Does a Cluttered Desk Signal Chaos or Creativity?
Churchill, Beethoven, and other workplace slobs thrived amidst disorder.
Posted Apr 13, 2019
Leave that Messy Desk Cluttered
There is a logic buried within the piles of papers, stacks of books, and general detritus that litters a desktop. My own is a shrine to messiness. In fact, I have multiple surfaces on which to make a sprawling mess. I have a large partner’s desk, a six–foot table desk, and a nine–foot credenza, all of which are perpetually strewn with the projects I’m working on. Some projects are short, others are book length, and most are in–between. But each has its own pile. Of course I have filing cabinets that hold carefully labeled hanging folders as well as a smaller file box that sits at my feet under my desk. It can hold two dozen folders of whatever project I’m working on at the moment.
The latter may give the impression that at least some part of me is organized, but in fact my scattered piles are a form of external memory. I know where everything is much better than if I alphabetized each piece of paper, book, or ripped–out article into a distinct hanging folder.
Mess has a logic and organization that outsiders seldom perceive. Piles of paper represent a different sort of filing system, a physical one that reflects its creator’s way of thinking, one more creative than any system built on the linear alphabet or Dewey decimal system can be.
Decluttering Isn't the Blessing Neatniks Make it to Be
I raise this as a reaction against the current pop obsession with decluttering, most strongly identified today with Marie Kondo, the darling of simplification who is enormously popular on YouTube, Netflix, and elsewhere. If you haven’t used something in a year, she advises, then throw it out, whether it is clothes, kitchenware, or tools in the basement. You have over 50 books on your shelves? You only need 5. You have 300 CDs? Then toss out the ones you rarely listen to.
Kondo and kindred priests of decluttering promise something like spiritual fulfillment if only you let go of worldly possessions and chuck them into the trash. Their zeal to rid you of the superfluous reminds me of my great aunt Elizabeth, a stern woman who never saved anything. A repairman once came down the steps from her attic and asked, “Lady, how long have you lived here?”
“Thirty–five years,” Aunt Liz said. “Why?”
“There’s nothing in your attic!”
Her grandson, who’d gone into law enforcement, felt the sting of her philosophy when he learned that she had thrown out his grandfather’s World War I medals and uniform. To her, the past was done with. For him, it held meaningful threads of connection that were now lost.
Logic Behind Random-Looking Stacks
Winston Churchill’s study and bedroom were a disaster—he often dictated from bed or the bath. And yet who would deny his genius in navigating Britain and her allies through World War II? Mme. Curie’s desk was a mess, as was Chekhov’s. Yet Chekhov typically wrote full–length stories in longhand without a single erasure. Bing creative involves breaking away from norms and convention, and an environment that looks disorderly to outsiders but not to its creator lets people do just that.
The decluttering concept is based on the iffy assumption that having too many things complicates life needlessly. Yet a formidable amount of science shows this attitude to be mistaken. Throw–it–out gurus confuse abundance with disorganization. History shows that the most successful individual s thrived on clutter, among them Beethoven and Einstein.
There is a cost to a too–clean environment. Decluttering makes the mistake of thinking that we can easily figure out what we should hang onto and what we will never use again. But we can’t. So leave that messy desk alone.