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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Space

 by James M. Jackson


Star Trek fans may think of Space as the final frontier; but for me, one key to success is to manage space—the distance between two objects. Mismanagement always gets me into trouble.

My office offers an example of what I mean. I am a stacker by nature. During my consulting days, parts of my office looked like a file cabinet without the cabinet. I always knew what was in each stack and how far down I needed to go to find a particular document. Those days are long gone; now I have trouble remembering for sure whether something is in my summer or winter home. As a result, my desk provides a quick visual of how productive I will be.

When my desk looks as clean as a freshly tilled field ready for planting—the working area clear, a few piles pushed to the edges out of the way—it’s evidence that at my next work session I will sit down, concentrate on my work, and make satisfactory progress.

However, if the detritus of incomplete work covers my desk, then instead of focusing on the work I want to do, I flit from distraction to distraction, picking up and putting down projects, housekeeping tasks, bill-paying, whatever, and frittering away my energy from the real work I want to accomplish.

I know the solution is to take the time to clear my desk of all the crud that has accumulated. Spending “unproductive” time dealing with all those minor distractions pays large dividends in increased productivity. It’s the same reason a farmer weeds his field, or a lumberman sharpens his axe before felling a tree. With a dull axe, you can eventually beaver a tree down, but not only does it take longer, there is a larger risk of injury from a dull axe because it doesn’t bite as well and can bounce off and rebound into the axe man.

So why isn’t my desk always clean? When I don’t do what I know I should do, it’s a sign depression wants to get its claws into me—or has succeeded in doing so. No need for a shrink to make a diagnosis.

I am most creative when I create open space for thinking. Solutions arrive from the ether if I give my mind a problem to solve and clear out distracting thoughts. Giving my mind the problem is equivalent to a farmer sowing seeds. To expect a harvest without planting is wishful thinking. And like the farmer weeding, or me clearing my desk of distractions, to encourage creative thinking, I must clear my mind.

At my home up north, it’s easy to let go of distracting thoughts: I take long runs in the woods with birds and critters as my only companions, or canoe or kayak, or take an ATV ride to explore a favorite haunt or new area, or sit on the dock and enjoy the lapping of the waves on the rocks. It’s more difficult for me when I return to “civilization” to create equivalent open spaces in which to grow ideas.

I’m writing this piece on my screened porch. Listening to the birds as they go about their morning feeding is reason enough to love it out here, but truth be told, I’m also avoiding my desk. It’s covered with this’s and that’s that would distract me from completing this post.

I know people who do their best work surrounded by noise and people and excitement (like authors who write in coffee shops). That’s a disaster for me, but I’m curious: what works for you?

* * * * *

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. Furthermore, a novella is the most recent addition to the series. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.


13 comments:

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I leave a sentence unfinished, a rough draft midway through a chapter, for the next day. I also have a weekly goal list.

Kait said...

Singing my song, Jim. I cannot work in chaos. I need things to be straightened and clean. All of my notes in file folders stacked neatly, my desk organized. A creative mind, they say, is seldom tidy. I find that to be true only when my workspace is.

Susan said...

I am so with you, Jim and Kait. I just finished a book, and my entire house is chaos, but my desk is the worst. Today is clear it all out day. It is a huge distraction not only for my writing, but for my life. I will rationalize by deciding I don’t have enough cupboards and file cabinets.

Jim Jackson said...

It's nice to know I am not alone in this!

Debra H. Goldstein said...

like you.... I am a stack person, but i know where everything is. Yet, when I'm writing, I get to a point that I need a clean desk so I can avoid any sense of distraction.

Grace Topping said...

I'm slowly making progress eliminating stacks. It's hard because I have our family stacks, my writing stacks, my mother's stacks since she passes away, and a friend's numerous stacks when I took over her affairs because of dementia. I'm overwhelmed with stacks. but like I said, at least I'm making progress. It's no wonder I'm not doing any writing.

Molly MacRae said...

I should probably change our family motto to "Where there are stacks, there is life." I'd rather not, but small house, four adults. Finding the quiet space in my own head is the real trick these days. Good piece, Jim. Thanks!

Jennifer J. Chow said...

I totally understand, Jim. A clear desk helps me to think better and focus. It's the ideal, although I do let things pile up sometimes.

Noise, though, is hard for me to ignore. I don't get how some of my writer friends need background music or the buzz of a coffee shop. I like stretches of quiet to write.

Jim Jackson said...

Grace -- I have only myself to blame for my stacks, but having recently settled my mother's affairs after taking care of her finances after my dad died, I know how those stacks can accumulate -- especially those having to do with medical stuff.

Molly - I have to get up even earlier when company visits otherwise nothing writing gets done.

Jennifer -- Obviously the noise works for folks like Stephen King and William Kent Krueger. I did try once and proved what I already knew: it's not for me.

Korina Moss said...

I love this post. My desk tends to be like my brain -- chaotic. Thank goodness for my laptop to take to a space where I can harness the chaos into creativity. I do often like the background noise hum of a cafe, but only if I have room to sit away from everyone and not hear individual conversations. Otherwise, I prefer the outdoor noises of nature or I sometimes put my chanting monks CD on. I envy you having two homes, as just a change of scenery can make all the difference for me. Sometimes I splurge for a few days on a place to go for my own writing retreat.

Shari Randall said...

Such a good post. I do not understand people who can write with music, or worse for me, need music to write. I'm just too distractible! I need peace and quiet.
The only exception to this was when I wrote on a train traveling from Virginia to Connecticut. Somehow the gentle background noise didn't interfere and I wrote over 6,000 words! #loveAmtrak

Jim Jackson said...

Korina -- Back in my high stress working days, I used to go to sleep to Gregorian chants and the like!

Shari -- I've spent many hours on Amtrak and been on almost all their routes. I never got much writing done, though. I was always watching the country go by (or in the urban areas, looking in the nation's back alleys).

KM Rockwood said...

I'm a "boxer." A box for medical records, a box for legal documents, a box for bills, a box for receipts, a box for things I may never need again, but just in case...

I have to admit that I do subscribe to the theory, "If an organized desk is a sign of an organized mind, then what is an empty desk?"