Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Clutter, Cleaners, and Concentration

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk? -- Albert Einstein

A clean desk is the sign of a cluttered drawer. –Unknown

Work spaces are such a personal thing. When I taught school, my desk was always cluttered, mostly with piles of paperwork. I finally taped a sign on my desk that said “Einstein's desk was always this messy.” And indeed, it was.

When I began to write, I found that my “genius” fled in a state of clutter.

Strange, that.

I could sit in front of my computer to write, but found my mind cluttered and my concentration shot by the mess around me. Very little productivity came forth. So, I knew something had to change.

But frankly, you don’t take a woman whose only purchase of a decorative item beyond big ticket furniture is the sign pictured below and turn her into an organizational genius overnight. By the way, if any of you NEED a sign like this one, I found mine at a local Hallmark store.
I have compromised and now find that I work best if I can at least organize my own little space while I’m writing. Does it mean that I am now a total neatnik? Wait, I’ll stop laughing, pick myself up off the floor and continue this post in a minute after I consider that “neat” designation.

No, I’m not. But I have found ways to keep clutter or items on my “To Do List” from beating up my writing muse. Here, along with illustrations are my coping mechanisms.

1. I've limited my workspace. I used to write on this lovely, enormous antique writing desk. That's a picture of it to the left. It's missing it's drawers since I took this shot right before I sent it on consignment to a local antique store. Why? Because I soon I found that I had filled up the expanse of desktop with files and piles, virtually eliminating any space to work on. So, I got radical and bought this efficient little laptop table called "The Dave" at Ikea. Other than post-its with quick notes on it, I find it relatively impossible to clutter.

2. I designate my perimeter and, if all else fails, I pick up and move any clutter out of my work area. See? All neat and uncluttered.

2. Along with a laptop, I use an Alphasmart Neo. It is portable and I can write when I’m stuck in the dentist’s office or a carpool line. Oh, and I can also write by the pool when the muse strikes.

3. I go somewhere else and write. Usually I choose a local coffeehouse or my friendly, neighborhood library. This is a great workspace idea when there are other people in your home who will inevitably distract you. Let’s see. That would be my house. Almost always. But leave home and, except for the homeless lady who frequents the reference section, no one bothers me.

4. I hired Monica, the wonderful. Monica comes every two weeks and cleans my house for me. This has forced me into more and more organization. In fact, I’ve kept up with the house so well since hiring her, that Monica tells me she fears for her job. HA! Never fear, Monica. One of my few conditions in my upcoming house move is that Monica comes with me.

Yes, my home workspace is about to change. We are looking at moving within the next month. I have trolled the new house and can’t find my spot yet. I won’t have a whole room to myself, but like Carol Burnside said in her previous post, I will now have a blank slate. I am considering a computer desk with shelves for my reference books. If I go back to a "real" desk, I'm definiely heading to The Container Store since I can keep a desk neat if everything has a designated space.

I’m open to suggestions on how to set up a new spot. Clutter-free please.


Carol Burnside said...

Yeah, well, when you get that clutter-free thing mastered, let me in on the secret.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Actually, Carol, we're going to have a professional organizer talk about workspaces organization next week! Pass it on!

Dianna Love said...

I see neat and not neat as fitting the writer's personal style - just as different and equally productive as plotter vs non plotter.

I believe the way you keep your space influences your productivity, but not that messy is less productive than clean. Organized chaos is more comforting to some people who would feel out-of-place in a perfectly neat environment even if someone came in every day to clean for them. Especially if someone did that.

I didn't think so much about a writing space until the end of my first year writing when I started having severe headaches and nausea. I found out I had "straightened my spine at my neck" from working at the computer. I tend to work many hours straight at a time, which took it's toll. Once I got that fixed (nonsurgically) I heeded the doctor's advice to get somewhere my neck wouldn't be bent forward. For that reason I now write in a recliner at home and have the desk monitor on my business computer on a raised stand. To work in my recliner, I designed a table for the side of my chair some of my buddies at a sign company built for me that I attached an arm to that holds the monitor so I can sit back and type with the keyboard in my lap. When I'm not on the road, this is my spot.

Whatever all of you do, make sure your monitor is "up" (if it's at a desk get one of those inexpensive monitor stands that picks it up) so that your neck is not strained by your head hanging forward. Think of it as a bowling ball placed at the top of your spine. If you sit with your chin up, the ball is balanced or if yu sit with your chin down the ball is cocked forward and the only thing to keep it from falling is being attached to a flexible set of bones. Chiropractors say the worst neck injuries these days are not from wrecks but from working at a computer.

So take care of your neck and back when you're planning or rearranging a work space.

Congrats on the new house, Debbie, and good luck with the move. I'm sure you'll get lots of good ideas from the blog posts on how to set up your new spot.

(oops...look how long this is, you should think twice when inviting me to post "g")

Barbara Monajem said...

LOL. It doesn't matter how many containers I have, because I won't put things away in them. Fortunately, I can ignore clutter and work wherever I happen to be. (Well, unless the TV is in the same room. Even if a show is dumb and aggravating, I can't ignore it.)

Debbie Kaufman said...

Great advice Dianna! If I wasn't so happy for you that you could design and get that table made, then I'd be totally jealous! I think my coffeehouse writing is hard on my back and neck, but you'd have to see this particular coffeehouse to understand why, LOL. It's straight out of the 60's!

Debbie Kaufman said...

Barbara, the tv does that to me too! When the grandkids have a sick day from scool and stay with me, I find I just can't write to Dora the Explorer! I'm glad you can ignore clutter. I used to be able to do that, but now I find it has a negative effect on my writing. I just can't relax.

