What Does a Messy Desk (Car, House) Say About You?

I'm a bit on a kick, through a self intervention, on all of the things that I talk about here on this blog.  Messsiness, being one such kick, and to which I'm trying to expunge from my life. It's like a drunk talking about what it means to get sober.  I'm a 'messy' (a highly functioning one...but a messy nonetheless).  I don't say that with any pride.  But I do believe that I can write with some authority on the subject.  And yes, I know that very organized and neat people can tell you how they can stay organized, but truthfully, those of us who are messy are like the drunk who is in the gutter.  A drunk doesn't need a sober person telling him/her that to not get drunk don't drink and don't fall in the gutter. Similarly, a messy person doesn't need a neat-nick telling him/her how to not be a messy don't make a mess.  Rather the drunk, as with the messy, need real systems and strategies to work within.

The Weather Channel was offering solace for messy deskers this a.m. which prompted my thinking about the absurdity of the 'scientific' claims.  I have decades of experience with this issue (hence my lead in), as I suffer from a messy desk (car, home).  I am also very creative--unusually so for someone in the profession that I'm in.  However, I think that it is a huge mistake to fall on one's sword and believe that a messy desk says very much about us other than we do not possess a system to clear it from our lives.

Even though I suffer from messy-deskitis--I take it to an art form, and it invades every part of my life--when I see other people with messy desks, I'm not impressed with their creativity nor embracing outside the box thinking.  Rather, I say, "Geez, this person needs to get a system."

I believe that a messy desk says the same about us as constipation:  shit's not moving. A better (ahem, cleaner) metaphor is the laundry cycle.  If it is sitting someplace other than your drawer in its intended place, it is a wastrel.  If it is dirty and on your floor, it is of no use, except as an impromptu dog bed or tripping hazard.  If it is clean and in a pile it is undiscoverable.   An effective, well maintained system would have laundry in a hamper, taken to the washer, washed, folded and put away in your dresser in its predetermined place so that the next time that you are naked and cold, you don't have to run through the house looking for these things. (Ask me why I have used this example!)

I was at a client recently to drop something off.  I had to drop it off because I had spent the past 11 months trying to line up a meeting to do so.  When I dropped it off, the person's desktop was covered.  Every inch.  (As it was when wrapped up my engagement.)  A person in the hallway made a disdainful comment about the desk.  I winced.  The desk owner is a great guy.  A kindred spirit even.  He does good work. But that was the judgment.

However, that I was unable to solidify a date with this person speaks to the enormous waste of time and effort in trying to schedule something so simple.  Phone calls are never returned.  Emails are not acknowledged until long past their expiration date.  A messy desk spills over.  I know.  Thankfully, I have an inner bulldozer, and I level things periodically.  Creative destruction, or simply, cleaning my desk (house, car).

Jose Ortega y Gasset writes  (and you can visit my blog post on this from 2010 here):

The so-called spirit is an all too ethereal agent, permanently in danger of being lost in the labyrinth of its own infinite possibilities. Thinking is too easy. The mind in its flight rarely meets with resistance. Hence the vital importance for the intellectual of touching concrete objects and of learning discipline in his intercourse with them. . . Without the check of visible and palpable things, the spirit in its high-flown arrogance would be sheer madness. The body is the tutor and the policeman of the spirit."

I identify with that comment, and I suggest that any who are suffering (and I'm in that brother/sisterhood from messy desks and messy homes and cars (guilty, guilty guilty)) that the verdict is not so much that one is creative, but rather  the verdict is that one's mind is lost in its 'labyrinth of its own infinite possibilities'.  JOyG also notes

Writing forces the mind in its wanderlust to systematize its thinking to produce something cogent, cohesive, coherent.  Failure to systematize means that there is a failure to capture and convey the fruits of creativity.  That failure means simply that the daydreaming, when done excessively, when done without yielding results, is a waste of time. It's mental masturbation---and this is coming from someone who values creativity.

Accordingly, what I believe a messy desk tells us is that we have a creative person who is unable to systematize and unable to transform his/her creativity into somethings tangible hat can be communicated.  I further posit that such clutter robs the mind of space (and energy)  in which it needs to create insight.  I've worked with highly creative people in advertising.  You know what?  Not one of them had a slovenly desk.  Not one (and this was a 150 person office).  Some of the account managers had messy desks and administrative folks.  But not the creatives.

So I think that the 'science' behind the messy desk is a bunch of hooey. I consider myself an expert on this matter having suffered from this malaise.  I'll always be infected.  That is because I'll never change how my brain is wired.  Nevertheless, I can provide my brain with a more creative environment by having beautiful space in which to work.  I know the psychic energy that a pile of papers holds robs my brain from being able to operate in a less stressful environment.  We build insight by creating space for perspective.  And piles of crap surrounding us does not promote creating such space.  Nor does it enhance our credibility as effective executives.  Rather, I think that it detracts from our credibility....no matter how good we are at our jobs.

Therefore, I posit that to JOyG's point, we must impose discipline on the mind...or give it a trellis to grab onto and climb.  Some of my best thinking comes when I'm forced to write something (blogging, letters, journals) or develop a spreadsheet.  Why?  Because those activities are trellis for the mind.  When you write you have to have thoughts, link them, thrash them, embrace them and ultimately organize them.  Same with building a spreadsheet.  However, once one has gone through the thinking, distillation and organization of whatever it is at hand, it is the marrying of creativity with productivity.   It is that process of wrestling our ideas to the ground that  creates learning and insight.

Build a trellis for your thoughts and ideas.  Give your brain space to invent and imagine.  Capture your musings and then put on your police hat and give them form and substance.

  Of course this stuff is on my mind because 'space' maintenance is one of my many non-resolutions.  (A retread from 2008).  I believe it is important.  That's why I have it on my KANBAN board, and set my Pomodoro timer  (my policeman! to my mind) to wrestle these to the ground, to include putting away my laundry, cleaning my desk, cleaning my car, sparkling my kitchen.  And these are not palatable things to me.  But, I'm using these unpalatable things to practice mindfulness.  I'm doing washing dishes meditation (okay, it is loading and unloading the dishwasher meditation with hand washing pots and my knives), folding clothes meditation, cleaning desk meditation, slicing onions meditations.  All things as a meditation practice in mindfulness.  With the added benefit of sprucing things up.

Rather than use a typical 20 minute meditation, I'm using my Pomodoros as my working meditation time. Each of these meditations in 25 minute increments provide an exercise that is powerful, and yields a very tangible result.  I'm actually enjoying hitting the timer and selecting my task, and working through it without being distracted by 'creative' thoughts that simply are a diversion from completing the task at hand.

Today I have done email meditation, laundry meditation, dishwasher meditation, exercise meditation, firewood meditation.  Every completed task on my KANBAN board represents a work meditation successfully completed with focus, insight and results.


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