Want creative focus? 7 ways to tidy up your thinking

Want more creative focus? Looking for creativity tips or motivation ideas? Click through for tips to help you tidy up your thinking!
What does creative focus even mean? And can you learn it from a book about decluttering?

Well, a few weeks ago I finally caved and read Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She’d come up multiple times as I was running my course, the Creative Focus Workshop, especially when students were frustrated with me because I asked them to out all their previous commitments by cleaning their desks (among other things). Some of my students resisted, conflating what I was asking them to do with Kondo’s radical minimalism.

Let’s get this straight: I’m not a minimalist. I have a basement full of tools I rarely use and buckets of cut off bits of case molding (you know, for doors and windows?), you know, just in case. There are way way way way too many books.

I have 25 year old clothes I’ve worn once in the last 5 years. And Marie Kondo? This is a lady who recommends stowing your shampoo bottles in a cabinet after your shower so you don’t have to look at them, because, after all, you dry them off after your shower anyway, don’t you? I mean, if you don’t, they’ll be all…damp.

To me, this is slightly nuts. Anyone who compulsively dries their shampoo bottles clearly does not have enough to do.

But, real talk, why was I reading Kondo months after that class ended, months after I’d made a note to myself that I needed to read the book so I could respond intelligently to students? Why now, of all times?

Well, let’s take a look at my living room as of 2 weeks ago. (That’s a fraction of the result of 2 moves from 2 cities—on different continents).

creative focus

tips for creative focus
I’m in need.

Why “tidying up” is a lot more complicated than it sounds

I’ve had real experiences with “tidying up” recently—cases that don’t even approach the rigorous standard of the KonMari method, but that nonetheless made clear to me that Kondo’s ideas are deeply problematic when applied to the messiness of everyday lives.

I get the appeal: Kondo promises that everything you own will fit inside whatever storage you happen to already have, that you’ll achieve clear, open, minimal space. Who doesn’t want that? But deciding what’s important and what isn’t, what to keep and what to toss, is not only about what “sparks joy.”

In a kind of throw-away passage at the end of the book, Kondo offers an explanation for why it can be hard to part with things: They represent either an attachment to the past, or a fear of the future (or both). She doesn’t sound like she sees these as valid reasons not to throw it all away.

But that’s what our lives are full of: things saved in case we’ll need them, which represent a kind of fear of the future (at minimum: you don’t want to have to find or buy them again), and things saved because of nostalgia for what they represent about your past.

These things may not feel joyful. They may even be burdensome. But they are your memory in concrete form, and that’s a tough one.

The problem with not making decisions about what you want to do with these things (aside from not achieving that fabulous clean, minimal look) is that many of these things also represent jobs, to-dos.

  • Books you mean to read.
  • Clothes you intend to fit into again.
  • Piles of posters, Playbills, ticket stubs.
  • The worst: family mementos that you feel an obligation to preserve, but that you don’t actually personally care about.

Those are all nascent projects, and your brain knows it.

To fully grapple with the closets and file cabinets and piles would be to devote yourself full-time to becoming an archivist of your life. Having all those things around you can cause you to grind to a standstill. Everywhere you set your eyes, you see “to do,” which leads you to fragment your attention and energy.

Not-deciding leads to overwhelm, and may cause you to shut down and reduce creative focus.

KonMari your ideas?

The Marie Kondo of Ideas, @jccabel says to purge your brain-closet and send the worn out projects to Goodwill https://t.co/Btom4o7fSD

— Katrina Goldsaito (@inlovethere) March 9, 2016

Which brings me back to Marie Kondo and my students. I’ve been called the “Marie Kondo of ideas,” which—maybe, sort of—has some validity. It’s not my business if you get rid of your physical stuff or not, but the impulse to save ideas, to curate them and turn them over in your mind, that’s an enormous archive to maintain in working memory. You risk an “allergic reaction”—shutting down completely and not doing anything, because you’ve simply got no capacity left with which to focus. (That’s called suffering from a severe case of Idea Debt.)

How to improve your creative focus and tidy up your thinking

1. Start by discarding

Once you capture your Idea Debt in written form, there will be some ideas that, when they have to face the harsh reality of pen and paper, are clearly not aligned with where you want to go and what you want to spend your time doing. These are the easy wins: just cross them off with no regrets.

2. Deal with one category at a time

Put all your home ideas together, all your fiction writing ideas, all your business development ideas, and deal with a whole category at a time.

3. Does it spark joy?

“Hold” each idea in your hands and immerse yourself in it. Creative work is absolutely not joyful all the time. But if the basic concept of doing this activity or making this thing doesn’t spark joy, why the hell are you still trying to do it?

4. Respectful dismissal

You may be holding onto ideas that represent a moment in your life where they excited you and represented what you wanted then, but they no longer resonate, or represent where you want to go.

