Cluttered Desks and Other Stories

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?


Confession time:  I’m a terribly cluttered person.  My desk is never clean.  My laundry is rarely put away.  I toss my backpack and coat on the floor when I arrive home from work (despite the conveniently located coat rack on the wall), and leave half-finished projects all over my apartment.  Dishes live in the drying rack until I use them again, and I only make my bed if somebody else is going to be joining me in it (the cats don’t count — they don’t mind if it’s just a pile of blankets and pillows any more than I do).  At this very moment I can only see about two square feet of the floorboards in my bedroom (the rest is dirty clothes and shoes and books and my sewing machine and a pile of gift-wrapping supplies that I pulled out 2 weeks ago and haven’t put away yet).

A couple of times a year, I go on a massive cleaning-spree and get everything in order.  All the laundry folded and in its proper spot.  All the books back on the shelves (organized alphabetically and by category).  Everything picked up off the floors, and the floors meticulously scrubbed clean of any remaining debris.  The kitchen and bathroom sparkle.

And it lasts for about a week.

And then there’s laundry all over the floor again.

And somehow?  I really don’t care about the mess.  Which is, of course, what allows it to proliferate in the first place, because if I actually cared about the fact that I can’t see my floor, I’d probably do something about it.

The fact that I’m a chronic clutterbug is something that surprises most people who know me in my professional life.  At work, I’m neat and efficient.  I fuss about things like putting the tools back in the correct cabinets, and making sure the paint brushes are properly cleaned, and sweeping & mopping the stage before the actors get anywhere near it and impale themselves on a loose screw or something (because if someone CAN injure themselves on something?  An actor will figure out how to do it).  I’m the one who takes notes at meetings and during rehearsals, writes and re-writes the schedules, and tries to keep everybody else on task.

The trouble is that, at work?  There’s a logic to being tidy.  Keeping tools in the proper cabinets means that everyone knows where they are, and you don’t have to go around asking 20 people who last used the nail-set because there’s a staple sticking out here and oh my gods why did you not put that back where it belongs this is taking frickin’ forEVER to do the simplest of tasks!!!  At home, though?  I live alone.  I’m the only one who ever moves things around.  I can set a tool down wherever I like, and I’ll remember where it is the next time I need to use it.  No one else may understand why there’s a cordless drill sitting behind the bathroom sink, but I know that I put it there after I installed the new soap-dispenser, and that’s all that I need to know.  Walking over there to collect it takes no longer than digging through my tool closet would, so I’m actually saving time in the long run by not bothering to put it away.

Work is also a different environment with regards to “down time”.  At home, I can finish a task and then immediately move on to something else that catches my interest.  Or there’s the Internet, or TV, or I can leave the house entirely and go somewhere else for a while, just because I want to.  At work, you’re often waiting for other people to finish a task before you can move on to the next thing, but you can’t be “not working” while you’re on the clock, so there’s built-in time to clean.

The one thing that often does inspire me to clean (or at least to shove the mess into a closet or other out-of-the-way location for a little while) is having friends over.  There’s a social expectation, especially when you’re female, that you should present a clean house to people, and the pressure of that can be enough to overcome my inherent laziness.  But even then, it’s only a partial fix — and the pressure to hide my clutter can actually be a source of stress & unhappiness, because I worry about it too much if a friend drops by unexpectedly and I don’t have time to “properly” clean.


The Einstein quote at the top of this post has always been a favourite of mine.  The belief that “genius is cluttered” is a relatively common one (although there’s little in the way of conclusive evidence — for every “genius” that one can point out who was a cluttered mess, another can be found who was meticulously neat, and most studies on the subject have very small sample sizes and a lot of variables to contend with).

I do think, though, that people of high intellect are better able to “get away with” being clutterbugs.  A good memory, especially, is useful when you don’t always keep things organized in any rational sort of fashion — knowing what you have and where it is and when you need to do something about it is a lot of information to keep sorted, and it takes a special kind of brain to look at an apartment as messy as mine and go, “oh, I know exactly where (random object I haven’t used in 6 months) is, let me go get it”.  Being able to pull out the pair of pants I wore 5 days ago and retrieve a needed receipt from the back pocket, or remember where I hid a particular pair of shoes, or when I last used my plumb line, is one of the reasons why I can let my clutter get the better of me:  because it never impairs me.  It never causes me delays or annoyance, because I can still remember where all of it is.  In fact, I often screw myself up when I do take the time to actually clean, because I move so many things during a cleaning-spree that it’s harder to remember when and where I last touched a particular object.

One of the more interesting studies I’ve seen on the subject is this one – in which people were asked to complete tasks in a messy or a clean office/shop environment, and their efficiency was measured.  The theory that the researchers came up with was that a cluttered environment led your brain to try to “cut through” the mess and find the most efficient solutions.  Also interesting was the difference found between people with different political leanings (conservatives were more likely to be distressed by a messy environment, while liberals tended to care a lot less).

Other theories I’ve seen include the idea that geniuses tend to be “non-linear thinkers” and thus don’t have the same sense of “order” that a normal person does (although I’d have to argue this one somewhat … a terribly intelligent theoretical genius like Einstein might have been non-linear, but I’m betting that a terribly intelligent applied mathematician or computer programmer is probably pretty linear in their thoughts).  And there’s also the (flattering, but likely inaccurate) idea that geniuses are simply “too busy thinking to spend time cleaning”.

Ah, well.  Perhaps now that I’ve written about it, I’ll be motivated to spend the next couple of days on a cleaning spree … clean all the things?


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