How to De-Clutter Your Mind and Become a More Productive Writer - Make a Living Writing

How to De-Clutter Your Mind and Become a More Productive Writer

Carol Tice | 57 Comments

Businessman Seated at His Messy DeskHave you been finding it harder and harder to get the writing done lately?

This happened to me recently.

I felt like a rusty engine slowly grinding to a halt on rails that needed some oiling.

It seemed super-hard to focus on the article or blog post or email I needed to write. I just couldn’t get started.

My head felt fuzzy like it was stuffed with cotton.

Then I took a look around my home office, and all around my house.

Clutter outside, clutter inside

Know what I discovered? A lot of junk. On every available surface.

It’s the 21st Century American curse. Stuff is cheap and readily available, and it tends to pile up like you wouldn’t believe.

After 18 years in my house, the place was a clutter-hole. There wasn’t a cupboard or shelf you could put anything inside of anymore, so things were piling up in plain sight. And this house is loaded with more closets and drawers than you can believe.

In my office, a mile-high stack of about two years of project files sat, waiting for me to discard old files in the filing cabinet and make room for them.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking at a world of clutter all around me, I find it hard to focus. The visual clutter clogs my brain up, too. It’s too much stimulation and not enough serenity.

Getting clean and simple

Once I realized what the problem was, I committed to combing through the house to get rid of useless junk and get things put away.

It took a few weeks to get through the bulk of it, but the results have been well worth it, both for my writing productivity and for simply enjoying my home more.

Think you don’t have time to declutter? I hear ya. That’s how the clutter gets there in the first place.

Around my house, we often throw stuff down because we “don’t have time” to figure out where it goes right now. Two years later, it’s still sitting there. Junk was dripping from the tops of bookshelves, piled on the fireplace mantle, shoved under the beds…you name it.

The problem is, all that clutter calls to me. It makes me think I should be picking up around the house instead of writing.

I refuse to blow writing time to do it, so the clutter sits. But I also don’t write. It’s sort of a vicious cycle. And here’s how I escaped…

A busy writer’s de-cluttering guide

I didn’t get any less busy, but I managed to clear vast swaths of junk out of my house. Since getting the place cleaned up, I’m finding it much easier to sit down and get to my writing assignments.

Want to clear the visual clutter to kill the mind-clutter? Here are my tips:

  • Do a 1-drawer quickie. On hold on the phone? Waiting for dinner to cook? Pull out one drawer or attack one shelf. Over time, these really add up, and allowed us to rip through most of the kitchen. It now has — gasp! — actual empty shelf space ready for new edibles, and half the counter clutter is gone.
  • Get family buy-in. If you don’t live alone, you didn’t make this mess alone. Explain to everyone that we’ve got too much stuff, and their help is needed to cull the collection. (Anyone unwilling to participate will have to live with the decisions others make on what to discard.)
  • Go for the worst. I was shocked when my husband went straight for the worst drawer in the house — the one we call “The Drawer of a Thousand Things.” You couldn’t even fully close it anymore, but whaddaya know, it didn’t take very long to clean it out! After that, everything seemed like a breeze.
  • Pick a boring day. A dull, rainy day is a perfect time to organize a cleaning party. Warn family members that you’re planning to do some cleaning tasks that day so everyone is prepared.
  • Think Container Store. Often, closets seem full but are just poorly organized. My daughter’s closets were a disaster area…so we bought three sets of new organizer drawers. Presto! All her art projects and raw materials are easy to tuck out of sight. Now, she can pick up her own room in 5 minutes flat, a task I used to spend at least a half-hour on twice a week — hello, extra writing time! There are pricey organizer systems out there, but plenty of cheap systems, too — this doesn’t have to cost much.
  • Make it fun. We turned on the stereo and listened to music while we cleaned, and rewarded cheerful cleaners with treats such as a movie, DVD rental, or a fresh-baked muffin. There’s also the bonus of finding actually useful items you no longer knew you had.
  • Have a splurge. Once you’ve got empty drawer space, treat yourself to something you’ve been wanting. One of my kids replaced three entire bins of ancient, little-used toys with one $30 copy of Wii Sports Resort. Now, he’s got a fun new game and tons of closet space to store his current, grown-up kid projects.
  • Donate. Anything useful but outgrown can be donated to any of the many charities that run thrift stores or garage sales. Feel good that you’re helping others by passing on what you can’t use, especially clothing. If you haven’t worn it in a year or two, it should go.
  • Don’t forget the computer desktop. If your online desktop is a morass of miscellaneous visible files, get those tucked away into folders and out of sight, so you can focus on your current assignment.
  • Get into maintenance mode. Once you’ve got cleaner closets, commit to keeping them that way. Five quick minutes a day to make sure closets are still functional and clutter is stored gives you the reward of a tranquil writing environment. Be pickier about what you decide to purchase and bring in the house, and you can kill more clutter at the source.

