Phase 2: Clutter in the creative process
You know your creative process is cluttered when
- You feel an oomph to get things done but when you sit down to work nothing seems to happen
- You have a to-do list that grows more rapidly than it shrinks
- You feel generally uninspired and irritable
- You don’t have a clear sense for what the hell you’re supposed to be doing
- You continue to work hard but don’t get closer to resolution
- Your writing process is draining — you end the work day tired rather than satisfied
Now that you have done some physical clutter clearing, the time has come to de-clutter your creative process. This means a variety of things:
- clearing more physical clutter
- possibly redoing and/or changing where you work
- adopting a better workflow
- revamping your calendar and schedule (The GTD method has been best for me)
- making a lot of adjustments to how you work
Let’s look through a few of the main adjustments you can make to declutter your creative process. Do these and you will notice a dramatic shift in the quality of your work and how you feel. A person’s whole life shifts for the better when their creative practice supports and invigorates them.
Look at yourself and ask what you most want to do right now. What project or projects are the most significant for you?
Be brutally honest about what is actually important.
Focus only on the essentials. Eliminate the rest. What expectations do you have for yourself? Which do you want to have and which do you want to drop? Which activities are/are not in your best interest? Which relationships feel awesome, and which feel draining?
You only have so much time and energy. You can’t focus on everything. The choice is either to try to pursue too many things and not achieve much, or focus on the “vital few” and really shine.
For foundational reading on this topic, check out Essentialism.
Know your own games
While you reflect on yourself and think about your average work day, see if you can find any little unproductive games that you play on yourself.
Games we play that sabotage ourselves. Excuses that prevent us from doing our best work.
Maybe you look through your schedule and find that even though you know you write best in the mornings, you are wasting that time on other activities. It’s a choice that you are making without choosing consciously to make it.
What are the diversions and distractions and energy drains that you invite into your inner sanctum?
An example might be browsing reddit instead of writing.
It doesn’t make anything bad. The ideal is that you should be able to do whatever you want, whenever you want. And that means you should be able to focus on your writing when you intend to.
The ideal is the ability to do things fully. Whether that thing is writing or having coffee with a friend, there is really no sense compromising or trying to cram in too many things and half-assing them.
Be honest. Do you know that unless you write in a cafe you will distract yourself with stuff around your house? Or if you go out to write in a cafe you will just browse social media and not get anything done?
If you need to check into a cheap hotel by yourself for a week to finish your novel, then make that happen. Bam. One week later, finished novel. It might have otherwise taken a year if you’d continue to squeeze it out bit by bit, cluttered by distractions and other duties.
When you’re willing to do what it takes to honor what’s most important, life becomes a lot more interesting.
Everyone has the choice within them: either to fight endlessly with themselves and their own bad habits, or to focus on what is truly essential.
Just as we are prone to allow things to intrude on our creative time, we can also actively invite distraction and diversion.
Sometimes when writers finally get everything else sorted out and they have peace and quiet at their desk, they feel blocked. They know that block awaits them, so they fight to keep themselves distracted. Busy with low priority things.
The stakes of creating feel too high.
So… what will get you to follow through regardless?
Start by saying “So what” to your own work. Yes, you love it. Yes, it’s big and important. But … so what?
Try it. It just feels good to say that, especially when you know that you’re going to do it anyway.
If the stakes feel too high, get yourself to freewrite. Start with ten or twenty minutes of freewriting regardless of whether or not you have anything good to say. You are a thousand times more likely to actually produce something worthwhile this way than if you distract yourself with low-priority activities. Why? Because you’re actually writing.
On the other hand, when the stakes feel high, see what happens if you let yourself sit there without doing anything. No writing, but no distractions, either.
Sit there to see if some part of you can be OK with just being. Sit there and look out the window. No fighting.
Eventually that will get boring and you will feel roused by the desire to make something. At this point, distraction is still not an option. You give yourself two choices: One is a boring one and the other choice is to make something with your words.
Engage the process without expecting anything magic to happen. Be spontaneous. This moment is new and fresh, after all.
Allow the love of writing to be stirred up within you, to come in its own time. It may only take a couple of minutes of patience to reap tremendous creative rewards. Maybe it will take an hour. Do it and prove to yourself that you will follow through. It will come easier next time.
What to do about old material?
Old journals can be a bit of a black hole unless you label them and know what’s in them.