This is your “attachment to the past” category. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to retain this memory. If you want to do so, write down what you remember, what you think of when you consider this idea, then file that paper (or, perhaps better, put it in a digital archive, like an Evernote folder called “My Old Ideas”). If you acknowledge how important they were to you, and say a genuine thank you for good service rendered, you can cross them off definitively.

5. Deal with sentimental items last

When you’re trying to sort your ideas, don’t go for the big kahunas first. Start with easy stuff.

6. Nice folding

When you’ve got ideas you’re not currently using, but that you will use soon, fold them up nicely and store them. Literally. (The One Goal exercise in Growing Gills will show you how!)

7. Picture your future

When you face deciding about ideas that all seem equally worthwhile, there’s one more Kondo idea that’s similar to what I teach: picture where you want to be, completely and in a detailed way. Picture what you’ll do in the morning, what you want to wear, who you want to talk to.

And now, which of your ideas will put you on that path?

You can find an expanded version of this article, as well as the accompanying activity, in my book, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life.

Meet Jessica Abel

Meet Jessica Abel

Author. Cartoonist. Teacher. Coach.

I help people whose imagination and creativity are the ultimate source of everything they do in their professional life stop grinding and start carving out the deep focus needed to finish—and launch—the game-changing work they want to be known for.  Discover my Courses, Join the FREE Creative Engine Workshop or find out more about me.


  1. Karen Gillmore on November 9, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    Great article, Jessica! I laughed out loud about (OK, kind of snorted) about the shampoo bottles, and had to read that part to my husband, who has somehow escaped ever having heard of Marie Kondo. And thanks for the illustrative photos — the pile of boxes and bins left over from my studio move a year and a half ago now feels like it has company, at least! I’ve been actually getting rid of old art projects that I know I’ll never finish, and art supplies that are happier in new homes being used, and it really does feel so much lighter not feeling like I have to do or use those things. I’ve come to the realization that I’m a different person than I was when I started or bought those things, and this person now doesn’t need them. Still, it’s going to take a while to work through that pile…

  2. Jessica Abel on November 9, 2017 at 10:44 pm

    It does take a while. But you’re right–it feels good to say goodbye to old selves!

  3. Chris on November 10, 2017 at 5:27 am

    Haha, yeah. Also laughing about the shampoo bottles. I first heard about that book from Amy Hoy who did an amazing podcast about how the book was a great metaphor for running your business and life. The ideas are inspiring, but actual practical advice Marie gives can get a little tedious! I’m not going to roll my clothes into tubes and stand them like little soldiers. My rat’s nest of unfolded socks sparks enough joy, thanks. :)

  4. Heather on June 28, 2018 at 6:49 pm

    The “nice folding” analogy made me laugh Jessica – both types seduced me! I have your folded “idea debt” envelopes on a high shelf in a box, and folded jumpers in my drawer stacked like waffles. Kondo didn’t help with my paper backlog though, I got VERY stuck early on in the process – your tip of doing it a box at a time, and a sheet at a time, completing a log as I went, eventually did. I never did get to Kondo’s final stage of dealing with “komono”.

  5. Leigh on June 6, 2019 at 1:32 pm

    I couldn’t get all the way through her book. I have no resonance with someone whose whole life is about cleaning things and who has zero interests. I LIKE my stuff. I’m interested in a LOT of things. I suppose there’s people who want to live in an empty hotel room, but that’s not me. It’s also hard to take advice from someone who uses the heel of her shoe to hammer a nail because she threw her hammer out.

  6. Jessica Abel on June 6, 2019 at 1:57 pm

    Ha ha! oh yeah, 100% no sympathy for tool-haters!

  7. Ranell Hansen on June 6, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    Hey Jessica,
    I read Marie Kondo when she first published the book. Somehow I missed the shampoo reference and my response was,
    ” Why would you want to put it away when you are going to use it tomorrow. The shower is its home”.
    I think it is hard for artists to get rid of our stuff because everything has potential. Every time I try to purge my hoard of different supplies and especially fabric, I get new ideas and instead of cleaning I start a new project… That’s who I am. I think I would love a tidy studio, but when it gets tidy, I have to get everything out again so that I can see all the possibilities surrounding me.

  8. Jessica Abel on June 6, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    Yes to that, though I also really like my workspace to be free of clutter so I don’t get distracted… it’s a balance.

  9. Debi Croy on June 7, 2019 at 7:21 am

    so happy…not feeling alone now haha your pictures look like my pictures! and it is so refreshing to hear someone NOT telling me I should follow the Marie Kondo method. Throw out a book? never! Although I do share. My crafting/ creative supplies? Gotta keep them- too many projects to do. I did purge through my clothes, however. That felt good. Thanks!

  10. Jessica Abel on June 7, 2019 at 10:16 am

    Oh, I’ve purged LOTS of books. I just made sure to find them new, appropriate homes!

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