Marilyn Baron said...

Hmm. Does that mean I have a brain like Einstein? I doubt that. At least I am in good company.

Dianna, I didn't even consider the work space arrangement being the cause of neck problems. That's interesting. I don't have that problem, but I do get headaches.

Good luck with your move Debbie.


Mark All said...

Very enlightening and entertaining! So maybe if I'm OCD and ADHD I can justify the dozens of stacks . . . rather than consider them reminders of forty things I need to finish . . .


Debbie Kaufman said...

Thanks, Marilyn.

Mark, I am ADD and have had to learn a lot of self-coaching behaviors. But OCD too? That would be a tough combination. However, considering your book coming out, whatever you're doing obviously works!

Darcy Crowder said...

I'm with you, Debbie, I can't focus unless it's neat around me...the clutter calls to be cleaned up.

Dianna - thanks for the insight on the neck issues. I've been getting terrible migrains for several years now...I do have my laptop on a tilted board, but I don't know how I could raise it up so my head would be straight and still type. Very interesting. Now I'm wondering if this is at least part of the cause of my headaches.

Maxine Davis said...


I guess my earlier comment did not post.

Congratulations on your new house. I know you'll find a spot that is begging to hear a story!

I love The Dave desk. Does it raise up? tilt?

Debbie Kaufman said...

Maxine, yes and yes! It's a handy little thing. Can't remember how much I paid for it, but it was at Ikea.

Cyrano said...

Hello, hello, Debbie.
Loved your Einstein reference. Besides Benjamin Franklin, Hatshpesut and Elizabeth I, Einstein is one of the historical figures I'd most like to have dinner with. In fact, my extra post, sitting in the PFHT queue, is centered on Einstein.
Small world.
I loved your suggestions on de-clutterization. I just got an Alphasmart Neo and like you I LUVVVV it. Typing at Borders is a great way to get work done and that Neo is so handy.
Oh and also, next time you have a great antique desk like the one you pictured and want or need to sell it, come to me before the consignment shop. I LUVVV antiques as much as I love Neos.
Great post!
Have a lovely evening,

Ana Aragón said...


You definitely don't want any advice from me! I've got an Alphasmart Dana and don't like it as much as my mini-laptop. Just have to see more of what I'm writing!

Wish I could have Monica. I always do much better with a housekeeper. But with just the 2 of us, Mike thinks we can do better at keeping up a house.


Debbie Kaufman said...

Hey Tamara: Actually, I'm just renting a booth at the store. Consignment was too steep! It's for sale :).

Ana: If it was just the two of us here, I think I could do it too, but I have way too many people in my house still. Oh, and no inclination to clean. I hate housework, lol!

Linsey Lanier said...

Love that Einstein quote, Debbie. And the one about drawers is very revealing. I've always suspected that. :) And the sign from Hallmark, too. Way cool.

You could never work at my desk. But I just don't see the clutter around me -- or much else, for that matter.

For a minute I thought you were going to say that antique desk was where you write. That would really make you a neat-freak. Talk about minimalism! But your tiny table and comfy chair is almost as bare. It's beautiful.

Dianna's advice is great. I need to elevate my monitor, too. See, long comments are good, if they're informative. :)

Monica sounds wonderful, but what I really want is to hire someone who will dig up my notes and hand them to me as I write. She'd have to have telepathic abilities...


Susan May said...

My office is neat, but full. I know where everything is and put things back where they belong when I'm through with them. The problem is I have too much stuff for my office for it to look neat. Great post Debbie.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Linsey, that is exactly the type of desk I always worked on, large and cluttered. I think that something shifted in me and I started to "see" the clutter.

Susan, I know what you mean. You should see my husband's office. I didn't post THAT picture! He is an incredible pack rat.

Sandy Elzie said...

Hi Deb,

Checking in late...sorry. My desk is messy with notes, references, dictionary, etc,. but I need everything and I know where everything is on the desk. Everything else is in drop files. I'm a file-aholic. (g)

Pictures tomorrow!!


Sally Kilpatrick said...

Oh, Debbie. I woudl love to give you advice on avoiding clutter, but we have already seen my little clutter problem. And I'm so surprised no one commented on the sombrero in the background of my picture.

Anyway, your post is very well laid out--not in the least disorganized. You've already discovered one of my favorite places: Ikea. I just bought a desk chair there for $20, and I LOVE it. They have almost everything you could think of for organization and are MUCH cheaper than the container store.

Congrats on the new house, and I suppose my main piece of advice would be to think about wall color and paint. I didn't do that right off the bat and now three-quarters of the house is still beige.

Oh, and Dianna, thanks for the warning about neck injuries. I was just wondering why my neck was a little sore and about to attribute it to sinus. Then I realized I wrote this morning at my mechanic's and I had my laptop in my lap instead of on a table. Hmmm.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Thanks for dropping in Sally! And a sombrero? Really, it blends right in :) I mean, why be just like everyone else, right? And paint colors? Spent yesterday getting samples and today measuring walls for paint and furniture layout. Tomorrow, the looney bin. Oh, I should be so lucky...

Tami Brothers said...

Debbie, I love this look into your life. I also love that little desk by your chair. I want one!!!!

I would love to see that 1960’s type coffee house. I love the modern ones and I wonder what is so different now???

Have fun with the paint and such. That’s actually my favorite part about moving. I love taking something that is either complete trash or a blank white slate and creating something with color. Have fun and stay sane…grin…


Ps – Sally, we all know you so the sombrero just fit and no one questioned it..grin…