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

by | Oct 7, 2014

Do you have a messy desk? It may be affecting your writing career!

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?

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

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.

Messy desk? 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

Here’s a quick way to clear your messy 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 to clean up your messy desk

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