The Upside of Obsession: Why Being Picky About Your Workspace Pays Off
Photo courtesy of Aria Boutet.

The Upside of Obsession: Why Being Picky About Your Workspace Pays Off

Written by Emilie

Topics: Productivity

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Valerie Wernet

I’m an aesthete. I am in love with what’s beautiful to me, and sensitive to its absence. So many things bother or distract me: fluorescent lights, clutter (unless it is gorgeous, meticulously arranged clutter), weird smells, music with lyrics (because I can’t stop hanging on every word)… Most of these things can, and do, keep me from getting work done.

Of course, being meticulous about beauty isn’t a bad thing. I am a poet, which requires me to be absolutely obsessed with the beauty of language – its music, its origins, and the ways that words can meld or interact. I also have a natural sense for design, especially design of interior spaces. In fact, surrounding myself with beautiful objects and colors was probably the first manifestation of my creative practice. It feels like I spent the majority of my childhood scouring garage sales for the small toys, costume jewelry and rusty machine parts that always lined my bedroom walls.

As a poet, I don’t have a lot of deadlines. My writing life is irregular, and nobody will force me to write poems, submit them for publication, print them on a letterpress, bind them in a chapbook, or get them to their next or final form somehow.

Many of us don’t often need to work on our creative projects, technically. Of course, in order to grow (whether that means rising to an opportunity, deepening our skills in a certain discipline, or discovering how our current endeavors might carve a path to whatever is next) we do need to work.

When I decide to sit down and work, I tend to fight it. I feel immediately unsettled, the pulse of anxiety beating in my neck. Everything feels wrong. I get a burning desire to complete things that aren’t the nose-to-the-grindstone creativity I need (nay, want!) to be engaging in. It isn’t that I suddenly decide it’s imperative that I clean the bathroom tile or take out the recycling, though. Most of my work-time compulsions center around getting into a space of productivity — setting up my work area to feel calm and inspiring, so my brain feels clear and creative.

The common assessment of this response to pressure is that the doing of other things is a manifestation of our insecurities and expectations, boiling over and trying to keep us from the only important task: showing up to do the work.

I have anxiety in spades, and won’t deny that. I worry that my poetry is stupid, derivative, sappy, obvious, et cetera. However, when I prepare to write, I call out my highest, smartest, most luminous self. She is fearless. She trusts herself completely, and she is, unsurprisingly, especially discerning. If I work with her, and give her the beautiful space she needs, we make great work together. I know my arc – how my attentions wax and wane. I know that if I can get onto a plane of concentration, I’ll be able to stay there. And, I know I can reliably get there by indulging in the ritual of making my workspace beautiful and comfortable.

I have never been interested in the kind of ritual that means doing-the-same-thing-at-the-same-time-on-the-same-day-each-week. Of course, my life has rhythms, but it feels contrived and suffocating to spell them out and be bound by them. (I have my coffee every morning, and I brush my teeth every night – what else do the structure and consistency police want from me?) Instead of arriving at productivity via a schedule, I have arrived at the ability to create the physical and mental space to get into my work, when I need to, by knowing myself.

I know that I’m kind of a maximalist. Just as I was when I was a child, I am obsessed with beautiful objects, and I feel like I need them in my space. (Check out the image of my desk, above, if you have any doubts.) To figure out what rituals will or won’t work for you, of course, you’ll need to know yourself. Here are the rituals I go through to create a space where I can focus for hours:

  • Clear a sufficient work area – Although I need my lovely objects around for inspiration, it is equally important that I be able to shuffle around papers, create mind maps, and have a space to set my coffee.
  • Institute some great lighting – I like to have a few candles, because I love the warmth and motion of fire, as well as enough electric light to keep my eyes from getting tired.
  • Eliminate aural distractions – Unfortunately, hearing spoken or sung words renders me unable to concentrate on the words I am writing. If I am in a noisy environment, wearing earplugs can work very well for me. If it’s relatively quiet, I blur out any potential distractions by listening to the Relaxing Rain station on Songza. Turning off my cell phone also fits under this category.
  • Put out the Do Not Disturb sign – Letting people know I’ll be working removes the possibility of anyone breaking my concentration or offering to take me out to ice cream. Some things, I can’t say no to!
  • Kick off the creativity – If I still want a little something extra, I sit down at my desk and burn some sage or incense. Then, I take a deep breath, and start.

The key to these rituals is not letting them take over or distract from your work. This might be challenging at first, but I never have a problem with it anymore. By the time everything is ready, I can’t wait to begin.

