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

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’m honest, this is embarrassing.

Clutter is not my friend; it is my enemy.

Photo credit: sleeping pill (Creative Commons

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 your 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:

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

In a world full of noise, it’s nice not to have to weed through digital SPAM to find the nuggets worth reading. But this doesn’t come naturally. Succinctly getting your point across is a discipline.

I like to talk — a lot. I often process ideas out loud as they come to me. But I find this frustrating when 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 on “paper” (or computer or whatever). Then, I take out as many words as possible while still clearly communicating my message.

Because if I can say it in five words instead of 15, I should.

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

  1. Reclaim 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).
  2. Clean up your desk. Again, throw away stuff you haven’t used in months.
  3. Find a clean space to create. This is different for everyone, but it needs to not stress you out.
  4. Limit distractions. Turn off email, phone, and social media tools. Force yourself to focus on one thing at a time.
  5. Start creating clutter-free messages. Remember: less is more. Use restrictions to be more creative.
  6. 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:

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

225 thoughts on “Clutter Is Killing Your Creativity (And What to Do About It)

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

  2. 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

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. As a full-time traveler, I work in coffee shops and cafes almost daily. It’s just as easy to have a messy “desk” in a cafe as it is in a home office.

    I strive to make sure the table I’m sitting at is clear of clutter. Basics: laptop, headphones, and tea. I also make it a goal to have only the tabs necessary open in my browser and only the apps I need to be running.

  6. This is so true Jeff. I’ve come to realize that the imporatnce of cleaning up the “mess” so it doesn’t come as a distraction.

    Thanks for the tips.

  7. Clutter Is Killing Your Creativity. First of All, Need Understanding Your Clutter, and they Change Your Creativity.

  8. Thank you for this. I too believe in having clutter free space, but never thought about cleaning out my email box.
    Must start on that today.

    1. Shari if u only have 10 mins, spend the majority of your time doing what you love. 6 mins of say writing & 4 mins decluttering. By the end of the week you will have done almost an hour of what you enjoy.

  9. My secret is…I look like a clean freak when people come over…but let it go when I work/live. Working on changing it.

  10. Wow. So, so good to read this, and a refreshing addition to a minimalist point of view.

    I agree, clutter is so destructive for creativity. Sometimes I need to ‘take time-out’ to do a mini spring clean before I can get started for the day. It’s definitely a stress reliever for me too. I think everyone appreciates a clean work space to practice their craft.

    It’s a valuable habit to be learned, and hopefully most people know how to get started… Otherwise this article offers great info. Thanks!

  11. Thanks for sharing. I recently was feeling stuck in my business. I spent hours in my office not really getting anything done. I spent the weekend cleaning my office and house and it was amazing how much more productive I have been.

    1. I have felt the same way, Julia. I think I’ll be trying the cleaning thing too. Glad to hear it helped you!

  12. My home office had become so cluttered, I found it hard to spend much time there and work through my ideas. I when through and cleaned up my office and now I enjoy spending time there again. It has made it much easier to focus on my new ideas.

  13. This is a great post. I tend to run somewhere between organization and chaos, which it seems a lot of creatives do. (My desk would appear as a cliche creative’s desk as well, and yet I know where everything is. But I don’t think knowing where everything is is the point. It’s still not “clean”.)

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom here, Jeff. I think I’ll make time this weekend to clean my workspace. You’ve inspired me.

  14. Great sharing. We also have that consistent habit of decluttering our space. It makes our routine easier and more productive.

  15. My home office had become so cluttered, I found it hard to spend much time there and work through my ideas. I when through and cleaned up my office and now I enjoy spending time there again. It has made it much easier to focus on my new ideas.

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