Creating Calm and Orderly Spaces for a More Creative and Productive Life
aired last week (July 22, 2019) on my podcast “The Fearless Creative.”
If you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below.
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Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show everybody. Today I am recording this podcast early because I am getting ready to go back to Missouri to visit family for a little bit. We are packing up the car with us and the dogs and hitting the road tomorrow, so I wanted to get this recorded so you would have something to listen to on Monday.
I also have to take my MacBook to the Apple Store today to get the keyboard looked at. I’ve had this computer for a year and I’ve already worn out the spacebar and enter key…I feel like I’m always more nervous to take my computer into the shop than I am to take myself to the doctor. I don’t like the idea of having to part with my precious MacBook, which is what I use for all of my writing, blogging, and podcasting.
Anyway, when I first developed the concept for “The Fearless Creative,” I knew I wanted to talk about the practice of creativity — how to be more creative, how to deal with specific creative stumbling blocks, making a living as a creative — but I also wanted to talk about the creative lifestyle.
These days “lifestyle design” has become so much of a buzzword that I prefer to think of the creative lifestyle as a part of what I call “life architecture.”
The idea behind life architecture is that we are all architects, which means we have the ability to create the blueprint for what our life is going to look like. If we are not careful and intentional about designing the life we want for ourselves, we are going to end up with a design that someone else thought up.
And I think this metaphor really makes sense when you think of your home. Most of us live in houses or apartments other people designed, so the physical space around us is what someone else thought would be good.
For instance, I live in a house that was built in 1909, and back then a bathroom was literally a room that was large enough to fit a bath because people had outhouses for other things. And so the clawfoot tub in our bathroom takes up 70 percent of that space, and over the years various owners have installed a toilet and a sink and retrofitted the bathtub to accommodate a shower. It isn’t ideal, right? That’s how you end up with a hobbit’s bathroom.
Now if you walk into the house that my husband designed and that he is currently building for us, the bathroom is much larger than it probably needs to be. That’s the beauty of actual architecture, but it’s also what happens when you consciously design every aspect of your life.
If you decide from the outset the type of life that you want to have, you may not get all the things that you want at once, but you can start making incremental changes that will bring you closer to the exact life that you envisioned instead of one that someone else designed.
And for me, the actual physical space where I live is really important because I work from home. My house is both my home and my workplace. I spend a lot of time here. So does Ben when he isn’t building or fixing houses.
Also, we’re not the type of people who are always out on the town. We aren’t big partiers. We’re homebodies. We spend a lot of time at home. If we’re going to be with friends, we’d rather be at our home or theirs rather than a bar or a restaurant.
And I’m a big believer that no matter what area of your life you’re working on — your professional life, your creative hustle, your health, whatever — it all starts by attending to your physical space. Because your home is the heart of your life. And if your home is in bad shape, your heart is in bad shape, and you aren’t going to be able to thrive.
So today I’m going to be talking about the physical spaces in your home that are sneakily draining the energy you need to be your most creative and productive self. These are little pockets of chaos and congestion that are creating internal chaos and congestion for you whether you realize it or not.
I’m going to touch on a few of these areas that I’ve been tackling over the past few weeks and give some suggestions for how you can tame them in your own life to create outer order and inner calm.
But first it’s time for this week’s Discovery segment. This is the part of the show where I talk about something useful or interesting, like a book, podcast, or TV show. And this week I wanted to feature a book that I actually read a long time ago because it’s so perfect for today’s topic — “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo.
If you haven’t read this book yet…Where have you been living? More importantly, how have you been living? Seriously, this book will change your life.
When I read it a few years ago, it completely changed my buying habits, and it helped me learn to be more effective when I would clean out areas of my home and decide what to keep and what to get rid of. Now I buy way fewer things than I did before. I buy nicer things than I did before, but I actually spend way less money on clothes and things for my home because I only buy things that give me immense joy.
