritus from your workspace allows you to start fresh. Plus, getting up from your desk and moving around is a great break from work; who knows what new ideas you might inspire by getting your blood flowing?

1. Clear your desk

Set a timer for five minutes. Take everything off your desk and from your drawers (except your computer or notebook and pen, of course). Put every other item in a box, out of sight. As you work for the next three days, if you need an item, bring it back to your desk.

2. Organize your less-necessary items

Anything left in the box after three days isn’t crucial. Go through it and sort the items into two piles: file or discard. Save the items you need, like receipts and invoices, but be tough on yourself. Do you really need those to-do lists from two months ago?

3. Improve your storage system

Where you keep your go-to objects is important, but only the ones you use the most should make it to your workspace.

Place your most used items within reach for easy access, like in the top drawers of your desk or on a nearby shelf. Less-important tools should be out of sight and filed away. While your computer might live on top of your desk, your thesaurus might only come out during rewrites.

4. Set yourself up for success each day

Before you quit working at the end of the day, take a few minutes to set everything back in its place. This way, the next time you sit down in your clean, uncluttered space, you’ll be able to get right to work.

Declutter your mental space

Even the most spotless desk won’t help a busy, distracted or disorganized mind from focusing on writing. Try one of these strategies to clear your mind and help you get back to work.

5. Journal

It’s a popular option for a reason: journaling about what’s bothering you helps reorganize your thoughts. Whether it’s your novel’s plot, your personal life or the challenges of freelance life, writing your problem out will help make space for new approaches and solutions.

6. Make a to-do list

Trying to remember everything you need to do in the next day or week isn’t conducive to doing quality work. Instead, follow productivity guru David Allen’s advice and write everything down.

Create a system to manage your tasks and schedules so you stay organized — and can get back to work. Need help? Try one of these free tools and apps.

7. Make a to-do-later list

Don’t stop your writing session to research a quick fact for your story or find that link you want to include in your blog post. Instead, keep a running list of small tasks that come to mind while you’re working, but don’t interrupt your writing. You can always look up a tiny detail, like the price of the first iPhone, once you’ve written the rest of your article or chapter.

7. Turn off notifications

Anything that makes a noise or pops up is distracting. Turn off all notification signals while you write: put your phone on silent or Do Not Disturb mode, turn off email notifications and close or silence social media sites.

8. Clear your inbox

While you might not want to pursue Inbox Zero, purging your inbox of unread newsletters and messages helps restore a sense of control. Take 30 minutes to scan your emails and delete unnecessary ones.

Maintain this change by unsubscribing from newsletter that are no longer relevant, or use a service like Unroll.me to bundle them into one scannable message.

Enjoy your uncluttered writing space

Putting these strategies to work doesn’t mean you’ll need to become Sam or Susie Spotless, magically organized and perfectly calm; as Mikael Cho points out in a post on Lifehacker, you want the space to feel like it’s yours.

“While clutter has been shown to negatively affect your performance, it is your perception of clutter that matters, not someone else’s. If having a notebook, pen, or a photo of your significant other on your desk, doesn’t feel like clutter to you, then it’s not.”

The key is simply to create more space, both external and internal, in your writing life — helping inspire new ideas, more creativity and better productivity.

How does decluttering your writing space help you? Share your thoughts and photos with the #writespace hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, and tag us @thewritelife!

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Marcy McKay is an award-winning copywriter, short story author and freelance writer. If you’ve ever struggled with your writing, you can download her new and totally free book, Writing Naked: One Writer Dares to Bare All. Fin... .

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Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Marcy! I can’t work if my desk is a mess. I have to take a moment and clean/clear. I’m the same when my to-do list gets out of control. I evaluate it regularly because I’m over ambitious about what I think I’ll get done in a day. 🙂

    • Thanks, Elke! Sometimes, I CAN work with clutter around me, but I’m not very productive. It’s like a mosquito buzzing around in back of my brain and I cannot fully focus. WHY don’t I stop to clear away the clutter, or at least hide it to deal with another day?!

      Oh well, we’re all doing the best we can. You sound organized and focused. Keep up the good work!

  2. I love your ideas on keeping an organized desk and I actually manage to make it happen about once every six months. The thing that is most distracting though, is not my desk, but the computer. I have to turn everything off to stay focused on writing. If I hear a ping, ding, or trill of any kind it squirms into my brain until there’s no hope and I have to see what it’s about. Without fail I don’t come back to writing for at least thirty minutes. Now, I make it a routine to “turn off and write”.

