David and I talk a lot about the habits that support our creative lives, and those that don’t. We even occasionally teach a class on the subject. While our workspace aesthetics differ (he did an Instagram series last year about his), Francis Bacon’s space would never work for either of us. In fact, in the last year, I’ve adopted the habit of clearing off my desk at the end of each day. Whatever I’m working on — a print, an essay, the books for my business — I put it all away, and begin each morning, as David Allen suggests, with only decorative objects, reference materials and tools visible. It’s become more pleasant to “arrive” in the morning, but not just that. My studio is in my house, and I’m often passing through it when I’m not working. The clutter-free surfaces have a surprising ability to soothe and energize me. A few drawers, a vertical file holder, an in- and out-box, and a lightweight system for using them mean I can create my 900 square feet of hope in fewer than 5 minutes.
My in-box is actually the bottom shelf of a narrow bookcase, a few feet from my chair. It’s about a foot deep, three feet wide and two feet high. There is an actual box, for corralling small things, but the shelf provides room to also stash larger items like my, um, daily shipments from Amazon.
My out-box is a wire basket with handles and a wood bottom, about eighteen inches long, wide enough to hold a dinner plate. It’s on the top of a set of Elfa drawers behind me as I work. I can reach it easily from my chair, and it’s right by the door. This is the spot for outgoing mail, returns, and also dirty dishes, coffee cups, and anything else that belongs elsewhere in the house.
Because the boxes represent decisions I need to make (the in-box) or decisions I’ve made but not executed on (the out-box), I need them out of sight while I work, but I’ve discovered that I need them in view when I’m doing almost anything else. For years, I experimented with versions of what David and I called a “Tomorrow Box.” The idea was to have a discrete spot to stash anything that I wasn’t going to deal with “now.” I began with an elegant Stockholm Office Storage box from The Container Store. It sat on a shelf and had a lid. Well, theoretically it had a lid. Into it went everything I intended to deal with “tomorrow,” which meant “not now.” The lid never fit, and after awhile I replaced it with a more functional but unattractive cardboard box. That solution eventually got stuffed in a closet, along with its contents. (This is one strategy. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that ignoring mail for months makes much of it irrelevant. Of course, then I have to deal with the fall-out of that, which is more of an impediment to creativity as I get older.) So, in this new system, I’m satisfied I’ve found a middle way through.
I carry the out-box basket downstairs with me a few times a week. On Fridays, when I take care of business tasks and clean my studio, I touch everything in the in-box and usually empty it. The more diligently I use the tool of an in- and out-box, the less I need to rely on my schedule to remind me to empty them. Additionally, when I’m in the habit of adding to and emptying the boxes regularly, I know what’s in them, and can piggyback dealing with them on other tasks that come up. For instance, if my dishes are in the out-box rather than all over my studio, it’s easy to grab the basket and carry them all downstairs when I take the dogs down to go outside.
When I was a kid, I had to be threatened before I cleaned my room, yet I remember the physical sensation of quiet I discovered in that ordered space. The easily closed cabinet door seemed miraculous, behind it a neat stack of board games and sketchpads, crayons in a dish.
Despite this, I swam upstream against an inclination toward disorder and chaos thru high school and into college, at which I foundered twice before finishing a degree. The third time, I bought used filing cabinets and my father made me a bookcase. Over the years, I added more bookcases and adopted the habit of clearing out papers at the end of each semester, storing them in rubbermaid containers, first stacked in my closet, and then in the basement. That version of my system held through graduate school.
When I discovered Julia Morgenstern’s book Organizing From the Inside Out, David and I owned a home and I fit my creative life in around my day job. I picked up two ideas from Morgenstern that seem like common sense to me now, but at the time were radical. The first is to begin any organizational effort by evaluating one’s inclinations, and eandeavor to work with them rather than wholesale change them. (This is the inside out part.) The second is that each item or category of items needs to have a designated place before it can be put away.
In that first home, I used a spare bedroom about 15 feet square as an office/studio. In it were a desk, shelves, filing cabinets, meditation cushion, and a cozy chair for reading. I removed the sliding doors from a long, shallow closet and lined it with Elfa shelving, then added a drafting table and chair to create an area dedicated to visual art. The bones of my organizational system were good, but my life had gotten more complicated and my system needed to adapt. I don’t remember the specific issues I was having, but Morgenstern’s ideas made sense. I recognized them, and I recognized my sensibility in them. Adopting Morgenstern’s principles has been a committment to a way of living rather than a once and for all change.
These days, I have 900 square feet of space, three rooms, in which to do the same things, plus a whole lot more. For one, my art is assembled from many different source materials. I have to manage both the original sources (which are sometimes large), and the scraps (which are messy). My process requires both that my materials be visible and that I can get them out of sight. Then there’s my printer, spare ink and large rolls of paper, and prints in progress. Finally, I’m also running my business, Kimberly McClintock Studio, out of this space.
In my business, I play a number of roles, and I’ve not yet landed on a perfect system for managing the energy, respective task lists and planning required to do all of them well. A few months ago—similar to three decades before when I was becoming a serious student and again when I began my career in industry—my lack of strategy began to hurt. Or, rather, I became aware of how much it was hurting.