Your Turn

Do you use workspace rituals to get started? What do you do to call out your best self?

em_bioValerie Wernet is a poet, editor, writing teacher, chef and interior designer with a knack for turning harebrained schemes into glorious realities. She holds an MFA in Writing from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, and an interdisciplinary BA from The Evergreen State College. She will be leading the PuttyRetreat with Emilie this September.

30 Comments

  1. Beth says:

    I love this post so much Valerie. I cannot overstate the impact of tidying your workspace (something I evangelised in a recent post on ‘productivity’ on my own blog!) as a simple ritual for getting mentally and physically ready to work.

    Like you, I’m, quite obsessed with ensuring that anything within my peripheral vision while I’m working is a thing of beauty, and I have some silly rules in my studio about things like plastic bags, horrible mugs and tangled wires which I won’t bore you with! I absolutely believe that these things help me to get in the zone for working and contribute to clearer thinking and better writing – for me at least.

    • Valerie says:

      Beth! Thanks for your camaraderie. These little rituals are so necessarily individual & lonely (in the best way) — it’s good to be reminded that I’m one of many finicky geniuses.

      And, of course, I’d probably find your list of banned items fascinating! I have an antique metal lock-where where any ugly yet necessary items in my studio get hidden away.

  2. Albert says:

    Wholly agree with your points! Especially having a sufficient work area, and setting the right mood with candles and incense. I would also add on trying to clear any visual distractions, such as TVs, Video Games, and sometimes access to the internet. That would help on my writing and composing endeavors.

    But when there is a lack of personal space, such as sharing a house or apartment, or people around guaranteed to distract you, sometimes the answer is to have a quiet library or cafe nearby to go to to concentrate. The quietest corner, or a desk near the reference books you need would help. For cafes I would recommend non-chain coffee stores, as those usually stay quiet and attract the other quiet people who need to concentrate on school or work. Starbucks and other chain coffee shops tend to be too loud for me, and I usually use all my energy just to drown out the sounds than work on my tasks for growth. If anything for cafes, my usual workplaces, I am picky on: decor, muzak stations, customers, time of day, proximity, ventilation, furniture, and overall vibe that allows me to be at peace and concentration.

    • Valerie says:

      Hi Albert,

      You’re so right about visual distractions. Flashing lights, texts message alerts, etc — I can forget about getting anything done with those around.

      You bring up an important point about the privilege of personal workspace. I find that, if I need to work in a public or shared space, I can get to work right away by listening to the recordings of rain that I mention in my post. It’s a Pavlovian thing, I think! And, it helps to drown out ambient noise, to boot.

  3. Johoanna says:

    Great post!

    When my art desk gets too messy I simply must tidy it. I work with a lot of different materials in my paintings (paint, ink, rubber stamps, paper, etc) and so my rather long desk is often awash with various papers, stamps, and pens. It’s due a clean today.

    To help me get into the mood for painting magick, I have some items on my desk that are special to me. First there’s a crystal skull. It’s pink and black and helps me create magick with my art materials. Then there’s a small owl statue with a pixie sitting on it’s shoulders. Then there’s my rock that I painted with the words “Be Brave”. Finally, there is room for my cup of herbal tea. These things help me to leave the outside world behind and enter my own magical world hidden deep within.

    • Valerie says:

      Hi Johoanna,

      I love hearing about the arsenal of magickal objects at your side when you set out to work! My big hunk of fluorite, dried artichoke flowers, railroad lantern & jar of volcanic ash always feel like company to me. (Good company, that never distracts me.)

  4. Nela Dunato says:

    Nice to meet you, Valerie!

    I’m so similar to you – a total maximalist (I love having choices), value aesthetic very highly, loathe routine and I can’t have any music orowords as I’m writing.
    I don’t mind listening to someone speak as I’m painting, drawing or designing, though.

    However, I realized that meditation helps me keep my mood disorder in check when I do it regularly, so it’s something I do each morning as soon as I get out of bed.

    My next step is to doodle in my intention journal to focus on what I want to create that day and how I want to do it.

    That’s all I need to do to start working, and as long as I don’t let any distractions stop me, it works great.

    • Valerie says:

      Hi Nela, thanks for chiming in!

      Sounds like you have a great morning routing that really works for you. You’ve conquered your hatred for routine a little bit, haven’t you? Kudos!

  5. Malea says:

    Great post, Valerie! I’m a poet too. Great minds and all of that…

    From your bio at the end…what did you love/hate/feel ambivalent about regarding The Evergreen State? My son is a multipod and considering applying to start in a year or two. Any helpful tips, advice, thoughts, etc would be appreciated!

