Advertising
Advertising

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!

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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!

Advertising

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.

More by this author

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby)

Trending in Featured

1 The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) 2 How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life 3 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 4 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 5 50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

Advertising

Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

Advertising

One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

Advertising

But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

Advertising

It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

More About Goals Setting

Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

Read Next