When I’m stressed lately, my sister orders me to immediately throw away 10 things that are sitting out. That’s a great quick drill for preventing clutter from creeping back.

What clutters your mind? Leave a comment and tell us how you clear the decks.



57 comments on “How to De-Clutter Your Mind and Become a More Productive Writer

  1. Holly on

    My mantra is, if I haven’t seen it, used it, or worn it in 6 months, it goes. Obviously I didn’t need it like I thought. The only exception is out of season clothes, but they must be in good condition and fit. I’ve also gotten rid of my knick-knacks and “pretties.” It’s easier to dust a table with just a few books than to move candles and flowers and books and magazines and coasters and whatever else… A simply decorated house seems to stay cleaner to me…and cleaner = happier in my world!

  2. Dan on

    I would recommend checking out Gtdagenda for an online productivity tool.

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote, and also comes with mobile-web version, and Android and iPhone apps.

  3. Mridu Khullar Relph on

    I do this as well, but every month or so and it really does make a difference. Most of my clutter comes from “things I haven’t found a place for” and if I can organize them routinely and just take the time to find the space, it makes life a lot easier.

  4. Kimberly on

    I have several other projects on the hop. I have a fiction novel that I spew forth reams of imagination into when I feel the need to day dream.

    I have a little children’s rhyming book that just fell out of me one day when I was supposed to be doing something else…I entertain my serendipitous whims and fancy’s πŸ™‚ I believe that is an artistic right oop’s I mean rite πŸ˜‰

    I have a knitting project and a patch work quilt that help me to clear my mind. When my mind won’t think about what I want it to I make it think about something else for a while and the answer comes like a bolt out of the blue…then I find myself typing madly. I find writing is like dealing with an ornery child. If you force the words they will rebel against you and hide. Encourage them or change the subject and they will bounce around clamouring for your attention.

    Sometimes just making a start works for me too…just write…anything…and the words will come.

    Get out of the house and do something very different to the norm.

  5. Brandy Lawson on

    Fantastic suggestions about how to get started when de-cluttering just seems so overwhelming. I’m currently struggling with how to store my out of season clothes in a way that makes it less time consuming to transfer between seasons.

    Fortunately, I pretty much have the virtual clutter kicked thanks to Evernote and Dropbox.

  6. Sarah L. Webb on

    This literally happened to me this week. I rearranged my physical environment and got a huge boost to my productivity. My mood even improved. I think next I’ll tackle the clutter on my computer and delete old files.

  7. Laura Amann on

    This piece totally struck a chord! I’ve been so distracted lately just looking at all the stuff I need to do (a definite hazard of working at home…) It has just been miring me down and what I really need to do is just do it! Get it out, clean it up. So easy once you get started, so hard to start.
    My mind and my home feel overwhelmed right now. My thoughts keep drifting away and I lose precious writing time being sidetracked. Just a cluttered mind/cluttered life time right now!
    Thanks for a great post!

    • Carol Tice on

      Cleaning even one cabinet where you could then put more things away…I just find it so liberating! Makes you feel like your life is less out of control.

  8. Brenda Spandrio on

    You are totally speaking my lingo with this! I wasn’t born organized, and grew up in chaos. Someone helped me get over that and now it’s my business to help others. I still tend toward clutter and disorganization, and, as your post says, I can tell when I’ve not been vigilant because my focus and productivity waver.

