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).
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?
— 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.