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The Perfect Mess

The Perfect Mess
The Perfect Mess

In an interview with Michael McLaughlin published in The New Writer’s Handbook (2007), Eric Abrahamson, co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, says

Your mess is perfect when it reaches the point at which, if you spent any more or any less time organizing, you would become inefficient.

When we see a perfectly clean, organized office, with it’s sleek glass-topped desk and a white MacBook centered perfectly atop the desk’s vast emptiness, we might find it cold, sterile, oppressive even. It’s not a coincidence that the Death Star’s halls are clean, white — and cold!

On the flip side, when we see an office with a desk buried under mountains of paperwork, with trash bins overflowing and computer cables snaking haphazardly across the room, we often find it overwhelming, disgusting even — and rarely think well of its owner!

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For most of us, there’s a “sweet spot”, somewhere between the Death Star and the garbage dump, where everything we need (and nothing we don’t) is close at hand, where the minimal amount of work yields the maximum gain. Where that sweet spot is will, naturally, be different for each of us — and finding it is often made difficult by confusing clutter with messy perfection, or by confusing laziness with efficiency.

The Oppression of Organization

Too much organization, especially for creative people, can be stifling. One reason is that organization often stems not from our particular workspace needs but from moral and social judgments imposed on us (and internalized) externally. That is, we feel the need to organize to meet social standards that may not have anything to do with our own needs.

Messiness in Western society is associated with a lot of negative things. Clutter, disorder, messiness is associated with dirt, disease, and filth. Messiness is considered inhuman, uncivilized — remember Mom telling you your room was a “pig sty”?

It’s also associated with laziness, the greatest of sins in a Western mindset guided by the Protestant work ethic. While we might feel that our work takes priority over cleaning up, there’s a part of us that will always feel that we should be doing it all — that not cleaning up is a sign of sloth, no matter how much other work we’re getting done in the meantime.

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Messiness is also a class issue. Middle-class reformers have always advocated lives of zen-like simplicity to their working-class charges. (In the 1910’s and ’20s, they would set up model homes in poor tenements showing workers and immigrants how a “proper” home should be kept — plain furniture, no curtains, open cupboards, hardwood floors, and bare walls were the norm, in contrast to the mish-mash of overstuffed furniture, cheap posters and wall calendars, heavy curtains, and multiple rugs the immigrants and workers preferred.) Wealthy people look down on the nouveau riche who stuff their homes with Baroque furniture, Persian rugs, and glod-trimmed everything. Non-clutter is the foundation of Apple’s success — among well-off, professional, upper-middle-class social elites (and their emulators).

But there’s a cost for this kind of neatness, a point of diminishing returns beyond which more time spent organizing and cleaning means less time spent getting work done. This is especially true when workers (and I’m including the work of family, home life, and hobbies here as well as the work we do for our jobs) “borrow” systems that are advocated by professionals as “gospel” but do not truly reflect the individual’s working life or personality. As it happens, a great many highly organized people are no more able — and even less able — to find the things they need, when they need them, than the chronically messy.

The Cluttered Mind

On the other hand, keeping up some kind of order is not without value. As every craftsperson knows, tools and supplies that are tossed around haphazardly become broken or damaged, which means they aren’t able to do their work even when they can find their equipment. Spending time looking for some item you need right now is no fun, and surely inefficient.

Messiness can also indicate underlying psychological blocks. People who refuse to clean up after themselves or to put things “in their place” might well be acting out retained resistances to an overbearing parent or schoolteacher whose daily involvement in their lives is long past. Or they may be using their mess as an excuse to not get things done — because they don’t know what to do with themselves if they finish. Or they may act out of the unconscious fear that if they got everything in order, they’d have to start dealing with more troubling aspects of their lives.

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And messiness can be anti-social. Having a messy office can keep you from working well with others, even if you have no trouble working in it. Having a messy home can prevent you from inviting others into it — or others from accepting such invitations. Our mess can become a barrier to — or, in some cases, insulation from — interacting with the rest of the world.