    Excellent suggestions!

  9. Anthony on

    Another stellar post Carol!

    What I love about your style is that I can read straight up to the end without so much distraction.

    So neat!

    And I got struck by one of your replies in the comments area–

    “I think this is why some of us get a sudden burst of productivity when we go to the coworking place or the library or coffee shop to write β€” suddenly, we’re away from our clutter!”

    –I remember when I went to a coffee shop one time, I got more work done than usual, and I did ’em much faster. It’s absolutely true — ‘cuz I wasn’t near any of MY clutter, and for a time, I forgot about some unappealing house keeping duties.:)

  10. Diane Dutchin on

    Carol, I find the benefits of de-cluttering to be therapeutic and provides a sense of freedom and lifts feelings of being bogged down and muddled.
    My worst cluttering usually takes place in my mind Thank goodness for paper and pen, which are strategically located around the house…just in case. Once I have it on paper, then I’m able to concentrate on the tasks at hand.

  11. Jordan Clary on

    Hah! Is it funny or fate when I open my computer and find my exact thoughts staring me in the face. I’m moving. And moving into a smaller place with a smaller office. Plus, just a few hours ago my youngest son in the nest left for new adventures. Empty nest. I could take photos of my current house and pass them off as an earthquake disaster. I pulled into the driveway of my new home, put a few things away and sat down on the couch thinking how in the hell am I going to deal with all the crap in my life? Then I opened my laptop to your new post. Thanks for the tips!

  12. Christine Hurst on

    I used this same principal for tidying up my ‘folders’ on my computer. Over the years my folders had grown like topsy and everytime I opened My Computer I was faced with a long list of unwieldy folders. So I spent an hour or two reorganising them into logical groups and sub folders. Now I have two main folders – writing and business, and then logical subfolders beneath. Now, when I go into my writing folder, I’m not confronted with boring businessey stuff. Its working great for me so far!

  13. Clara Mae Watrous on

    How neat! (pun not intended) Comforting to know others have the decluttering problem too. Ours used to be solved by having to move every two years.

    Knowing company is coming at short notice, or someone to look at our house that’s for sale, I quickly pick up papers needing sorting and throw them into a box to tend to later. Another quick trick our daughter told us about is to stack things neatly when there’s no time for sorting.

    You’re right, scheduling one area at a time to be decluttered makes the overwhelming task much easier. Also, dealing with mail right away helps as well.

    One friend who worked at a school and kept a cluttered desk had a small sign that read: “If a cluttered desk indicates a cluttered mind, what does an empty desk indicate.” πŸ™‚

    • Carol Tice on

      Clara Mae, we did much better around here when we were in the habit of hosting people for Friday night dinner nearly every week…really made us police the house.

      Maybe we just need to get back to doing that, and then the decluttering will happen naturally…

  14. Karen Cioffi on

    Carol, this post has great tips for de-cluttering. I started on my clutter a couple of months ago – a little bit at a time and it does make such a difference. And, not to make it feel overwhelming I did just as you mentioned, one thing at a time – a draw, a desk top, a book shelf, a closet . . .

    I have plans to move in a couple of months so thinning out will be a plus.

    And, you’re so right, clutter just grows. If you don’t stay on top of it, it easily gets out of hand. One of these days I have to attack my attic. I think I’m in my house 15 or 16 years now and not looking forward to the attic. πŸ™‚

  15. Melody Fugazzotto on

    Thank you for the wonderfully simple and encouraging post. Like other readers, I’ve been in a writers block/rut lately. We live in an open space and I’m tempted to give myself the next year to cull, clear, and just simplify our lives. It was easier to have more things, from food to clothing, soap to toilet paper, when we lived in Texas and had a “normal” home with a pantry, hall closet, attic and bedroom closets . Living in Germany, I’m constantly amazed at how my neighbors do more with less, with smaller refrigerators, storage space and so forth. We are learning to buy food for the next couple of days, not the next week. It’s taken most of the last year to get used to life here, but after hauling my umpteen grocery bags up 51 steps to the front door, I get the picture. Having less stuff is the way I want to go. Again, thank for the gentle prodding.

