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Fixing the "Broken Windows" in Your Writing Space

One of the things I love about Zen monasteries and meditation centers is the sense of order that pervades them. Everything is always span clean. There is a place for each object—and the only objects in sight are either necessary or symbolically important.

I often fantasize that I could find a way to keep my writing space like that. Simple. Organized. Clean. I imagine myself coming to that space with the same clarity and purity of purpose that I feel when I step into a Zendo.

But, long ago, I realized that’s not going to happen. With multiple projects going on at once, five pets who wander in and out, and too much writing, reading, and teaching to do, I can never achieve Zen-like order in my writing space. So, instead of frustrating myself by holding to an ideal I can’t reach, I have started to pay attention to specific things that make my space feel neglected or disorganized.

These things are like broken windows. Take the loveliest, most exquisitely designed home: With a broken window, it will look derelict. The same thing can happen in a room. Most people have certain types of messiness they can tolerate and others that give them that "broken window" feeling. Identifying the “broken windows” in my writing space and taking care of them gives my space an atmosphere of order and myself a feeling of control. Here are four of the “broken windows” I fix before I write:

Unsorted papers. Piles of papers on my desk send me the message that I have a huge amount of unfinished work to do—and that I can’t possibly catch up. It is relatively easy to sort the papers, slip them into file folders, and take note of the things I need to take care of. Once I do, I almost always see that there isn’t so much work after all—that it is do-able. That small task (it usually takes less than 10 minutes) shifts me away from feeling overwhelmed to feeling in control.

Left-over food. Okay, I admit it: I often snack or drink tea while I write. And sometimes, I simply forget to bring the cup down to the kitchen or to clean up the crumbs that I inevitably leave scattered around my desk. Half-drunk cups of now room-temperature tea or the remnants of a snack I had earlier in the day make me feel not just disorganized but sloppy. The three minutes to clean them up is definitely worth it.

Full waste paper baskets. Getting rid of yesterday’s detritus is essential to making me feel like I’m ready to start a new day.

Shoes, sweaters, scarves, socks, or gloves lying around. When I come home tired and hungry, I often pull off these items of clothing and leave them wherever I happen to be. But when it’s time to write, I want them in their place: hung up, put away, out of sight.

You’ll notice these are all easy things to manage. And, just as the orderliness of the Zendo aids meditation, these small tasks help create a space that aids my writing.

What are your “broken windows”? What things in your writing environment make you feel out of control, overwhelmed, or muddled? What simple things can you do to create a space that makes you feel focused and energized?