    • Valerie says:

      Malea, sometimes I think of my space as a poem too. You?

      I LOVED Evergreen (and am so excited to be able to sing its praises here). I worked with amazing faculty, and built some great collegial relationships with classmates. I appreciated building my own course of study — I got to indulge in my obsessions and let them build on one another to culminate in my thesis project. It is a perfect place for a student who is self-directed, curious, and knows what s/he wants out of the experience. I think it can be challenging for students who are just out of high school, unless they are exceptionally disciplined. I was 25 when I began at Evergreen. I’d encourage you two to visit, if that’s a possibility for you. Let me know if you have any specific questions?

      • Malea says:

        Thanks so much! Hmmm….never thought of my space as a poem before, but I suppose that is true! :)

        Your review Evergreen is perfect…that’s very much the atmosphere my son thrives in. He’s been eclectically homeschooled since age 8 (turns 17 next month) and for the last two years it has really be UNschooling — all self direction, curiosity driven, etc.

        We are planning to visit the school within the year.

        Thanks for the info! If I think of some specific questions (or if he does), I’ll let you know.

        Thanks!

  6. Edie says:

    However, when I prepare to write, I call out my highest, smartest, most luminous self. She is fearless. She trusts herself completely, and she is, unsurprisingly, especially discerning. If I work with her, and give her the beautiful space she needs, we make great work together. I know my arc – how my attentions wax and wane. I know that if I can get onto a plane of concentration, I’ll be able to stay there. And, I know I can reliably get there by indulging in the ritual of making my workspace beautiful and comfortable.

    Oh, I so needed to hear this today!!! In fact I should enlarge this, hang it over my bed, and be greeted by it each day for inspiration.

    Thank you Valerie!

  7. Day Howell says:

    Thanks Valerie, for the validation! It’s a bit surreal to read your post. You could be talking about me.

    I didn’t realize I was so put off by mundane surroundings until I had a journal with a cover that didn’t speak to me. I wouldn’t write in it :) I had to design a new cover first.

    I am currently trying to get past the ugliness of my creative space. It has been a learning experience~ figuring out why I avoid places and things that are not aesthetically pleasing. But… when I read that last sentence, my mind is saying “Duh, why would anyone want to spend time in an ugly, cluttered space?”

    Great piece of writing. Thanks again!

    • Valerie says:

      Day — similarly, your story about the journal cover sounds like it could be (and probably was, at some point) about me.

      What kinds of tactics have you used in working with an ugly space? Is it more about de-ugly-ing it, or trying to figure out how to tune it out? I’d love to hear your attack strategy!

      • Day says:

        Valerie~ I have tried all kinds of ways to tune out the ugly and I find I just cannot!

        I will have to remove an ugly rug… (I want to replace it with a tied rug made of reclaimed fabrics)

        The walls need something; color, or art?

        It’ll be a fun re-do.

        Thanks for the validation though, because I was feeling like a spoiled brat not wanting to work in my ugly room :)

  8. Lyndsey Rule says:

    Thank you so much for your post Valerie. I am a dreamer, musician, doodler/artist, conservationist, enthusiasist, empath and introvert, just starting out on my journey as ‘a creative type’ and this was so helpful to hear from someone else! I always feel like my massive fight with myself to sit down and actually do the work that I know in my heart I want to do and the sudden need to sort out and prettify my surroundings as soon as I come close to focusing are just procrastination and evidence that I’m not really as committed as I think I am. This sounded like it could have been written about me and provides a route towards better understanding, and accepting, my rhythms and work patterns! Thank you.

    • Valerie says:

      Lyndsey, do you find yourself able to focus once you’ve beautified things? I think the ritual of it all slows down my thought process and helps me begin to tune out whatever else is going on.

  9. Stephanie says:

    Enjoyed the post. I also have the coffee ritual…everything can wait till I have at least one quiet cup of coffee each morning.

    Yesterday everything came to a halt and I reorganized my office space and got myself out of the corner (physically and mentally). I created more work area for myself and the room flows better too. Not so sold on the aesthetic qualities from the opposite view of the room outside the office but I can tinker with that later.

  10. Sami says:

    This is me, too! It’s crazy how much the world wants to sell us stuff and then tells us clutter is bad–but I’ve always thought there’s a difference between good clutter and bad clutter. Good is a collection of things you love that makes a house look lived in and makes your life feel like it includes things you love!

    I tend to forget things exist if I put them away out of sight, so I like open shelves and things, where I can organize but still see all my stuff and what I have. I like to clear my desk once a week. I like to have (though I don’t right now) two different work surfaces, one for a computer and all that stuff, and one for handwriting, painting, mixing nailpolish and filling orders, organizing writing, etc.