  16. Hermine on

    Yes! This is so spot on. I usually have to wait until my fiancee goes out of town to do this so he doesn’t get in the way. But boy, do I feel better once I have the pile of old mail and crap tossed out, floors washed and things organized.

    It’s like I can breathe again.

    I can totally vouch for your point about cleaning off your desktop too. I recently did this and it really cut down on the amount of distraction I feel and time it takes to find stuff when I’m working.

    One thing I like to do (since my place is kind of big and I usually do the cleaning alone) is break it up into a few days and go room by room so it’s not so overwhelming and I can do a deeper clean.

    • Carol Tice on

      Oh, I am a “sort mail over the trash can” person…I try to not let it hit a surface if it’s junk.

      I definitely break it up. At first I thought we could take a day and declutter our whole house…ha! I found taking an hour or two or even 20 minutes here and there could become a regular habit and keep us cleaning up as a routine…which is what you need, the habit of decluttering.

  17. Tiffany on

    I feel like this the majority of the time…I remind myself of the absent-minded professor who is so inside of his own head that his surroundings are a perpetual mess. When my room is messy it doesn’t bother me so much (I wish it would bother me more), but I find that I do work and feel better after I’ve taken the time to put everything in its proper place.

    • Carol Tice on

      The trick I learned a while back — wish I could remember where — was to make sure you do 2 things each day — make your bed, and create a clear entryway in your house. We have an entry table that gets piled up with junk and I try to keep clearing that off…two places that create serenity to have tidied up.

  18. Cheryl Rhodes on

    You’re lucky you have closets! When we moved into our older house 6 years ago we lived upstairs with 3 tiny bedrooms and their small closets – we rent out the basement suite. There wasn’t even a coat closet upstairs! My husband has since built me a coat closet, removed our bedroom closet and built a nice walk in utilizing dead space over the stairs, built a small closet in the downstairs hallway, and put in a full sized closet in the spare room where we keep our winter coats and motorbike gear. I’ve never needed to put (hide) extra stuff in the closets or drawers but my biggest problem is dealing with paper clutter, namely what shows up in the mail. I put it on the living room coffee table and it piles up until we start tossing the junk mail into the recycle bin or filing or dealing with the other mail. I don’t even bring the freebie newspapers into the house anymore. Straight to the backyard and the recycle bin. Some of the papers migrate to my dresser top or the nightstand. Dealing with paperwork that shows up in the mail has been a lifelong battle for me. Fortunately many years ago I set up auto payments from my bank account for all my bills so I’m never late and I get email invoices and statements from the companies that offer this service. I’m happy to say that my kitchen remains clutter-free. I don’t have a drawer of a thousand things but I do have a junk drawer that is not full. The one where everything ends up in where you don’t know where else to put it. Rubber bands rule here!

    • Carol Tice on

      I think the ample closet space is both blessing and curse. It encourages hanging on to a lot of stuff, and then it overflows onto the counters and floors. But since I do have closets, I’m determined to maximize their use and get things put away!

  19. Katherine Swarts on

    Three-in-one comment:

    1. Check out the video at, then (especially if you live near Houston, Texas) check out the parent group at

    2. In the past couple of months, I have cleaned out about a sixth of the titles in my three bookcases (all stuffed to bursting, substantially with promotional giveaways that bored me on first reading); done a mass giveaway of backpacks and coffee mugs I got as promotional items (I finally can fit all the dishes in my cupboards now); and tossed or donated most of the threadbare items in my wardrobe.

    3. There’s also such a thing as clutter that’s *entirely* in the mind–I don’t mean the “you’re just imagining it” type, but the list of “should do sometime” items that (whether or not part of it’s also written down and scheduled) keeps you awake at night and preoccupied through the day, worrying about if and when you’ll ever hit bottom. (I’ve found this can happen with things at any level of actual importance–they just have to strike adequate chord in the brain to get a hook into long-term memory.) Anyone have any techniques for dealing with this one?

