Whether you work physically, digitally, or in some combination of the two, you build up detritus: papers, projects, files, and folders that accumulate as we jump from one project to the next without pausing to look back and tidy up. Especially in the case of digital files, it’s way too easy to just keep it all (the digital equivalent of shoving it under the bed). It happens to also be quite pointless and suffocating to hang on to everything. Instead, I propose a purge.
If you’re in the northern hemisphere, chances are it’s cold and gross out, or at least colder and grosser than you would prefer. That makes it the perfect time to go through your old work and toss a bunch of it out. Of course, you could just bury yourself in bad TV, but why not get a jump on your spring cleaning? Completing a small and contained preliminary task like getting rid of your past project clutter can do wonders for your sense of accomplishment and boost your productivity on the things you’re (supposed to be) working on now.
WHY GO THROUGH YOUR OLD WORK?
Besides the obvious, i.e. freeing up disk space or house space so you don’t end up on a TV show condemning people for their clutter, there are many peripheral and conceptual benefits to taking a walk down work stuff memory lane.
First, physical (or disk) space is mental space. Even if you think your old stuff is just benevolently sitting somewhere, it’s also secretly taking up space in your brain. Get it out of there!
The most fun thing to discover when digging through old stuff is a jewel that you can use in new work. Concepts, sketches, treatments, colors, fonts – it’s all waiting in the bowels of your computer or some random box you shoved somewhere to be rediscovered and put to new use enriching your current work.
You can also use a pass through old work to see how far you’ve come in style and skill. It’s not unusual to come across old projects and shudder, so why keep them around? Look through your old work, give yourself a pat on the back for your progress you’ve made, and then toss it into the recycling (or ctrl > empty trash).
Another fun benefit of going through your pieces is getting to see everything in the context of a larger body of your work. When we first create something, it can feel grand and precious, often because we’ve created it in the vacuum of a particular moment and excitement. There’s no better way to destroy the illusion of preciousness than to see a bunch of your work laid out together. It quickly allows the truly great pieces to rise to the top, and the ones we have some unfounded attachment to to recede into the background (and the “no” pile). Being discerning in what work you 1. consider good, and 2. elect to keep around, ultimately makes everything you produce better. Looking back with a critical eye is part of the grunt work of holding yourself to a high standard.
Cleaning out your old stuff isn’t only about making your actual work better going forward, but also about solidifying your conceptual footing. In unearthing old work, you are bound to come across projects that you regret having taken on. This serves as a helpful reminder of your own principles re: what kind of work you’re willing to tackle and which parts of your creative practice you are actively focusing on and pushing forward. The best way to remember the lessons of past projects is of course to shove the evidence in your face. Once you’ve re-internalized the old lessons, you can (you guessed it) throw the baggage away.
There’s even more good to be gleaned from coming face to face with projects you probably shouldn’t have done in the first place. Chances are past projects that loom terrible in your mind had a component that was frustrating or difficult to resolve, or perhaps a detail you pored over and wasted too much time on that ultimately didn’t matter at all. Somehow, though, that project and others like it got done – a helpful reminder that you can probably figure out anything that you need to going forward. Thanks, going through my old work!
OK FINE, HOW OFTEN DO I HAVE TO DO THIS?
I thought you’d never ask. If you can’t find a convenient life excuse (moving, breakup, etc.) to do a work purge, I’d say lay out old work and get rid of a bunch of it at least once a year. That said, I know I definitely still have all the drawings from a crappy hand animation of a cactus-going-to-a-store-in-the-desert from college, but when I finally find them, you bet your buns I’m gonna toss ’em.
BUT WHAT IF I FIND SOMETHING I KIND OF LIKE?
Excellent follow-up question. It’s almost like somebody was writing this post sequentially or something… If you find something you kind of like that isn’t worth keeping as a portfolio piece or old inspiration for new works, mail it to a friend. There’s nothing more fun than 1. receiving unexpected snail mail, and 2. using your trash to bring someone else the joy of treasure. And, everyone loves sneak peeks into their “creative” friend’s process and pieces of original work.
HOW TO START
The advice is simple and time-honored: start small. Try cleaning up one digital project, one folder, one stashed-away box, or the original drawings from one project and enjoy basking in your sense of accomplishment as you look upon a swelling trash folder or a pile of stuff on the floor. The dopamine should kick in from there.
Good luck and let me know if you find anything cool!