As you may know, my definition of writing as “anything that moves your writing project forward”. Typically, this expands your sense of legitimate activities to include reading, taking notes, going for a walk so you can think through the ideas you are working on, or sorting out your project files.
A couple of things have reminded me lately that sometimes what moves your writing project forward is housework (physical or digital). At the beginning of Establishing A Writing Practice, a recorded class available to members of the Academic Writing Studio or an in-person workshop, I ask participants to imagine your ideal writing situation in considerable detail. In a recent in-person workshop, one of the participants shared that she was surprised how tidy her ideal situation was. On a related note, a Studio member who has recently moved house mentioned that she might spend her next Meeting With Your Writing finding her desk.
Is this just procrastination?
Sometimes we procrastinate by tidying. It is one of those activities that can burn off the restless energy that sometimes results from difficulties in the creative process. It’s good to notice and gently enquire why you want to tidy, sort, or rearrange the whole office. Even if it is because there is something you are struggling with in the actual writing, it might be a useful activity to do while those difficulties sort themselves out in the back of your mind.
But tidying isn’t always procrastination. Sometimes we need to sort, tidy, rearrange, in order to create an environment in which we find it easier to write, to focus, and to enjoy the writing. If, like my workshop participant, your ideal writing situation is tidy, you need to regularly make time to tidy your desk. Even if, like me, you are quite a messy person descended from messy people and can work effectively in what looks like chaos to others, you may want to experiment with working in a tidier environment to see if it has any effect on your focus and concentration.
Tidying as transitional ritual
As you plan your autumn semester, you might incorporate tidying into your transitions. The transition from summer into the new academic year may include sorting out the things on and around your desk. Sorting your writing projects and setting them up physically for your Autumn writing routines. Setting up containers (digital and/or physical) for each module you are teaching, for supervision, for each committee.
You might also consider how you can use the physical act of tidying as a transition from your work week into your weekend. Block time at the end of the workweek to tidy things away and perhaps leave a note for Monday You with a reminder of the week’s priorities.
You can create checklists for these activities to reduce decision fatigue. Some of the difficulty of transitions is the cognitive labour involved in shifting from one routine to a different one, and the anxiety we all experience around forgetting something important in the transition back. Checklists mitigate a lot of this cognitive work. The first time you do it, just write down the steps you take. You can then tidy up your account of the steps, and tweak it the next time you use the list.
Here are some tips you might find useful
If you are going to tidy, you might want to consider the following:
How do you instinctively search for things? Can you build that into your system?
Piles of paper (physical or virtual) are collections of individual things. Take one thing at a time. Ask “Where does this go next?” Even if you don’t get through the whole pile, acknowledge how much progress you made.
Collecting things into piles of like things may be a good step. This goes for tidying your computer desktop and other things. Give the pile (folder, box, whatever) a name that helps you remember what’s in it.
The best place to file something is where you would instinctively look for it. Don’t worry about whether other people will understand your system. Ask yourself “Where would I look for this?” Put it there.
If you like to work on a tidy desk but need to have the stuff for your project out where you can see it, and then you end up with stuff for multiple projects out, try folders, trays, or boxes to hold things for individual projects. When you finish working on something for now, put all the stuff in the folder/tray/box. When you start a project, get it’s folder/tray/box and set out the items relevant to this project. This method keeps the clutter down to only what’s relevant so you are not distracted by other projects or overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff on your desk.
Emergency technique for creating a clear work surface when you don’t have time to tidy: Put a sheet or a towel over the stuff and work on top of that. This reduces the stimulation from all that stuff and allows you to concentrate without disturbing your geomorphological layers.
Everything I know about tidying and the relationship between a tidy desk and productivity, I learned from Jennifer Hofmann. She is no longer in the tidying business but her best resources are available electronically for free. I highly recommend them.
Clearing the decks by Aimée Morrison takes a bigger view of this in preparation for focusing on writing during a sabbatical
How to keep a tidy house (sort of) at Snapdragon Life focuses on how even a very small tidy space can make a difference.
This post was first published in the 11 August 2017 newsletter for members of the Academic Writing Studio. It has been lightly edited. Additional related post added 6 April 2020.