    • Ally on

      The clutter in the mind is the worst for me! I’m actually pretty good about regularly getting rid of stuff (though I wholeheartedly agree that a messy desk/room makes it difficult for me to concentrate), but that endless list of things I want/should/need to do is like a constant hum at the base of my brain causing distraction, exhaustion, frustration…

      Kathy, one trick I’ve recently started practicing is to keep two lists: one that captures the to-dos that pop into my mind whenever, and the other is just for the top priorities of the week. I also limit myself to only three priorities each day. If I complete them, then I sometimes will tackle the next item on the weekly list, but I’ve discovered this practice helps me in two important ways: 1) I feel less overwhelmed when I have a shorter list to focus on for the immediate future 2) I’ve found that some things that felt important when I wrote them down never seem to make it onto the top three daily priorities or weekly lists, which has begun better attuning me to what is actually important to me and what just feels like an obligation but isn’t (or is, but is something I should let go of or avoid in the future). Haven’t yet gotten to the part where I deal with that, but just learning to recognize it feels freeing.

      I also read about this book called “Enough Already! Clearing Mental Clutter to Become the Best You” by Peter Walsh. It’s on my nightstand now just waiting for me to finish the novel I’m reading. Seems promising.

    • Carol Tice on

      I am lucky in that there is a major yard sale for my entire city that benefits Rotary Club coming in late June…so we just pile up all the mugs and clothes and haul it all off to the Rotary Auction. There are always events like this you can contribute to, wherever you are.

      Even the kids get into it because then if they declutter they get to GO to the auction and pick a few “new” things.

  20. Tiiu on

    A friend shared this tip with me years ago to help ward off clutter. Every time you leave the room, grab 3 things that belong elsewhere. In my case, it’s often a plate, drinking glass, and some other odd thing. It really helps!

  21. Deborah on

    OMG! I just started a blog about this. I have been forced by circumstances to get rid of about half of what I owned in the last 2 years, and I’m determined to get rid of another half, which is hard, once you’ve gone through and picked out what you feel is “important.” Truth be told, I have so much boxed up stuff, I don’t even know what i have. The problem right now is finding time to do it. I’m trying to force myself to go through boxes for an hour every day. That’s usually 2-4 boxes, and I’ve set up KEEP, DONATE, SELL boxes in the LR for that purpose. It’s hard to part with some sentimental stuff that really isn’t useful, but I’ve found that if I take a picture of it, I feel better.

    • Carol Tice on

      Deborah, we are wanting to do home exchange vacations this summer, and that is also helping me to look at my house and think — if a family were coming to rent this for a week, what should be put away? REALLY focusing me on getting rid of more!

  22. Kevin Carlton on

    Evernote has been a godsend for clearing up all my computer desktop clutter, as well all those PostIt notes scattered all over my office.

    If you haven’t already got it then you simply have to install on your computer right now.

  23. Teressa Campbell on

    I have a hard time working in a cluttered area also. A few years ago I found a website that has helped me get my clutter under control using methods like your ten item declutter. If you want to check it out, it’s (Not an affiliate link. Just want to help)

      • Ally on

        LOL she’s been around a long time. I actually recall when we had her book proposal in at S&S–it ended up going elsewhere unfortunately. But I’ve been a fan ever since. Such personality! Sounds like a cliche, but she really does somehow manage to make cleaning out your clutter seem like fun.

  24. Heather Villa ( on

    Congratulations on “decluttering” your stuff.

    What fantastic post.

    Hmmm…maybe this idea could be a perfect topic for you to pitch to a magazine. πŸ™‚

    Thank you!


  25. Marianne on

    How funny! From the subject line I thought this was one of the FlyLady emails that come into my box daily. I “hit the wall” with clutter several years back when my freelance writing schedule picked up; then I discovered her site, which many people find helpful. You can sign up for regular reminders to de-clutter (including the de-cluttering of her emails).

