Why you need minimalism in order to be more creative

“Two gray pencils on a yellow surface” by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Minimalism doesn’t only apply to material possessions. You can use it to clear your ‘mental clutter’ as well, making you even more creative. Let me explain:

I was the worst kind of hoarder.

And I didn’t just hoard the useless clutter which took up space and made me miserable. I was hoarding ideas and unfinished projects. Stuff which I started but didn’t finish.

Under my bed, I kept an unfinished manuscript, 20,000 words long.

“How can I part with this?”

Throwing it away would mean losing 2 months of work.

Throwing it away would mean accepting failure.

But it WAS a failure…going nowhere. Now it was stifling my creativity. And I had dozens more hare-brained ideas, scrawled inside journals and on the backs of napkins.

When I first saw the documentary Minimalism, my life changed. I’d spent my adult life confusing love for attachment. All the clutter I’d bought and kept was actually a drain on my happiness.

But that’s not all…

…I realised I had as much — if not more — clutter taking up space in my head. I couldn’t focus on the few projects which had potential. I was subconsciously clinging to those which had none. Each unfinished project made it harder to complete the next. It was the start of a vicious cycle I needed to break.

As it happens, this has a name. It’s called ‘The Zeigarnik Effect.’

Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist, noticed waiters always remembered orders in the process of being served. However, once the task was completed, the memory evaporated and their head was clear for something new. She went to her lab to experiment further.

Zeigarnik asked participants to complete a series of small tasks and puzzles. At different moments, they would be interrupted. She found participants were around twice as likely to remember the interrupted tasks as the ones they’d completed.

Humans have a basic need to complete a task once it’s begun.

Until it’s complete, the task is baggage. Mental clutter. It takes up creative space, getting in the way of whatever’s next.

So if you want to be more creative, look at all your unfinished projects. Make the decision now: ‘Do I finish it, or throw it away?’

When you start thinking like this, you should notice all sorts of mental clutter getting in your way. For example:

Half-finished books: Finish reading them. Or pull out the bookmarks and forget about them.

Idea journals: Start acting on them. Turn them into short-stories, novellas, blog articles — whatever your idea journal records. When you’ve finished doing this, throw your journal away.

(Maybe that sounds controversial, but personally I’m against idea journaling. I think it bogs down your brain with bad ideas. Stephen King says something similar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwhOd65gGoY Great ideas don’t need to be journaled, because they stick in your head.)

Old research: I found piles of books and notes on my shelves from old projects. Some of it I’d put to good use. Some of it wasn’t used at all. However, all of it was clutter. Clearing it out my apartment was tremendously liberating. I felt free to focus 100% on my current project…and get it finished.

Of course, I don’t want to suggest giving up too easy.

There is a difference between having a failed project and a project which needs some effort. And all large projects — novels, for example — have moments where you’re desperate to quit. So be honest with yourself as you do this.

This is not really about quitting, it’s about choosing.

You choose the 1, or few, ideas you want to focus on, then dispense with all those you don’t. With less mental clutter, you’re better equipped to finish. And when you do finish, your confidence increases for whatever’s next.

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