    • Congratulations on actually keeping your desk clean every six months, K.J. That’s better than most writers!

      I’m with you on the pings and dings from the computer. It’s wonderful we have more resources than ever before. It’s difficult we have more distractions than ever before.

      Sounds like you’ve got your game plan. Keep up the great work!

      • Fortunately for me, my computer *doesn’t* ding. Unfortunately for me, it *does* bug me with silent notifications that zoom across the screen! I don’t know how to turn them off!

        • Hi Perse – I’m not a techy, but I think you can turn off those silent notifications under SETTINGS on your computer. My suggestion would be to find a teenager and they can help in less than five minutes.

          • Thanks, I’ll try that. They can, can’t they? You know, my associate is far past teen age and knows more about computers than her teenage daughter does.

  3. Philip Turner says:

    Oh Marcy, this is so true!
    I used to have my own office, then my other half moved in. Now I am down to one corner desk from the four I used to have. I move from desk to desk to work on different tasks. After a major ‘discussion’ she is moving most of her stuff out and will only use my office when i am not in there.
    I am one of these people who need total silence to work; I cannot concentrate when someone else is even in the room, let alone talking to themselves, tapping computer keys or swearing as she plucks her eyebrows! Personally I can ignore visual clutter up to a point, though I agree that it is better to clear it all. It is the aural clutter that gets to me, chatter, high heels on timber floors, dishes clattering, chat shows on the radio . . . I just cannot cope at all.

    • I REALLY like that term, Phil — aural clutter. I’m with you 100%. My very best writing time is 5-7 am before my husband and two teenagers are up and moving. The world isn’t awake yet (including me). It’s like writing in a dream state.

      Yes, sometimes I read back other that and think IT STINKS, but I usually find a gem or two, or many. That’s just what works best for me.

      I envy those who can write in coffee shops and other public places. Like you, I cannot. I can answer email, read blog posts, etc, but for pure writing — I need the sound of silence. Thanks!

    • I’m bothered by several types of noise, but found out accidentally that listening to a thunderstorm in my headset helps. Not sure why it works for me, but I’ve been doing it long enough now that rain means write to my brain. I can write almost anywhere but true productivity requires a sense that I won’t be interrupted.

      • Fantastic that you’ve figured that out about the thunderstorm, Robin. I have an author friend who always gets ideas for novels, solving plot problems, etc. while bathing.

        I googled water and creativity and found, “Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower.” http://blog.bufferapp.com/why-we-have-our-best-ideas-in-the-shower-the-science-of-creativity

        I guess keep making it rain, so you can write!

        • Interesting. My nickname in my house is “Big Ears;” I literally hear all. It’s my best sense. I can hear whispering downstairs. But I tune out most mundane noises. For instance, every weekend the neighbor runs this huge, *loud* cleaning machine, and it drives my family to the point of mild swearing (words they make up themselves, of course). I, however, never even notice it until someone complains!
          Also, there’s a clock in my room that ticks *very* loudly. It’s loud enough to bug the entire sleeping upstairs. Some of my family complain; some have the grace not to. I never hear it, but I know I would notice if it suddenly stopped making noise!
          I never notice the fridge motor or air conditioning, either. And when the neighbors had a fountain running out front, it drove my family to insanity, but what did I hear? Nothing!

  4. Lisa Nicholas says:

    I have given up on my (physical) desktop and moved my laptop to a TV table, which has just enough room for the computer and mouse. When weather permits, I write on the patio; if it’s too hot or cold, I carry the writing table inside near a window. I keep all my notes, journal, references, etc. “in the cloud” so that I can access them from the laptop or my Kindle tablet. I found this system really helps me focus, and I can carry my “office” with me wherever I go.

  5. Wow, Lisa. That’s fantastic. Sounds like you know you and your writing habits, and working how is most productive for you. Fantastic!

    I especially like how you know your desk isn’t organized. Rather than being someone you’re not, you move to another space — either within your house, or on the go.

    We can all learn from you. Thanks!

  6. This is great, Marcy! I’ve been participating in a 30-day clutter clearing challenge, and many of these cover our daily challenges.

