Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Your Clutter Is Killing Your Creativity (And What to Do About It)

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Photo credit: sleeping pill (Creative Commons)

Some weeks, my desktop is a disaster — full of papers and files and sticky notes with half-baked ideas.

Yes, I am your typical “creative.”

Disorganized and disheveled, I proudly chalk it up to the artist in me. But if I am honest, this is embarrassing, not to mention unproductive.

Clutter is not my friend; it is my enemy.

Clutter is procrastination. It is the Resistance — a subtle form of stalling and self-sabotage. And it keeps me (and you) from creating stuff that matters.

The mess is not inevitable. It is not cute or idiosyncratic. It is a foe — and it is killing our art.

Clean up your mess

Before beginning her career as a successful author and speaker, Patsy Clairmont did something unexpected. She washed the dishes.

She wanted to take her message to the world, but as she was readying herself, she felt nudged to start in an unusual way. She got out of bed and cleaned her house.

In other words, Patsy got rid of the mess. And it put her in a position to start living more creatively. We must do the same.

Bringing your message to the world does not begin on the main stage. It starts at home. In the kitchen. At your desk. On your cluttered computer.

You need to clear your life of distractions — not perfectly, but enough so that there’s room for you to create. The relationship between clutter and creativity is inverse. The more you have of the former, the less you have of the latter. Mess creates stress. Which is far from an ideal environment for being brilliant.

Make more with less

Jack White has an interesting philosophy on creativity. He believes less is more, that inspiration comes from restriction. If you want to be inspired, according to Jack, then give yourself boundaries. That’s where art blossoms.

At a public speaking conference earlier this year, I learned this truth, as it relates to communication. An important adage the presenters often repeated was this:

If you can’t say it in three minutes, you can’t say it in 30.

We spent the week of the conference writing and delivering five-minute speeches every day. We learned that if we couldn’t summarize our ideas in a few short sentences, then we couldn’t elaborate on them for half an hour. Sure, we could ramble and rant. But that’s not communicating. It’s word vomit.

I’ve learned to do this with writing. If I can’t say what I want in a sentence or two, then I’m not ready to share the idea.

Prematurely broadcasting an idea before it can be described succinctly will cause you to lose trust with your audience and cost the integrity of your message.

When attention is sparse, the people with the fewest, most important words win.

Be Ernest Hemingway

People have told me I write with an economy of words they find refreshing. In a world full of noise, it’s nice not to have to weed through spam to find the nuggets worth reading. But this doesn’t come naturally. Succinctly getting my point across is a discipline.

You see, I like to talk. A lot. I often process my ideas out loud as they come to me. However, I find this frustrating when I hear other people do it. So I’m trying to master the art of clutter-free writing. Here’s what I do: I write and write and write, getting all my ideas on paper; then, I take out as many words as possible while still clearly conveying my message.

If I can say it in five words instead of 15, I do. And so should you.

This process of cleaning up your messages is not intuitive for most people. But it is important — an essential discipline for anyone with a message to share. If you don’t know where to begin, start here:

  • Regain control of your inbox. Throw away magazines and newspapers you have no intention of reading. Clean up your email, getting it down to a manageable amount (zero, if you can).
  • Clean up your desk. Again, throw away stuff you haven’t used in months.
  • Find a relatively clean space to create. This is different for everyone, but it needs to not stress you out.
  • Limit your distractions. Turn off email, phone, and social media tools. Force yourself to focus on one thing at a time.
  • Start creating clutter-free messages.
  • Repeat this for the rest of your life.

For more on ways to be more structured and focus as a creative, I’ve found these books to be really helpful:

Also, you might be interested in an upcoming conference in May, where I will be leading a workshop on this very topic. For more, check out The Luminous Project.

How do you deal with clutter and creativity? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Sleeping pill (Creative Commons)

About Jeff Goins

I help people tell better stories and make a difference in the world. My family and I live outside of Nashville, TN. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. Check out my new book, The In-Between. To get exclusive updates and free stuff, join my newsletter.

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  • http://www.kizi-2.net/ kizi 2

    Yes, I like clutter. thank you your article

  • Veronica Von

    I have recently been working on organizing my laptop, not the easiest of feats. I found Evernote useful for organizing my thoughts, book reviews, journal entries and lists. Give it a whirl!

  • Victoria

    Lord; I HAVE to clean and organize – otherwise my OCD goes off the roof. I cannot ever have a mess when I’m writing [or doing any task], because I know how my mind works and it’s not a pretty picture…at al.

  • DeborahPenner

    Feels a bit nuts to need permission to clear the desktop and all other manner of clutter … and oh well !!! This helps!! Thanks!!!

  • Rob Campbell

    Interesting. Who pares, wins.

  • Awank Sidik

    Thanks Jeff..i’ve just clean up my desk. I felt stress before, now i can feel fresh idea & air. You’re article help me to be creative.

    Awank Sidik

  • Kerrie Redgate

    It’s amazing how easy it is to get those creative ideas when spending a night in a hotel room: absolutely no clutter and no personal “stuff”. Very Zen! Thank you, Jeff. We writers have to keep reminding ourselves about this, as words are often what we tend to hang on to – in paper or on computer desktops!

  • http://www.liveitforward.com/ Kent Julian


  • http://www.yourbestmoment.com Elyssa

    Love this concept. It’s true for me – if my work space is a mess, zero creativity can flow. And sometimes I can’t be creative until after I rearrange the furniture in my work area! I also like the idea of the less words, the better. Someone told me once to pretend that for every word I eliminate from my writings, I would be paid $100. Even though the money isn’t real, it helps me assign a value to being less wordy.

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