Being overburdened can kill productivity. Having too much (too much stuff, too many commitments, too much text) can be completely overwhelming. Paring back, reorganising, and reducing can be a great way to regain focus and energy.
In a recent post on The Research Whisperer, Health law researcher Aila Hoss wrote about her overcommitment to too many writing projects, and how scaling back her writing ‘to-do’ list helped her to more tightly align her writing projects to her overall research trajectory. In the same way, scaling back a bloated thesis chapter can make it leaner and much easier to manage.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately because of Netflix. (Don’t you love it when Netflix procrastination is indirectly helpful?) Home organisation wizard Marie Kondo’s highly addictive Netflix show has been out for a few months now, and in it, she helps overwhelmed households to pare back their clutter by encouraging people to keep only the items that ‘spark joy.’
Marie Kondo’s ‘KonMari method’ breaks down the task of decluttering by item: first clothes, then books, papers, miscellaneous items, and finally, sentimental items. Within each category, you sort through all your belongings and decide which of them ‘spark joy’. This is a translation of Marie Kondo’s original Japanese term ときめく(tokimeku), which describes a fluttering sensation; though many interpret it to mean that an item should be pleasingly fit for purpose. If an item ‘sparks joy,’ it should be kept; if it doesn’t, it should be donated or discarded. Adherents of the KonMari method thank each item for its contribution to their lives before they remove it from their homes.
The KonMari method of decluttering and organising is a gentle way of downsizing. It isn’t just about ruthlessly chucking out household items – rather, it’s about graciously letting go of superfluous items, and taking the time to respect the remaining belongings. In a post-KonMari home, the shirts are immaculately folded in drawers and the cups are meticulously lined up on shelves. Marie Kondo’s world is one of order. (The world of op shops was apparently in chaos after her series came out and the frenzied masses donated their surplus gear, but that’s another story.)
While I like her approach to household organisation, my first thought on watching her show was: will this work for my writing?
I tend to write too much, but I also hate to edit. Every time I try to delete chunks of text, I procrastinate and mourn the loss of the hours that I spent writing it. To this day, 3 years after submitting my thesis, I have a file labelled ‘Thesis – cut bits’ because I couldn’t bear to Ctrl+X without Ctrl+Ving somewhere else.
So the KonMari method of thanking what no longer serves you is immediately appealing to me. If a chapter or section no longer serves the thesis — if it doesn’t add anything, if it’s too tangential, if it’s a distraction from the core message — then perhaps we should thank it and say goodbye.
Giving thanks is helpful, because it’s a reminder that the process of writing that section was not for nothing. I learned something from every piece of writing I did, even if it didn’t end up in the finished thesis. Writing out sections that were too broad allowed me to narrow my scope. Writing up the results of a shonky data analysis method enabled me to realise that it wasn’t worth keeping. Everything I discarded was, in fact, a crucial step toward defining my final thesis.
Saying thank-you-and-goodbye to superfluous chunks of thesis has another key benefit: it allows you to focus on what you do want to keep. Once she has helped them to farewell unnecessary items, Marie Kondo teaches her clients how to respect and care for their belongings. With less to manage, they can give more time to what they have. So too, editing a bloated thesis gives you greater power to refine and perfect your work. After all, it’s much easier to work on an 8,000 word chapter than a 20,000 word chapter.
The other thing I like about the idea of a KonMari editing process is the approach to ‘sentimental items.’ There are often parts of our writing to which we are more attached than others: parts that feel personal, or urgent, or particularly well-written. If one of those favoured pieces of writing has to go, it can be especially painful to delete. Marie Kondo advocates waiting until last to deal with sentimental items to avoid stalling the process. The same could be said of editing. You don’t want to get stuck attempting to pare down a piece of writing that you love. Leave those favoured sections until last. Once you’ve got some momentum with your editing, revisit them and determine — from a position of strength — what you’d like to keep.
So a note to Netflix: perhaps Marie Kondo’s next series should help overwhelmed researchers to declutter, organise, and prioritise their writing. Because how incredible would it be to write a thesis so good that it actually sparks joy?