  26. Nida Sea on

    Great post! I make it a point to clean out my office and desk at least once a week. Now, my desktop is another story. Those PC’s desktop’s are so cluttered, it makes my sister sick! But, I find what I need on it. Yet, that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. A cluttered desktop eats up RAM. Guess it’s time for some desktop spring cleaning! πŸ™‚

  27. Sara on

    I was overwhelmed with clutter around the house, but especially in my office. I knew I need to do a big cleaning/sorting/culling, but I didn’t have time, so as you suggested, I refocused. I did the bookcase that acts as a desk extension one day, and the desk itself the next and the next week I cleaned off the printer cabinet. My office still needs a major overhaul, but I have a clean, uncluttered area to work, and since my desk faces the wall and window, I can turn my back on the clutter for now. No matter what else gets left a mess, I keep that little area clean, which means making decision about papers or other things that would normally get piled there. I’m much happier, maybe more productive.

    • Carol Tice on

      I’m with you — I try to start with what’s in view from my desk and keep that clean.

      And if you take the habit of just taking even 1 hour a week to clean 1 area, you make a huge difference in just a few months. It’s worth it!

  28. Jennifer on

    Great post! I totally agree. One of the first things I did when I started making money was hire a housecleaner to come twice a month and honestly that money paid for itself several times over in productivity from me. I am much more productive if my house is clean.

    The other thing that I do is those days I am suffering writers block or just not getting anything done work wise, I will get up and tackle a decluttering project (or sometimes relax). I find that otherwise I am just wasting time.

    • Carol Tice on

      I actually do the same — have pros do the heavy cleaning twice a month. Makes a HUGE difference for me. And being allergic to both dust and many cleansers like I am, it is WELL worth it to delegate that.

      Also it makes family members have to clean up when you say, “OK, the cleaners are coming tomorrow, so put away everything you don’t want them touching!” πŸ˜‰

    • Diane S on

      Great ideas, Jennifer! Carol, your post reminded me of the fly-lady, especially where you said to take advantage of that time in the kitchen, and where your sister told you to throw away 10 items. I have this problem with clothes, books, and papers. Too many sizes, not enough room, and some papers are now, later, and maybe. I used to put magazines immediately in a basket in the bathroom, and get rid of the oldest. I just don’t know what to do with things that I might use before they expire (like schedule my car for its oil change) and I need a place for those things. I did make one once, but then moved and couldn’t use it (a basket, with the garden marker “Thyme” laid over it as a paperweight so I could tell what this basket was full of.

      • Carol Tice on

        I’ve got a coupon folder for offers and then go through and discard occasionally.

        You should SEE how many books I donated on the last round! And now I have actual ROOM in my bookshelves. Miracles CAN happen!

  29. Alexandria Ingham on

    Thanks for the post, Carol.

    We’ve just recently switch my office and the little one’s room around and I found a lot of junk that I really don’t need. I’m working in a different room for the next two days until I have the chance to really sort it out on Sunday but I think it’s going to be a little easier since everything just got put into two boxes to make it easier to move it all! It’ll then just be keeping it that way — I’m going to create a routine of at the end of every day sorting out all the paperwork I’ve used and tidying up my space instead of leaving it for the day off. I’m secretly hoping that the brighter room with the sun shining through the window will also make me a little more productive during the day.

    • Carol Tice on

      I think this is why some of us get a sudden burst of productivity when we go to the coworking place or the library or coffee shop to write — suddenly, we’re away from our clutter!

  30. Willi Morris on

    I’m a clutterbug too! I have found the only thing that works for me is a variation of the Pomodoro method. I set a timer. This doesn’t always work either, but I keep trying!

  31. Shantel on

    I needed this article as a reminder. My home office and home is full of clutter and lately I’ve been feeling so foggy and unproductive. I’ve read about feng shui which says it’s also bad energy to have a lot of old stuff cluttering your home. The clutter doesn’t allow for new energy to circulate.

    Thanks for posting!

    • Carol Tice on

      I so agree, Shantel. And sometimes, that clutter is a physical manifestation of emotional baggage you’ve got in your life that keeps you from letting go of that junk.

      Clear it out, and it helps your mind in so many ways to clear the decks and be ready to create.

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