But, that’s really the point: human beings change the status quo when it’s uncomfortable.
A significant productivity challenge for me, consistent and baffling since I was a kid, is a disinclination to do what I plan even when it’s what I most want to do. Gretchen Rubin framed the problem with her personality classification system, the “Four Tendencies.” She introduced this in Better Than Before—a book that is part survey of the habit-specific performance science literature, part memoir of her experiments trying the findings out on herself. It was helpful to recognize that according to her system, I’m a “rebel.” The rebel’s motto is, “You can’t make me, and I can’t either.” I can’t overstate how helpful it’s been to have the problem framed in this way. Before, I was in a “throw the baby out with the bathwater” situation, but as I practice viewing myself through this lens, and learn to live with proclivities that years of belligerent berating, earnest resolving, therapizing and self-help have not eradicated, I’m more equipped to recognize and utilize the strengths. This metaphor of The Rebel informs a lot of the practices I’ve adopted in the last few years.
Putting away my toys at the end of each day is not only a strategy that helps me to subvert my worst tendencies, it has become a keystone habit. The effect of this small change—it literally takes me 5 minutes—ripples out to positively impact the quality of my work, my productivity, my sense of what’s possible, my ability to think, and my sense of competence in rest of my life. The result is noticeably less anxiety.
But, how? Why?
I’m not sure, but I can speculate.
Walking in to a tidy office makes me happy. Not in a big way, but in a small, significant, daily way. I feel more open hearted. I can see objects I’ve collected that represent my purpose; I’m free to notice the light, the view, the thriving jade plants I prize, the art I’ve made, and that I’ve received as gifts. My Dear Sugar poster. My big teal couch. Small pictures tacked up of my beloved niece and nephew. The aesthetics of a space, of daily life are themselves a composition. My room is a picture space. Just like the principles of good composition require that a piece of art communicate in the simplest possible way, so does a space make similar demands. I need to be reminded why I do what I do, and my environment can do that, if I can see it. By cleaning up my mess, I control the picture space and the movement of my eyes and thereby the movement of my thoughts and my imagination. When there’s space, there’s literally possibility. (And the opposite is true, too.)
It’s not just aesthetics. My “intimate interrupter,” to use the label Mary Oliver coined for the part of ourselves that begins to obsess about trivialities when we sit down to write, (from “Of Power and Time,” collected in Upstream), thrives on chaos. My intimate interrupter is The Rebel, and vice versa.
When I arrive to a clear work surface, it is as if I’m choosing my work for the day rather than having it imposed on me. The Rebel requires this.
Because middles are dull and often the slowest going part of a project, it’s energizing to pretend I’m just beginning.
When a project I’m working on feels like a tangled necklace, when I can’t find the loose bit, and I’m tugging and worsening the snarl, I sometimes want to go to bed, or begin something new, or eat cupcakes. Doing one small thing while I wait out a solution almost always helps, if only by not making things worse. When I’m in an orderly space, I’m more likely both to know what one thing might be, and, mysteriously, to have the willingness to do it. And once I do that, other small tasks get done. I might still be vexed at the end of the day, but I don’t feel as awful as I might had I given in to resistance and overwhelm.
I live and work in this space. Four days a week I eat breakfast, lunch and often dinner at my desk. So, while tidying up is a way to mark progress, enact a small ritual of completion in a large project, it’s also a way to signal the end of the work day, a small space, however artificial, between my personal and professional lives. This space allows me to recharge.
By requiring myself to open folders and page through the contents each morning, I give myself the opportunity to consider details I might otherwise have overlooked. Details pertaining to the work, but also to my process, my systems and my schedule. I see it all freshly.
Perhaps most significantly, though, picking up is a gesture, one that expresses care. I’m leaving behind loveliness for the sleepy woman who will arrive tomorrow in the dark to make her coffee. Regardless of how she feels about her work, I’ve left a message there is a clear path in. I’m reminding her that the work she’s doing matters, and that, as recently as last evening, she felt ready and willing to meet it.
Francis Bacon* worked in the studio space pictured above for most of his career, and he lived there, too, until he could afford a larger, separate home nearby. Opinions abound about how to live a good life, but the genesis of an individual’s impulse to make art is mysterious. And the terms required to honor it differ for everyone. I have an obligation to myself to be alert to what supports my work, and what sabotages it. To be attentive, honest, and to tell the truth. To take the time to know, and to act on the knowledge that what works for you, or for Francis Bacon, is not necessarily what works for me.
After awhile, Bacon returned to living primarily in his studio. Perhaps he suffered no guilt or second thoughts, as I might. Perhaps he didn’t struggle with the decision, didn’t feel ridiculous for needing it, for not being able to work except under very specific conditions. I may be projecting and I’m certainly guessing, but I doubt that. I am the agent for my creative life, negotiating on its behalf with the greater world. Making art is a calling as honorable as that of a teacher or a doctor and, given that, if I’m harming no one, is there a wrong kind of thing to need?
I don’t think so.
*For more detail on Francis Bacon’s work habits, here’s an article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/sep/05/francis.bacon(