Decluttering to Make Way for Writing

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Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and the author of Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, describes how a structured day protects the mind from distraction, and, he’s found, coaxes creativity because the mind is not in a state of semi-distraction. He advocated for single-tasking to prevent “attention residue,” enabling deep work.

For some time, I’ve wanted to transition away from binge writing. Now, seems like the time: I have a long-form project in the works, I have a stable, predictable schedule, and I have Newport’s advice.

But I also have bad habits – formed by slow creep, like hair graying or teeth yellowing, rather than ballooning overnight – leading to “attention residue.” I flip away from my draft-in-progress just for a second and – wait, where was I? I’ve done a disservice to my brain, which, if I’m honest, is my biggest asset.

To clear space, I’ve spent the last month monitoring my inputs to find those I can change and/or eliminate. It’s been a lot of administrative work up front, what Newport calls “shallow work,” but I feel optimistic that it’ll lead to deep work in the long run. Here are four of my strategies:

  1. Decluttering. Specifically, my inbox. Hello, Michelob ULTRA Light. How did you get my email address? And why did I subscribe to four separate New Yorkeremails? I struggle to stay on top of print issues. Ditto to my aspirational subscriptions to four poem-of-the day emails. By unsubscribing, I’ve drastically reduced the clutter in my inbox. I’ve also set rules for the frequency of checking email (maximum of three times a day). Ditto for social media. Clearing my inbox and responding to messages makes me feel productive, but it’s a false productivity. I’m taking away time from what I need to be doing: writing.

  2. Saying No. It’s not easy, and perhaps amplified because recently I moved to a new city and I’m trying to make friends and explore. But the only time I’m a writer is when I’m writing. The rest of the time, other labels are more apt: reader, editor, literary citizen. While I may appear selfish and my work largely invisible, I’m ok with that. I’ve got my goal. I’m also going to stop telling people “my schedule is 100% flexible” when trying to book appointments. It’s not, because I should be writing.

  3. Starting small. Two hours each day, 10 to noon, seven days a week, is my uninterrupted writing time. It’s not time for research. It’s time to write. I’m not going to respond to text messages or answer phone calls or feel the pull of my non-writing life. This novel isn’t going to write itself.

  4. Being kind to myself. I will fail at times. I already have. But, starting a new routine is bumpy.

Dear Reader, I promise to chronicle my successes, failures and lessons learned for you. Look for more to come. In the meantime, do you have any successful strategies?

Photo: Bobbie Harte Photography

Melissa Koss is a Senior Associate Fiction Editor for The Flexible Persona.