If I don’t love the texture of a piece of clothing, I won’t buy it. I really only have like six pairs of shoes because I love every single pair and each pair serves a purpose. I have hiking boots, snow boots, running shoes, Chacos, which are outdoor hiking sandals that double as casual sandals, Birkenstocks for casual wear, and a pair of cute casual boots for the fall and winter.
“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is key because I think a lot of times we hold onto things out of guilt or because we think we will use them someday, when really if we haven’t used them yet, we probably won’t. If you think of your closet, for instance, you probably consistently wear your favorite things. I personally won’t wear a piece of clothing I hate no matter how well it serves its function.
Now, my husband Ben is kind of a hoarder. When I say hoarder, I mean he still has his coin collection and his rock collection and his California Raisins collection from when he was a kid. And when it comes to clothes, he will hold onto things forever — even if they’re out of date. In fact, he’s kept some things long enough that they’ve actually sort of come back into style. He doesn’t wear things that are out of style — he’s way more of a clothes horse than I am — but he holds onto them, which I just don’t understand. I’m sentimental about somethings, but clothes are not one of them.
When we first started dating, Ben loaned me a pair of Northface hiking shorts that he’d had when he was a teenager. I needed hiking shorts because we were going to New Mexico to climb a mountain, and these fit, but I didn’t actually end up wearing them on our hike because, I mean, they’re men’s shorts and I hated them. I wore leggings instead.
And then this year I was cleaning out my closet and I was like, “Hey, these are your shorts. I don’t wear them. I’ve never worn them. Do you want them, or can I get rid of them?”
Now, of course, I already knew the answer to this. The shorts didn’t fit him anymore. They fit me, but I mean, come on…They make me look like I work for the US Park Service. But he made me hold onto these shorts in case we ever go white-water rafting because they’d be perfect for rafting.
Okay, look. I grew up boating on the Mississippi. I rowed crew in college. I’ve rowed on very calm rivers and lakes, and I’ve rowed in the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve flipped boats. I’ve almost sunk boats. I know the perils of the water, and there is no way in hell you will ever get me in a raft with a bunch of incompetent tourists from Texas going down one of the raging rivers of Colorado. Ain’t gonna happen.
I mean, no offense to people from Texas, but ya’ll are by far the dumbest tourists we have. I see ya’ll fixin’ to climb a mountain in your blue jeans with a little twelve-ounce plastic waterbottle in hand. And if you see a Chevy Suburban driving 80 miles an hour down a windy mountain pass and cutting people off, you can rest assured it has Texas plates.
Anyhow…today I wanted to talk about the Northface shorts that don’t fit my husband and certainly do not fit my style. Those places and things in your life right now that are sneakily robbing you of your life force.
And some of you creative types out there may be getting a little uncomfortable right now because you like your mess and you think you know where everything is. You think your mess is an outward expression of your creativity, but let me tell you, it’s not.
You are not able to create because your studio is a mess. You are able to create in spite of your mess. And I can guarantee you that if you were able to restore order to the physical space around you, you would immediately have more creative energy and you’d actually be able to find the materials you need in the moment you need them.
So that’s the first area I want to tackle: your studio, home office, or wherever you typically go to make your art. For me, it’s my home office, and right now it’s actually not as spick and span as I would like. Ben’s birthday is this weekend, and I have some presents in here to wrap and a few more books out than usual. I have a check that needs to be cashed.
But one thing that is always neat is my desk surface. I really keep only what I need on my desk for the most part, although I do have a few little trinkets that I like. I don’t leave dirty dishes in here or crumpled-up pieces of paper. There’s nothing allowed on my desk that doesn’t serve whatever I’m working on in that moment.
One thing I’ve tried to do is create a system for receipts and files. I have a big plastic envelope where I keep business receipts, and I try to file any paperwork related to the business as soon as I can. But other than that, I really don’t hold onto paperwork. And this is one area where Marie Kondo really helped me.