    One thing I learned about clutter is that until it’s gone, we don’t realize how bad it is, how quickly it accumulates, and how distracting it is. Clearing the clutter (inner and outer) leaves more space in your life for what you love — like writing! 🙂

  7. Marcyyyy

    Gosh! My heart sings when I spot your articles in my inbox 😉

    Oh dear – I have a Ph. D in all kinds of cluttering – lol! But I am moving to a new home this week and have vowed to be more organized – physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally! LOL

    Hmm….I want to buy a book shelf and place it BEHIND my desk, so I wouldn’t be stressed out by the growing pile of books that I buy and never read *sigh* I am going to start penning BOOK REVIEWS soon, and will only have one fiction and one non-fiction book on my desk. I need to buy paper, pens, pads etc – those colorful stationery items make me smile 😛 #IAmCRAZY hehe

    As for the mental clutter, NOW THAT one is FAR more difficult. I am seeing a hypnotherapist who is helping me a little with my HORRIBLE thoughts. I also need to PLAN my future – I want to do so much: freelance writing, set up blog, continue helping my current clients, pen a tiny e-book, read, write, write, write ( 😉 )

    One thing at a time, eh?

    LOVE YOUUUU and LOVE YOUUUUR posts
    Kitto

  8. Barbara Rae Robinson says:

    My desk is a total mess. I print out too many things and then pile them instead of file them. If it goes in a file, I’ll never look at it again. So I have binders all over my office. I just need to get more stuff into binders. And get rid of the papers that no longer are relevant. I’d rather write though.

    And my current novel series is in binders and on loose sheets of paper. And notepads.

    Yes, I have a room that is total office space for me, including a recliner for reading. On the opposite end of the house from the TV. I need my solitude, then iTunes supplies the background music to relax me.

    Barb

    • Hey there, Barb. Yes, your system sounds a bit disorganized, but it also sounds like it works for you. CONGRATS.

      However, I PROMISE if you throw away some of your paperwork that you no longer need, you’ll feel even more creative. Wait until after your typical writing time, maybe a bit tired, so you don’t feel like you’re wasting time.

      Or not. You’re doing great, so keep going!

    • So lucky. I share a less than two-meter square office space with two other people. For my own storage, I have a desk, five bookshelves, and a single-drawer file cabinet.

  9. Sweet, Kitto,

    The main thing I would suggest to you is what you already said: ONE THING AT A TIME!

    Congrats on moving to a new home. Don’t be surprised if you do not suddenly become a neat-nick. You are who you are, and that’s great.

    If you have a laptop, pick it and move away from the computer. If you can’t put in all in a box, out of sight. I like the idea of the shelf behind your desk. Great!

    As for the mental clutter (especially those HORRIBLE thoughts), the next time you catch yourself doing it. Stop! Since you love me so much, try to hear my voice in your head. Would I talk THAT WAY to you, Kitto?

    That would be a big, fat NO. Next, try to hear me telling you something nicer…something more positive…something you deserve to hear.

    You’re a gem of a person, Kitto. Please start being kinder to yourself. Thanks for stopping by, and good luck with all your writing endeavors.

  10. I force myself to clean my desk once a month (and it’s due again for sure). Decluttering mentally is harder but I work at it. 🙂

    • This decluttering post prompted on a spree — I’ve cleaned out my closet and gave away a bunch of clothes. It just feels good to get rid of what I no longer need, to make room for awesomeoness…whether, it’s on or off the page!

  11. I make it a habit to clean my work area once a week. It does make all the difference. It must be something psychological because whenever I feel it’s organized and fresh, I do a lot better than if it was a complete mess. I have a place for everything and everything has a place 🙂 Great post.

    • I want to be as organized as you, Logan. However, I agree with you when I do feel fresher, more organized and creative when my writing space is clean.

      What’s that old saying? “Sharp pencil. Sharp mind.”

      Same principle here. Good luck in all your writing endeavors, Logan.

  12. That’s true to a certain extent, Blanca, but I’ve known some brilliant slobs who write like the angels kissed their fingers. Crazy.

    Thanks for commenting.

  13. Love this post!

    I think it really does tackle the issue of us writers just wanting to brute force our way through everything and bleed out words on to a page, unfortunately not disciplining our minds for the actual task of writing.

    Time to clean my desk…

  14. Thanks for this article. It came just in time. I am preparing for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – November) and my office needs some “freshening up.”

  15. Dulcinea Gil says:

    Thanks so much for this most helpful post!!! By now, I really needed your adivices and suggestions! I’m allways interrupting writing to do other things, namely the emails and other clutter – papers, articles, pages I need to go through or revisit, etc, etc…
    THANKS again!!!

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