When some of you saw the word clutter I bet you probably thought conquering a dragon sounded easier than what I’m proposing – but it’s really not, I promise. Unless of course you happen to be Daenerys Targaryen.
Snowed under by all your stuff?
Recently, Business Slayer completed a course at Stanford University and the first assignment was to clean his workspace. As his clutter often spills over onto my desk, I was overjoyed. He couldn’t understand how it would make a difference – except perhaps to my nagging.
When he’d finished the assignment he admitted the task actually helped him focus more and procrastinate less. He was able to dedicate himself to one task at a time rather than sifting through papers or moving books to get to his keyboard.
Physical clutter overloads the senses
At least, that’s what researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found. Their report concluded an excess of stuff in your surroundings negatively impacts your ability to focus and process information. Clutter in all its unorganised glory decreases performance, increases stress levels and worst of all impairs your ability to think creatively.
Clutter vies for attention the way Brielle does when it’s dinnertime, placing her head on my lap, giving me puppy dog eyes and whimpering. While she may be cuter than clutter, like it, I’m constantly aware of her presence and therefore can’t concentrate completely on the job at hand.
This doesn’t mean you have to have a perfectly clear desk or office. Everyone’s tolerance for clutter varies and some studies even admit that having a little mess means you’ve got a limber and creative brain. The trick is to carve a space within the chaos so you have room to create.
It’s not just physical
You didn’t think I was only talking about clutter on your desk did you? In this digital age, clutter comes at us from all directions in the form of overcrowded desktops, social media accounts and anything that goes beep.
With all this digital clutter floating in and around your noggin you:
- lose your ability to focus
- reduce the effectiveness of your working memory
- struggle to switch between tasks (you were never really concentrating on one to begin with)
- limit your creativity
Digital clutter is as erosive to a creative mind as physical clutter and probably more distracting. Your brain is constantly splitting its power to read emails, filter texts and check your Instagram feed to find out where that ‘friend’ who’s always on holidays happens to be soaking up the sun now. Then you’ll look at your messy desk and spend the next minute lamenting your current surroundings and the next ten looking up travel destinations and flights you can’t afford.
Kill your darlings
The worst kind of clutter occurs within my writing and it’s the hardest to get on top of. As I’ve mentioned before, when I write anything, I just let it flow out of me. I like to think of this first draft as a compost heap. A lot of it’s rubbish but some of it is going to allow me to grow flowers and vegetables and other goodies. It just needs a bit of tending to.
This is where editing (and killing darlings) comes in. No matter what I’m writing I go back to my compost heap and get rid of anything that is:
- getting in the way of my message
- repeating my point
- a clutter word – usually adjectives and ‘that’
- not adding to the story or purpose of the article
Basically I take out as many words as possible while still communicating the same message.
But killing darlings isn’t only for people who aren’t published
A while ago my friend (and author) Wanda Wiltshire and I were having one of our regular editing sessions, working on her novel, Allegiance (the second book in her YA fantasy series). We’d come to a chapter where minor characters were discovering a new world and the piece was around 3000 words. It was her favourite part of the entire book. I told her to get rid of it.
Understandably she was horrified. But when a second editor told her the same thing, she deleted it – because she is a good writer and wanted to stay true to her story. The scene was beautiful, funny and entertaining but the problem was it didn’t need to be there for us to understand the main character’s journey.
Killing darlings hurts. Sometimes every word I delete feels like I’m deleting a part of my soul. But you get over it and eventually see how much better your writing is for it.
Where to start when conquering your dragon… I mean clutter
- Tidy your desk and throw out anything you haven’t used in a few months. Organise important papers into files and folders or better yet, digitise your office, scanning documents or articles you want to keep.
- Same goes for your desktop. Keep all your work in separate folders so it’s easy to find and make sure you back it up!
- Keep ideas in one notebook or use Evernote.
- Organise your inbox so all mail is sorted into folders or dumped in the trash once read. My rule is emails can only stay in my inbox if they require action and I keep this number down to six (or at least try to).
- Unsubscribe from mail lists you no longer have an interest in. Unroll.me is a great resource to help you do just that.
- Limit distractions by turning off your phone, email notifications, and social media platforms so you can focus on creating.
- Focus on one task at a time. I love the Pomodoro Technique and not just because I’m an Italian tomato aficionado. Tomatoes is a great online tool to get you started. You can also use the app to time your freewriting.
- Join a writing group or hire a mentor so a fresh pair of eyes can view your work. If more than two people say you should get rid of a darling – do it!
- Say more with fewer words
- Stay on top of it. By not letting clutter get out of control you’ll never have to do a complete overhaul again.
Has any one of these techniques helped you increase creativity? What are some clutter conquering (or dragon conquering) tips you’ve found useful? Let us know in the comments.