If you have a lot of old material in physical form, you might have cleared it up with when doing a physical clutter clearing, but possibly not.
Maybe this material is important, and maybe it isn’t. If they don’t make you feel good to have them around, toss them.
I have a ton of old journals from storage that I am lately in the process of going back through.
Many of these are from several years ago. Back then, I put basically into a single journal that I carried around wherever I went. Regardless of whether I was writing notes from class, poems, doing a writing marathon or working on a book, I put everything in one journal. When that journal filled, I wrote in another one.
Most of what I wrote, I never looked back through. Some of it got pulled into books or posts or poems.
It has been energizing to go through them and make good of some of the material there… and then to label them and know what each contains without having to open it up and pour through it.
Moving forward, I have a better way of keeping track of the writing I do in physical notebooks and journals: I keep a dedicated book for any given thing.
Digital clutter: Organize your files
Digital clutter is becoming more and more of an issue, whether all of our files are kept in a single place or if we scatter them between different applications and devices. Many people are sitting atop a mountain of digital clutter. If you want to clear your digital clutter but know it will take more time than you want to spend right now, here is a good temporary step:
For now, just shove everything into a folder labeled something like Old Stuff.
That way, everything is still there, but it’s not cluttering up your every file navigation. It’s still clutter, but at least it’s giving you that much more space for your day to day activities.
Allow yourself to bring into the main folder only the one or few things that you really are working on at present.
Not the maybes, the should-dos, or the I-wish-that-I-coulds. Only the central focus. Other stuff can go places that work based on your labeling system.
Do this and there is no doubt as to what you are currently working on, which brings us to an important next element:
Trimming away the habit of chasing several active projects at once
It’s really only possible to do your best work when you’re focused on one thing at a time.
Just being realistic, what is that actual thing? It doesn’t have to be the all-important thing that is to be your life’s work. Just the project you aim to attack right now.
That’s your one active project.
Once you have that, begin to decide what will come next, and then possibly after that.
Discipline affirms that you only do one thing at a time, and this is your thing.
Everybody has some of these things. Maybe they are good ideas or flashes in the pan inspired by one thing or another. Maybe they can amount to something, maybe not. A book you want to read. An article you should write. A podcast you should really get around to starting.
These can really hang over the head.
If you want, even put them in a folder labeled this. Sometimes, we can’t decide everything all in one go.
You can give yourself a bit of space to consider whether you want to do them or not.
“I know I’m supposed to do this, but I don’t want to right now.” Or maybe “I don’t know whether I will ever do it.”
See if you can get rid of it. Maybe you could delegate it to someone else.
Trim away small tasks that seem important but aren’t essential
For me, trying to maintain active social media accounts on several platforms falls into this category.
Even if it was possible, I see it as a waste of time and energy.
Pare your activities down to what you love most and what has the best long-term outlook.
Using social media as an example, I have set aside basically all social media. I have an incredibly half-assed twitter account. I’m not on facebook because I never liked facebook. I have dabbled in forums and different platforms, and my own choice at present is to focus on my own website. I write blog posts, make courses, and that is my main presence online aside from my books. It works.
Changes to make to how you work
Write without stopping.
Even more importantly, as you write, hold yourself in the creative mode — do not criticize or judge anything. Don’t worry about getting things wrong. Focus where you want to go and let what emerges come.
Let it be imperfect, but above all, let it emerge.
Freewriting is not about hating your inner critic. Think of it this way: you are creating material for your inner critic to work with… later. When you write imperfectly, you give your critic the gift of something truly worthwhile to sink her teeth into.
Perceive openly and don’t judge while you write. Give your perfectionist the opportunity to shine by allowing yourself to flow and make something that isn’t perfect… yet.
Write before you know what you’re going to say.
If you have a general idea of what you want to write about, you will often find that if you start writing before you know how to begin, you land into the space of your topic in no time at all.
Later, if you need to revise or reorder things, it’s not really that difficult.
The more you freewrite, the more you internalize the best elements of the practice and the more the flow state can work for you.
It’s how I write my blog articles every day despite plenty of other things on my agenda: travel, other books, my work with clients as a writing mentor, a career as an english professor, a thriving skin care business, quality time with my lover, plenty of hobbies, some artistic, some geeky, some physical, daily meditation, in-person classes, events, retreats. . . and ample time doing basically nothing productive.
Another option, this one a bit different than writing without stopping.