    I try not to have rituals, tho, because then it’s like an out–if I can’t light the candles or burn the incense then my brain is like “well, guess we can’t do it”, so I don’t do those to begin with!

    • Valerie says:

      Sami, sounds like we’re clutter-loving birds of a feather. I like your idea of having two work surfaces. I need to try it!

      Good point about rituals. If I was strict about mine, it could be a real barrier!

      I think I resist routine, even with my rituals, though. It’s not so much about doing just the same things each time — when I’m getting ready to work, I instinctively gravitate toward actions that create the same sense of calm and openness. That can even mean grabbing an extra candle from the table next time mine at a cafe.

  11. Pamela Williams says:

    Thank you Valerie. I swear to God! I have tried every system on the planet… Each one discouraging, entrapping and creativity building! Thank you for your affirming permission. To me you have spoken with the voice of reason. Never met a structure or clock I liked! I just thought I forgot to grow up! Thing is, when I hook up with family and friends is the only place I conform to time and planning. For joy and creativity, I like to wake up and wonder what I’d like to do today. Shall I work on my clothing designs? Or my art quilts? Or perhaps I need a long walk… I worked (and by that I mean played) long into last night. Or maybe I will hang in bed and write (writing in bed is just as fun as reading in bed.

    What is tricky for me is people. I do not know anyone in my orbit who loves to work (play) as much as I do. When I lean into someone I lean all the way, full attention. And of course they love that. And the ones I make time for, I love. They live in the world of structure. For me it is like going to a planet I don’t breath well on. I’m always anxious after a certain point, ie, say I am up late with them, they are staying over and we are catching up and having delicious conversation … Then they start yawning at midnight and they shuffle off to bed, I must stay up another hour or so just to wind down. Or if there has been too much interaction for days in a row, it takes SOOOO long to get back to my studio and immersed into my work again. Transitions! My challenge.

    Rituals help with the coming and going … Opening up my horizontal surfaces is like stretching the canvas for a painting. I always have a pad of paper handy because ideas come during this period. Who am I kidding? Ideas come at all times… I am just more prepared to pull in and get them down, in my maturity.

    Valerie, you write with a voice that I resonate with.

  12. a.julie says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been struggling with my creative practice while other life-changes have been afoot; your post reminded me and affirmed that work environment matters. I’m terrifically sensitive to space and experience; my practice is built around it – but it’s not a sensitivity that everyone shares!

  13. Nikki says:

    Beautiful post, Valerie! I can identify with every word you’ve written!

  14. Liz says:

    This post really speaks to me because it feels like it might be the thing that I’ve dropped from my life as I’ve gotten busier. I loathe routine and just can’t do it, but when I get that resistance to creativity I don’t know how to deal with it. And because creativity only occupies a very small space in my life these days I get pulled away from it because that anxiety that whatever I”m doing is trivial, unimportant, insignificant, etc. creeps in and I don’t know how to deal. This post reminds me of how I operated when I was in college and creativity was a huge part of my life and my space was very, very important and well curated. Now I live in a toddler-induced tornado of toys and laundry and mayhem and just try to keep it sanitary. I feel like this post awakened this sleeping part of me that I think could really help me reconnect my creativity to my soul a lot better!! Thank you!! This is the first “get organized” sort of post that has made sense to me in a long while.

  15. Christina says:

    I can’t agree more with the benefits of clutter control in the practice of creative endeavors. After each project I have an aftermath in my studio. I toss, scrub, sweep, vacuum and add wonderful scents before starting anew. Very important. I also find when trying to create, jazz music is helpful but when doing worky-work, the coffee house with singer songwriters is more pleasurable. We do what resonates, no matter what it is. And nobody cares but us. Such a relief.

  16. Jacquelyn B. says:

    I just wanted to shout a big thank you to yourself and Emilie for doing what you do! I stumbled on the Ted Talk video the other day and to sum up my feelings….Wow. I am a young woman that can relate so much to what you are both saying. In the past couple of days I have experienced so much clarity and self realization and you two beautiful souls were the catalysts! I have always told people I don’t know what I want to do.. I’m interested in many things.. Etc… Etc… My interests have always been multi faceted but I have noticed one constant, I love making a positive difference in someones life and making the world just a little brighter! I plan on buying Emilies book and hoping it will help me figure out how to better organize all of my interests into something productive! I also planned on making this a short thank you… You two rock and I am looking forward to what you come up with next. Thanks again!

    -Jacquelyn B.