Now that my kitchen is clean, I have a restless, uneasy feeling I ought to be doing something, but I can’t remember what it is. I keep wandering aimlessly around the house feeling forlorn and slightly demented.[ii] The problem is that a certain amount of mess is critical to my organizational system, and without it, I have no metric by which to plan my day.
Professional organizers will advise you to invest in a variety of calendars, file-folders, leatherbound binders, and clearly labeled little plastic tubs and bins. This is equivalent to sweeping the dirt under the carpet.
By contrast, my entire organizational system is based on what professional organization experts call “flow.” Which is to say that one mess tends to flow from room to room and intermingle with other messes, cross-fertilizing and producing hybrid messes of greater or lesser degrees of viability, generating over time a deep and fertile ecosystem of mess[iii] out of which evolves new ideas, new projects and new solutions to problems hardly even recognized as yet.[iv] This is called “serendipity.”
It takes a delicate hand to cultivate a mess of this complexity. Allow it to run wild and get out of ecological balance, and you might find yourself one day smothered under a toppled pile of 100 year old National Geographics. Prune it back too hard, and it dies, reduced to a sterile, rotting stump of its former abundance.
I’m a big believer in working with nature, not against her. In a healthy, well-cultivated mess, I know what problems need to be tackled first because the most urgent stuff migrates naturally and organically to the top of the pile, or the middle of the floor, or someplace else where it is impossible to miss. When you try to impose an unnatural, manmade order, you may find yourself sorting pencils by length, sharpness and number of toothmarks when you should be paying the electric bill before somebody turns up to shut off your power.[v]
Furthermore, any good organizational system depends for its success on procrastination. Procrastination, simply put, is the practice of putting off whatever you can get away with and, instead, engaging furtively in some unauthorized, socially stigmatized or outright depraved activity.[vi] Without mess, there can be no procrastination, hence no organization.
Don’t let this worry you. Remember the natural checks and balances of a healthy ecosystem; projects will sort themselves by order of urgency. When something becomes too urgent to ignore any further, it will get done. If a particular task never makes its way to the top of the pile, or even gets shuffled into a corner never to be seen again, this is clear evidence that it was never really meant to get done in the first place.[vii]
Nevertheless, it is important to prevent the mess from reaching a state where it stifles productivity rather than nurturing it. Food poisoning, for example, tends to interrupt the creative process. Being unable to find your laptop can be an unforeseen consequence of letting the laundry go too long without folding. [viii]
To that end, I have assembled this list of seven easy tips and tricks I use to keep the flow from overflowing. While they primarily apply to household organization, they can be easily adapted to meet your organizational needs at the office, in the car or in the yard and garden.
Organizational Tip #1: Once you finally locate the trowel/digital thermometer/eviction notice you have been trying to find for the last eight months, always, always return it to the exact place you found it NO MATTER HOW STUPID OR ILLOGICAL. The remembered angst of the last time you went looking for it will burn its location deep into your cerebral cortex, whereas if you move it[ix] you will never see it again.
Organizational Tip #2: Keep clutter under cover. For example, a 70 year-old quilt hand-sewn by your grandmother and never used can be artfully draped over a pile of dirty laundry. If anyone asks what it is, tell them a long, pointless story about your grandmother. Alternatively, put a chew toy on the floor beside the pile, cover the pile with one of those wooly acrylic blankets with a tiger or a bear printed on it, and ask houseguests to please not wake Fido.
Organizational Tip #3: Use your microwave.[x] The two minutes it takes to reheat yesterday’s coffee is a perfect opportunity to tidy up the kitchen a bit. You never know. You might find the coffee-maker.
Organizational Tip #4: Use your coffee-maker.[xi] Four or five minutes while Mr. Coffee burbles and drips is perfect for dealing with the dishwasher. Tomorrow morning, you could have a clean coffee cup. Which might give you a whole new perspective on what coffee is actually supposed to taste like.
Organizational Tip #5: Get a dishwasher.[xii] And no, not the kind you call “Sweetheart” and henpeck[xiii] until he gets dishpan hands.[xiv] Dirty dishes are gross.
Organizational Tip #6: A pile for everything, and everything in its pile. Remember as I noted above, the important stuff will sift to the top. Anything at the bottom wasn’t important anyway.
Organizational Tip #7: Watch television. A CSI marathon is the perfect time to pick through a pile and throw away anything that has been on the bottom too long. Anything that causes you to lie on the floor, breathing into a paper bag, should go to the top of the pile along with anything that stimulates a new and interesting idea. Ignore the stuff already on top of the heap. Remember, organization is all about procrastination.
These seven easy tricks will dramatically relieve your clutter problems and allow you to maintain a harmonious balance between creativity and productivity in every area of your life.[xv]
For more information on the subject of organic organizing, read A Perfect Mess by Eric Abrahamson
[i] Please don’t mention this to my mother-in-law.
[ii] That last part is more or less my natural state, so it’s not actually relevant to the story.
[iii] No seriously, do NOT mention any of this to my mother-in-law.
[iv] It’s quite possible I may have invented penicillin five or six times.
[v] Bills migrate to the top of the pile roughly every 26 weeks.
[vi] Anything from playing FreeCell at the office to writing novels. Although most people consider FreeCell to be relatively harmless.
[vii] The extinction of the Dinosaurs was probably due to procrastination—thus making room for mammals and, eventually, us.
[viii] Or washed in the first place, obviously.
[ix] On the theory that because it was so hard to find the last time, you had better put it in a more logical spot this time.
[x] In case of gardening, this would equate to throwing your compost in the worm bin and letting the red wigglers deal with it.
[xi] Never mind fertilizer; shovel the earthworm dirt on the garden and leave it to nature.
[xii] Turn the chickens loose to eat some of the worms and scratch the rest of the worm castings into the garden soil. Secondary benefit: eggs.
[xiv] It is acceptable to employ an automatic pre-wash cycle named “Spot” or “Fido” (not the Fido on the living-room floor with the chew-toy, obviously).
[xv] I am totally, freakin’ serious; absolutely do NOT, under any circumstances, mention any of this to my mother-in-law.