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How I Write and Learn

Tales from the Home Office: The Uncluttering

By Austin, a Writing Coach

Like most folks, I have a lot of projects going on. And like most folks, I have projects that are all at various stages of development, degrees of interest personally, and levels of importance professionally and financially. In addition to my work at the Writing Center, I’m taking classes at the School of Information and Library Science, working with government documents at Duke University Libraries, helping two professors with their respective book projects, trying to navigate what a gig looks like as a quarantined musician, and trying to figure out how the heck Facebook Live works so that the venue I work for can host musicians virtually. And you know, trying to eat and sleep occasionally. It’s a delicate balance.

Pre-quarantine, my chaotic schedule was kind of helpful. I just did whatever I was supposed to do at any given time and place so that things got done, ideally somewhere around the time that they were supposed to. This schedule involved frantically running around, writing papers in strange places at strange hours, and frequently checking Google Calendar. The challenge of showing up in the right places at the right times and keeping deadlines straight meant that I never really had much choice in terms of where my work happened.

Now, there is only one right place to be. That has been a bigger adjustment than I thought it would be.

Within the first few days of working from home, it became clear that I had underestimated the influence of my physical environment on my personal productivity. In the everyday scramble of my usual life, my house had become something of a chaotic repository for project detritus, meaning that my home workspace was pretty much a mess. All of my necessary materials were accounted for, but having all of it around all of the time made it impossible for me to focus on any one thing for very long at all. Not to mention the considerable distractions of checking the news, trying not to check the news, googling “dry cough,” and having one-sided conversations with my lovely dog.

A photo of a scruffy black dog panting in a field with a tennis ball in front of her.
This is Cholula. She’s all play and no work.

So I resolved to purposefully create a space that would facilitate focus through a process I dubbed The Uncluttering. See below for a picture of what my workspace looked like at the beginning.

A photo of a messy brown table in a yellow room with candles, paper towels, books, cards, a bowl of bric-a-brac, a motorcycle helmet, and other items cluttering it.
The Horror!

Judge if you must. I’m admittedly kind of a messy person, but normally that doesn’t present much of a problem in terms of productivity or focus. However, these are desperate times, and everyone knows what those call for. I needed a clean slate.

A photo of the same brown table in the same yellow room cleaned and completely void of items.
I cleaned it, I swear. This table has just seen better days.

I wish that I could say that I put everything away in a carefully considered location. I didn’t. I just put it all on a different table.

That’s O.K. though. All that I really needed to do was clear out one space where I could concentrate on one thing at a time. Once my specialized focus table™ was cleared, I made one strategic decision: to sit on the opposite side, facing the window instead of the (still-cluttered) room. I shamelessly lifted this idea from a number of clickbaity articles about the role of natural light in crafting the perfect work-from-home environment that I would have scoffed at until pretty recently. I’m no longer scoffing.

Now all I had to do was pick which project to focus on and bring it to the table. One strategy that I borrowed from my work at the Writing Center was to divide my working time into hour-long increments that include 10 minute breaks at the end of each hour. So, at the top of the hour, I decide which project to work on and bring it to the table. And so far, as long as I stick to this model, I have been able to direct and maintain my focus much more effectively.

A photo of the same brown table in the same yellow room featuring only a laptop and notebook.
So productive!

One last thing: this particular strategy helped me this time, but everyone’s different, and our needs vary depending on circumstance. Normally, I would be the first to claim that a little bit of clutter isn’t such a big deal and that it can even lend inspiration. And I still believe that to some degree. But we are living in abnormal times. Acknowledging that fact was the first step towards taking a step back to think critically about why I was having a hard time and what I could do to make things easier on myself. That process of self-reflection has value no matter how cluttered my workspace becomes, and it’s something that I plan to engage in even after we return to “normal.”

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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