Making the Perfect Mess

The trick, then, is to find the balance point between too much organization and too little. Where, exactly, that balancing point is will differ for each person, depending on their personality, their career, their family life, who they interact with, and a variety of other factors. There are, though, a few questions you can ask yourself to figure out where that balance point is for you and what kind of work you might need to do to reach it. You might want to think them through a few times for different contexts (e.g. office, kitchen, living area, garage/toolshed, etc.)

  • What are your organizing strengths? What do you do extremely well? Are there areas where you’re very organized, maybe related to a hobby or other specific activity? For instance, I play guitar, and all my musical equipment is always in one of two places, everything gets put back when I’m done, everything is well-maintained.
  • What are your organizing weaknesses? In what part of your life are you always scrambling? What activities are the least efficient for you? In my case, I’m a bad filer — there’s something in me that says I can only file when I’m done with something, so if there’s a chance I might use it, it needs to stay out.
  • What do you like most about whatever space you’re thinking of?
  • What do you like least about that space?
  • How would you feel if the space was completely clean? How would you feel if it were in complete disarray
  • What three things do you regularly need that you can’t find?
  • What could you do to make those three things more findable?
  • What in your life do you have no problem finding? What is it that you always put back in an assigned place, or always know where it is even if it’s in a cluttered place? What is it about that thing or those things that make knowing its/their whereabouts important to you?
  • What are the first three things you would clean if you knew an employer or client would be visiting you tomorrow?
  • What piece of cleaning have you been putting off for a while? Why do you think you’ve resisted cleaning up just that one area?
  • What are the tools you always need to have within arm’s reach?
  • What else is within arm’s reach that you rarely or never use?
  • How would you describe your space to someone you’d hired to help you get organized?
  • How would you organize your space if you had been hired to organize it?

Like I said, there are no right or wrong answers, here. The idea is to help you find that comfortable medium, where the things you need are at hand and the things you don’t need are out of the way but still findable. I think most of us spend a lot of energy maintaining a “mental map” of our space, and I strongly believe in “off-loading” some of that work to well-designed systems — but there’s no use in doing that if you end up spending the same amount of mental energy maintaining your mental map of how the system works!

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Instead, if you can figure out the “sweet spot”, you can focus on “nudging” your system back towards it. This is far preferable to the kind of worry and anxiety the prospect of a “clean sweep” can create in us. Don’t, however, confuse comfort with effectiveness — we humans can get used to just about anything (there are people who mentally collapse when removed from prison, hostage situations, even concentration camps!) but that doesn’t mean that it’s the most effective way for us to live.

Take some time to ask — and answer — the hard questions to produce an organizational system that works most effectively for you. That means that it does the most it can do with the least amount of energy — both in physical labor and in mental anguish.

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Last Updated on July 23, 2019

5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

In the journey of growth, there are times when we grow and excel. We are endlessly driven and hyped up, motivated to get our goals.

Then there are times when we stagnate. We feel uninspired and unmotivated. We keep procrastinating on our plans. More often than not, we get out of a rut, only to get back into another one.

How do you know if you are stagnating? Here are some tell-tale signs:

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  • If you have been experiencing chronic procrastination on your goals
  • If you don’t ever feel like doing anything
  • If you keep turning to sleep, eating, games, mindless activities and entertainment for comfort
  • If you know you should be doing something, but yet you keep avoiding it
  • If you have not achieved anything new or significant now relative to 1 month, 2 months or 3 months ago
  • If you have a deep sense of feeling that you are living under your potential

When we face stagnation in life, it’s a sign of deeper issues. Stagnation, just like procrastination, is a symptom of a problem. It’s easy to beat ourselves over it, but this approach is not going to help. Here, I will share 5 steps to help you move out of this stagnation. They won’t magically transform your life in 1 night (such changes are never permanent because the foundations are not built), but they will help you get the momentum going and help you get back on track.