So just to give you an idea of what can happen if you don’t take care of your paperwork, when I moved to Colorado, I finally cleaned out all of my mom’s paperwork that she’d left when she died. She had an entire cedar chest full of records. Now some of those records were sort of useful…like my old medical records that I immediately lost. But she also had stapled packets of receipts for stores that don’t even exist anymore. She had her monthly budget going back like 10 years. She had a Xerox copy of a flyer for a party she and her roommate had thrown in college. I’m not even joking. I also kept that. This was all neatly filed, mind you, but there is such a thing as being too organized.
This is why I don’t save paperwork. Now going paperless with all of my bills really helped me with this, because if I receive a bill electronically, I will file that on a folder in my email in case I need to reference it. But anything that gets sent to me via snail mail — I’m talking about those packets the insurance companies send you about your benefits, premium information, etc. — that goes in the trash. I don’t keep manuals for electronics. I will keep anything from the IRS and medical bills because I think they’re always trying to trick you into double-paying. But other than that, I really have very little to file.
Marie Kondo makes a good point about this. Usually, anything you would ever need to reference exists somewhere else in electronic format. If you needed a record of a bill you paid, the company will have that on record. If you need to access an owner’s manual for your microwave, that exists online. And really, when have you ever needed to reference any of those things?
So don’t hold onto paperwork. It’s only taking up space and mentally bogging you down. This winter I went through and shredded everything I’d been holding onto, and I felt so, so free and light.
But…and this is a big one. Even if you don’t file your physical paperwork, you can still be a digital hoarder. If you work on a computer on a daily basis, I want you to take some time and really look at your hard drive and your email inbox.
Do you keep every single file — even ones you won’t possibly have a use for later?
Are there files scattered all over your desktop?
What about your inbox? Do you regularly get down to inbox zero, or is your inbox filled with read and unread messages?
If this is you, let me give you something that will change your life. I know a lot of people use their inbox almost like a to-do list. They keep read messages in their inbox to remind them of tasks they need to complete. Boomerang is a tool you can use in your email inbox, and it will actually disappear a message from your inbox and put it back in your inbox on a date you choose.
So if there’s something I need to look into, say a month from now, I will Boomerang that message to come back in a month so I don’t have to look at it for the next month.
If you have unread messages because you are procrastinating replying to people, either reply within 24 hours or don’t reply at all. Those are really the only options that make sense.
And finally, unsubscribe. Unsubscribe from any company emails or lists that you are on unless you regularly open and read them. You can also start protecting yourself from receiving these in the first place.
Anytime I go to a store and they ask for my email, I won’t give it to them. Yes, I’m that person. What really ticks me off is when they ask you really smoothly like it’s part of the transaction. A lot of stores train their employees now to act like collecting an email address is mandatory, but it’s not. Even if they tell you that you aren’t signing up for marketing emails — like Home Depot — you are. Once they have your address, you’re screwed. But if you feel that you do want to receive coupons sometimes, you can give them a junk email.
Now whenever I get on Ben’s computer, what gives me heart palpitations is his browser. I honestly didn’t even know Google Chrome could open that many tabs at once. This is really just a difference in how we work.
Because I’m on my computer all day, I only ever have tabs open for what I’m working on at that moment.
I don’t bookmark things. If I need to save a link for a recipe or a physical store I need to go to, I’ll text myself a link. That way it’s really easy to find what’s current that I need to access, and it feels like it’s gone when it’s no longer relevant.
So that pretty much covers the home office…Next I want to talk about the kitchen pantry. And if you are a painter or someone who uses a lot of different supplies whenever you’re creating, this might be helpful for that, too.
Because I cook a lot and I have a really tiny kitchen, my pantry had become this really horrible part of my house that was draining my energy on a daily basis. I would go in there to get a spice, and I couldn’t find that spice even though I knew I had three of them open in there somewhere. Or I’d be looking for a can of tomatoes I bought last week, and I had to dig through stuff I didn’t even know I had.
So a few weeks ago, I gave my kitchen pantry a ruthless makeover. I got rid of anything that was expired or stale or anything I knew we would never eat. I moved all of the weird ingredients that I only use occasionally like red wine vinegar to the very back corner, and I moved the things we use a lot closer to the front where I would see them. I consolidated all of my spices…So anything I had doubles of, I tried to get that all into one container, but the extras I put across the back in alphabetical order. Now this might sound kind of insane, but they all come in these little blue tins from the grocery store that look alike, so they fit really nicely side by side, and the alphabetizing has actually been a game-changer.