Find the flow and stay in it, just take a slower pace.
Allow yourself breaths and pauses but not stops.
Stay in the flow, much as if you were writing with a fountain pen.
You might find that you write differently when you write slower.
It might feel more enjoyable, with less halts and starts.
It helps you get into the tactility of it, to really feel your language, your characters, and yourself and the act of writing
Focus on one thing at a time
Our smartphones are conditioning us to pretend we are better multitaskers than we actually are. Set aside everything but your one main project. Focus on that. If you want, work the way a French restaurant serves courses: gradually, lavishly, one at a time.
Energize yourself beforehand
If I were to just roll out of bed and expect polished prose, I would be setting myself up for failure.
Freewriting first thing in the morning for a few pages is a phenomenal activity. For me personally to write coherently, I need a bit of physical movement in between bed and writing.
Writing happens best in the morning for me, but I tend to be flexible depending on my schedule. Other times of the day work fine as well. The main thing is that I have had some sort of energizing movement beforehand. This doesn’t need to be as obvious as a hike or yoga or jumping rope. It really can be as minimal as a short walk or a few stretches. Doing this makes all the difference for having a quality attention span. We can’t simply expect our minds to produce when our bodies aren’t being tended to.
Have something refreshing you reward yourself once you’re finished
The writing is a joy. Of course it is.
But as writers we also understand that sometimes it feels like a beast. Sometimes, it is anything but pleasant. We love it, but we don’t like it.
So have some things that treat you for finishing your project or your goal for the day or week.
Go for a swim or have a candlelit dinner. Watch a baseball game. Something that feels fun that you can only let yourself do if you hit your mark.
Don’t treat yourself until you do actually hit your goal.
Don’t just skip to dessert because no one is watching!
Give yourself the freedom to not work if you feel like it
The fundamental point is that you want to write, you have a project you want to make headway on.
Though, not all days are the best for writing.
File this under “being real with yourself.”
Of course you don’t want to let yourself off the hook if you know it’s just laziness running the show or if you are avoiding something just because you are scared that it’ll be hard.
But especially if you are in a pretty clear space, just check in with yourself. If you aren’t feeling it, and maybe something else really feels inspiring, see what would happen if you did that.
Ultimately, larger forces might be at play here, and the key word is play./
Who is to say that it won’t help you in the end, not just because you’re going with what you really want to do — after all, you are bigger than your writing goals — but also because maybe something will happen that you can weave in to your project. Or it may change you in some subtle way and open something up for you.
Main thing to keep in mind here:
Go where the real spice is. If you never let yourself indulge in something else, how can you really indulge in your work?
Don’t distract yourself
Yes, it’s not always that rambunctious external world that is messing with your precious writing time. Sometimes it’s you.
There are all sorts of tricks for preventing self-distraction.
My favorites are often the simplest and lowest-tech.
- Simply unplug or physically remove yourself from any possibility of internet connection.
- Write by pen and paper
- Use a typewriter
- Get a Freewrite
- Seriously, write by pen and paper
Don’t allow interruptions
Lock your door.
Even if that seems silly, it can be worth trying. It sends an energetic message – you are not to be disturbed.
A locked door is not a suggestion, it’s the way things are. You’re occupied. Your writing is important to you.
At the same time, the prevention of interruptions need not create a haunting sense of self-consciousness. Your workspace should be a life giving place of inspiration and curiosity for you.
When you find yourself in your workspace, you should gravitate towards wanting to make something.
Just being there should feed you.
What you do in your workspace leaves imprints on the space.
The more you dedicate it to your central activity, the more conducive it will be in the future for your future endeavors.
Work with your natural tendencies: Find a different modality to shift to when you have to work for long hours
If I have to write a lot of instructional material, I can get pretty cranky. I love doing it, so I see this as a funny side effect.
I’m weird, what can I say.
I don’t think it necessarily comes through in my writing, but it’s something I have noticed.
As a means to address what seems to be a subtle inner preference, I switch modalities from time to time. When I am home, I generally work for long stretches of time.
I intersperse some sketching and artistic creation into my day. I have two desks situated in an L: a standing desk and a drafting table.
So I can simply go between one and the other every couple of hours or so.
It recharges me.
While it means having more stuff at my desk, it’s all generally in the same spirit – making things. And the projects are distinct enough that they don’t energetically bump into each other. They coexist without cluttering each other.