Clutter Lovers Unite: Don’t stress about the mess!

March 26, 2009 at 10:59 am 7 comments

I was gratified this morning to read this article in the New York Times by Sara Rimer: An orderly office? That’s personal. The article reports on Lisa Whited, an interior designer who specializes in adapting work spaces to the needs, habits, and goals of their users. She’s not your typical “get rid of the clutter now!” organizer. Instead of boilerplate suggestions for getting organized, Whited begins her jobs by interviewing clients to determine their specific work habits and styles.

What particularly caught my attention was that after interviewing her client (the author of the article), Whited surmised that she was the kind of person who needed to see things in front of her or else she forgot she had them, so putting things away in a filing cabinet might not be an effective organizational strategy. Reading those words, I wanted to reach into the paper (well, into the laptop–I read the Times online now) and wrap my arms around Whited and thank her for validating my life.

Out of Sight Out of Mind
See, I’m an out of sight out of mind kind of guy. Just today I came to work without my wallet (it was “put away” in a drawer), and twice last week I came to work without my phone (it was charging in another room.) I pretty much have to organize my morning so that anything that requires my attention (phone, wallet, pants. Well, maybe not pants, I’ve effectively habitualized that one) needs to be visible to me when I’m leaving the house.

Likewise, with work. My whole organizational strategy is about keeping important things in my field of vision. If I’m not looking at it, it may as well not exist. (Note to friends and family: Apologies for being out of touch but I forgot that you existed.)

Since there’s only so much that I can keep on my desk, it’s generally not possible or practical to have too many physical reminders (notes, papers, etc.) in my field of vision. That’s why I rely heavily – VERY heavily – on text message and email reminders which I liberally set for myself using Google Calendar. (Note to Google Calendar: I’m not saying I’d leave my wife for you, but I admit we have something very special.)

Everyone I’ve ever worked with has learned that I will not see a message unless it’s placed on my chair seat. I’ve learned that if I need to do something first thing in the morning, I leave a note on my keyboard where I can’t miss it. Before text message reminders came into my life I relied heavily on taping notes to the doorknob at home (“remember to go to meeting in Trenton this morning!”)

While paper reminders in my field of vision can help, they also have their downside. One piece of paper can be accidentally placed over another piece of paper. Or it can blow away. Or it can have coffee spilled on it. For these reasons, I’ve actually arranged my work life to be as free from paper as possible. There’s probably the equivalent of 20 reams of paper sitting on my desk right now, most of it in colored folders. 98% of it has been generated by someone else and given to me at a meeting or conference. If it’s something I think I may ever want to reference again, I’ve trained myself to scan it into PDF so I have an electronic copy. One great benefit of putting everything into electronic format is that, thanks to Google Desktop Search, I can find anything I ever “touched” on my computer — email, website, pdf, etc. — immediately, and sometimes quicker!

Don’t Judge My Piles!
While these piles on my desk may look like a mess to the outside observer, I like having them visible because they remind me to look through them now and then and pull out little tidbits. A note jotted in the margin a of a Powerpoint handout from a conference presentation or a handout from a workshop I’ve given (and completely forgotten about) can trigger new insights and connections, or give me a new perspective on a problem I’m dealing with. I like the serendipity of it. It’s both relaxing to me and stimulating.

Perhaps one reason most “get organized” books fail to help people like me is that they’re written by people who are not at all like me—they’re written by people who equate neatness with organization, and assume that a neat orderly environment is an a priori good and an end unto itself. I think the authors of these books are people who feel stressed out when they see a lot of stuff, so by gum they’re not only gonna put away their stuff, they’re gonna make sure MY stuff is put away too!

But they fail to appreciate that many people (like me) are NOT like them—we don’t function best when everything is “put away”, nor are we particularly stressed by clutter. In fact, I’m generally oblivious to clutter. I don’t even see the piles of paper on my desk.

Organization Is Not an End Unto Itself
This is what I want to tell the neatniks, declutterers, straighteners, and put-awayers of the world: Organization is a tool. It is a means to an end but it is NOT an end unto itself. The end is effectiveness. Happiness. Comfort. Flow. And I need lots of stuff around to achieve those states. So thanks for trying to help, but my brain isn’t wired like yours. So if I need help getting organized I’ll call Lisa Whited because she understands. It’s personal.

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  • 1. George Taylor  |  March 28, 2009 at 2:41 pm


    Thank you for posting this. I thought I was crazy and messy. Now I know that I am an “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” person.

  • 2. Anonymous  |  March 30, 2009 at 5:33 am

    And all this time I kept thinking it was just me.This article has summed it all up so well and I shall no longer be concerned by all of those who frown at my messy desk. I’ll simply direct them to this article instead.

  • 3. Barbara Figge Fox  |  March 30, 2009 at 7:10 am

    Adding my shout-out re the clutter battle — I survive only because ai have a personal clutter counselor, Stephanie Black, a friend who adjusts her prescriptions according to my psyche. Let me know if you need her — and can anyone else recommend an “organizer”?

  • 4. Lisa Coats  |  March 31, 2009 at 10:31 am

    Well, I have to admit that I’m one of those folks that gets a bit nuts when I see even someone else’s clutter…sorry, Pete, but I’d probably have a cow if I had to look at your desk regularly!
    However, I am looking for some ways to make my life less stressful and still stay organized. It’s a challenge, I’ll admit. I will look into the tools suggested here…once I make sure my desk is neat. 🙂

  • 5. Peter Bromberg  |  March 31, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Lisa, no apologies necessary. If we ever work together we’ll just make sure that my desk isn’t in your line of sight! 🙂

  • 6. Andy W  |  March 31, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    The organization of the things on my desk is a barometer how how interested I am in what it is. If it is highly organized and neatly arranged, then I care about it. If it is a messy clump of things in a pile, then my interest is clearly not there. There are some exceptions (a highly messy clump of papers in a folder means I care but don’t have the time), but for the most part, I try to keep a 1′ by 1′ area clear for work. Everything else is fair game for piling.

  • 7. Su  |  March 31, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    What some people call disorganization, clutter, and piles, I prefer to call it visual organization. Thanks for so eloquently sharing the creative mind with the sterile organizers who believe they are correct.

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