All the herbs I use for my tea I keep out on the shelves that are over my work area so I can grab them easily to mix. I make myself a cup of herbal tea almost every night now, and I’ll mix those herbs by hand so it’s really important to be able to see what I have.
And this brings me to my first big tip for organizing your kitchen pantry…If you can, keep things in glass containers that are clearly labeled. I buy some of our rice and herbs from the bulk bins now, but even if you buy bags of rice, it’s really good to put them in quart-sized mason jars or old spaghetti jars because those little baggies don’t stand up on their own. They flop all over the place and get lost behind boxes of pasta. Or you have multiple bags open at one time because you’re at the store and you can’t remember if you have brown rice. You have to keep them tied off with a chip clip or in another plastic bag so they don’t spill all over the place, and it’s just an organizational nightmare. So anything that comes in a bag, I put in a jar instead.
Great Depression tip of the day: Save your nice glass jars. Jelly jars, pickle jars, sauerkraut jars — anything that’s a nice size with a lid that won’t rust.
For rice, I actually really like the Ball mason jars because on the side they have measurements. So you can see at a glance if you have a full cup of rice for dinner that night or if you need to buy more rice. But for everything else, glass jars you get for free with your food work really well. I don’t use plastic because I don’t like my jars leeching BPA and other pseudo-estrogens into my food, but use what you have, and you can always replace your containers as you gain pickle jars or spaghetti jars.
Now another organizational problem I had was that I wasn’t labeling my jars. So I’m gluten-free, which means I have a lot of alternative flours like coconut flour, almond flour, Bob’s Red Mill one-for-one, and these are easy to mix up. So I like to write what’s in the jar in permanent marker on the top, or you can also use masking tape or little label stickers.
Ahh. You guys, I wish I could give you a video tour of my pantry now because it is so beautiful. I’m one of those weird people who love seeing pictures of other people’s organized pantries and closets on Instagram, so if that’s you, you’ll understand. It really just makes me feel calm and at peace every time I open my pantry now.
Now if you are an artist or someone who has a lot of raw materials that you use to put together your projects, you can apply a lot of these same principles. Take inventory of what you have, organize it, and make sure everything is visible so you can find it.
This is also a good lesson in using what you have. So when I was a kid, my mom was really into scrapbooking and stamping. And we had a guest room that she ended up converting into a space where we could scrapbook and make things, which was fantastic. She just bought a couple small folding tables to create a work area, but she used the dresser that was already in that room to keep things organized. And we used this room all the time — much more often than we ever used the guest room. So consider how you can use what you already have to make your space more functional.
Now I want to talk about the worst part of your house. You already know what this is. It’s probably going to be different for everybody. This is the area of your house that probably has no defined purpose and has become a catchall for all sorts of crap. And every time you visit this part of your house, you feel your life energy just drain right out of you. A lot of times this is a common area that no one in particular is responsible for, and this further adds to the mess because everyone has a part in making the mess but no one is responsible for cleaning it up.
For us, this was and is the laundry room/mudroom. Just to paint you a picture, this room is probably six-by-eleven or six-by-twelve feet. We have our washer and dryer in here. We have shelves along the right side over the dryer when you walk in, and we have a free-standing shelf directly ahead of you when you walk in. But between that shelf and the washer is a tiny walkway, and I walk through here probably ten times a day because it goes to the back door, and this is how I let the dogs out.
Now the reason this room is such a disaster is that we don’t have a garage, and we only have one closet in the common area of our house. So this is where we store our shoes, including work boots and snow boots. This is where the cat has his litterbox. This is where we keep our Camelbacks for hiking and where Ben stores the tools he needs at the house. It’s where we store pet food. It’s where we keep gardening supplies and birdseed and cans of paint. It’s where we store our charcoal for the grill. It’s where we keep the recycling, as well as the broom and the ironing board. And it’s where we wash and dry our clothes.
