Between coursework, research projects, teaching responsibilities, and—hopefully—a personal life, dissertators are juggling a lot of balls. In those busy situations, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and start feeling out of control. We don’t feel like we have time to finish and clean up from one task before moving on to the next one. Papers stack up; library books go unreturned; dishes sit unwashed because we just don’t think we have the time. And then we wonder why we can’t focus in our work space! While everyone has different writing styles and habits, concentration is the one thing we all need. Most of us wouldn’t sit down to write in room of full of crying children or blaring television sets simply because we’d be distracted by the cacophony surrounding us and never get anything done. Our desks are similar in that messiness is like noisiness. We need space to lay out our research notes, calendar, or the exams to grade by tomorrow morning, for instance. It’s difficult to see what we need to accomplish if all we can see is a mess and we have to dig through it to find everything. Instead, create a work space that is comfortable and relaxing. Make sure you have good light. Make sure your tools are readily accessible. Make sure you can reach for that pen without spilling a half-eaten bowl of cereal all over the only copy of that eighteenth-century manuscript that you absolutely require to finish your project. Your brain works hard to make connections among various materials already, so don’t make it any harder than necessary by forcing your brain to wade through unnecessary clutter.

Action Steps

  1. Survey your work space. Decide what you need to complete the task at hand and what you’ve already finished working with. Put away books and papers that you’re through with.
  2. Throw out or wash anything that’s growing mold or other unidentifiable substances.
  3. Create a filing system and sort through any papers you think you need to keep. It’s a good idea not to throw out notes, though, in case you need them again. A cardboard box is a good temporary storage place.
  4. Voila! Sit down and work cleanly in an uncluttered space.
  5. If you find yourself feeling cluttered as well as living cluttered, get a writing coach to help you sort through the clutter and get back on track!