1. Realize You’re Not Alone

Everyone stagnates at some point or another. You are not alone in this and more importantly, it’s normal. In fact, it’s amazing how many of my clients actually face the same predicament, even though all of them come from different walks of life, are of different ages, and have never crossed paths. Realizing you are not alone in this will make it much easier to deal with this period. By trying to “fight it”, you’re only fighting yourself. Accept this situation, acknowledge it, and tell yourself it’s okay. That way, you can then focus on the constructive steps that will really help you.

2. Find What Inspires You

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Stagnation comes because there isn’t anything that excites you enough to take action. If you don’t have a habit of setting goals, and instead just leave yourself to daily mundanes, it’s not surprising you are experiencing stagnation. What do you want to do if there are no limitations? If you can have whatever you want, what will it be? The answers to these questions will provide the fuel that will drive you forward.

On the other hand, even if you are an experienced goal setter, there are times when the goals you set in the past lose their appeal now. It’s normal and it happens to me too. Sometimes we lose touch with our goals, since we are in a different emotional state compared to when we first set them. Sometimes our priorities change and we no longer want to work on those goals anymore. However, we don’t consciously realize this, and what happens is we procrastinate on our goals until it compounds into a serious problem. If that’s the case for you, it’s time to relook into your goals. There’s no point in pursuing goals that no longer inspire you. Trash away your old goals (or just put them aside) and ask yourself what you really want now. Then go for them.

3. Give Yourself a Break

When’s the last time you took a real break for yourself? 3 months? 6 months? 1 year? Never? Perhaps it’s time to take a time-out. Prolonged working can cause someone to become disillusioned as they lose sight of who they are and what they want.

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Go take some extended leave from work. A few days at bare minimum; a few weeks or months will be great. Some of my ex-colleagues have quit their jobs and took months out to do some self-reflection. Of course, some of us might not have that luxury, so we can stick to a few weeks of leave. Go on a trip elsewhere and get away from your work and your life. Use this chance to get a renewed perspective of life. Think about your life purpose, what you want and what you want to create for your life in the future. These are big questions that require deep thinking over them. It’s not about finding the answers at one go, but about taking the first step to finding the answers.

4. Shake up Your Routines

Being in the same environment, doing the same things over and over again and meeting the same people can make us stagnant. This is especially if the people you spend the most time with are stagnant themselves.

Change things around. Start with simple things, like taking a different route to work and eating something different for breakfast. Have your lunch with different colleagues, colleagues you never talked much with. Work in a different cubicle if your work has free and easy seating. Do something different than your usual for weekday evenings and weekends. Cultivate different habits, like exercising every day, listening to a new series of podcasts every morning to work, reading a book, etc (here’s 6 Proven Ways To Make New Habits Stick). The different contexts will give you different stimulus, which will trigger off different thoughts and actions in you.

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When I’m in a state of stagnancy, I’ll get a sense of what’s making me stagnate. Sometimes it’s the environment I’m in, sometimes it’s the people I’ve been hanging out with, sometimes it’s my lifestyle. Most of the times it’s a combination of all these. Changing them up helps to stir myself out of the stagnant mode.

5. Start with a Small Step

Stagnation also comes from being frozen in fear. Maybe you do want this certain goal, but you aren’t taking action. Are you overwhelmed by the amount of work needed? Are you afraid you will make mistakes? Is the perfectionist in you taking over and paralyzing you?

Let go of the belief that it has to be perfect. Such a belief is a bane, not a boon. It’s precisely from being open to mistakes and errors that you move forward. Break down what’s before you into very very small steps, then take those small steps, a little step at a time. I had a client who had been stagnating for a long period because he was afraid of failing. He didn’t want to make another move where he would make a mistake. However, not wanting to make a mistake has led him to do absolutely nothing for 2-3 years. On the other hand, by doing just something, you would already be making progress, whether it’s a mistake or not. Even if you make a supposed “mistake”,  you get feedback to do things differently in the next step. That’s something you would never have known if you never made a move.

More to Help You Stay Motivated

Here are some resources that will help you break out of your current phase:

Featured photo credit: Anubhav Saxena via unsplash.com

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