As you can imagine, this room is a nightmare. And I get so fed up with this room being a nightmare. And this problem really isn’t going away even when we move, because our new house also has a mudroom that doubles as the laundry room. Granted, we’ll have more closets and a nice crawl space, but we still won’t have a garage. I know…womp womp. But it was more important to us to be able to afford the house we were building than to have a massive garage we couldn’t afford, so we are building the garage later.
So solving the conundrum of a multi-purpose space is vital. And last weekend, I began the impossible mission of fixing this room. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never fully clean this room. It’s kind of scary in there with the cat litter and all the dust bunnies that collect around the dryer. I usually just half-ass sweep it out once or twice a week and that’s it.
But last weekend, I began the horrifying task of moving everything and cleaning the floor. It was a little traumatic — I’ll be honest. I found a stack of stick-down tile from the previous owner…I found lots of nails without a home. I found little pieces of sandpaper and rolls of tape with dog hair stuck all over them. Yeah, I’m shuddering just thinking about it.
I did not begin the Herculean task of reorganizing Ben’s tools. I organized them last year…I bought little black plastic baskets to keep everything in, but after facing the litter and dust bunnies I really didn’t have the strength to tackle the tools. Now some of you listening might be wondering why I would task myself with organizing Ben’s tools…
Let me just say that you have to find a system in your household that works for you, and the system we currently have is that we stick to our strengths. He picks up dog poop outside…I clean up cat poop inside. He fixes things…I organize the tools which he needs to do the fixing.
I didn’t get that far last weekend, but I did move things around on the shelves to be more functional. All of our shoes now have a home on the shelves, so that creates more space on the floor to move around. All of the bags of pet food and birdseed are on the highest shelf so the cat can’t mess with them. My next mission is to get a new system for the recycling because I really don’t like having the recycling in there. There isn’t really room in the kitchen, so I’m still problem-solving this.
My best tip for an impossible space like our tiny mudroom/laundry room is to think about how you actually use a space.
This is especially important if you live with someone who isn’t as naturally tidy as you are. You have to make it so easy to do the right thing that it’s actually harder not to do the right thing.
So one problem we had initially when we moved in was that Ben would do his laundry with change still in his pockets. Then there would be change at the bottom of the washer or dryer, and he’d set the change on a shelf over the washer, where it would fall back in the washer. Then I’d be doing laundry and I’d hear clanking, and I’d have to go in and find change that wasn’t mine. So I put our change jar on that shelf, so now he just takes the change out of the washer or dryer and throws it in the jar.
This room is also where we bring the dogs in from the backyard, and any time it rains, I have to dry off their feet in there before they come in. So we almost always have dog towels in the laundry room that are either in use or needing to be washed. I was hanging the dog towels over the ironing board, but now they hang on a hook by the door where they are out of the way.
So you just have to consider the habits you already have with a space and consider how you can accommodate those habits to keep the room livable — rather than trying to change your habits to keep the room clean.
The mudroom still is not a magical passageway of zen in my house, but it’s a work in progress. If you have an area of your house that is like this, don’t give up. Just keep making small improvements until you get it how you want it.
Even if it seems like a small thing to have your house be clean and organized, it’s really a huge thing. For me it’s huge because I work from home, so I’m here all the time. If there’s a mess, I have to see it all day. And for me, this really saps my motivation and my energy if I am wading through mess all day. It’s just demoralizing.
But if my house is clean and in order, I feel like I have so much energy. I feel like I can tackle anything, so it’s really key to my creative well-being and my overall productivity.
That’s all I have for you today…I hope you found it helpful. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave a written review wherever you get your podcasts. This helps other creatives find their home away from home on the Internet, and I really appreciate them.
As always, you can find me on Instagram @writewithtarah and on the web at www.writewithtarah.com. You can always get in touch with me to let me know what you think of the show or if you have any ideas for future show topics. I am always so happy to hear from listeners.
I’ll see you next time, and happy creating!
Photo by Norbert Levajsics