This is a weird thought I’ve had over lunch. I’ve just read this book and it was brilliant. I recommend it to anyone who loves people watching and snooping around other people’s houses or places of work. It offers a fascinating insight into how much of ourselves can be seen through our ‘stuff’ and how we display or arrange the stuff in our lives.
One of the insights it offers is about how the way we arrange our stuff in our working environment may indicate how we feel insides our minds. I want to explore this idea. My Year 4 teacher (2nd year juniors in old money), Mrs Nichols used to say oh so frequently to class 2N the following: ‘An untidy desk means an untidy mind’. At my junior school, in the late 1970s, we had flip top desks with ink wells.
We kept our books and belongings in our desks. Every week Mrs Nichols conducted a desk inspection. I believe it was on a Friday. And during every desk inspection she repeated the same phrase: ‘An untidy desk means an untidy mind.’ This was one of her many mantras. Hearing this used to make me cringe in my seat. My desk was always untidy. I envied those well-behaved intelligent children with tidy desks. I hated them. How did they do it? I never really knew. I aspired to be like them. I never was like them. Subsequently, after failing desk inspection every week, in that way that children think teachers speak the word of truth, I grew up believing I had an untidy mind and that that was ‘a bad thing’. I resigned myself to being inferior to the army of tidy people.
However, Sam Gosling in Snoop argues that this ‘untidy belongings equals untidy mind’ belief might not necessarily be the case, at least when it comes to working environment. It argues that an untidy desk might actually be the sign of a tidy mind and visa versa. A busy mind needs order, and a ordered mind can deal with chaos.
Having said that, and I like his theory, I don’t entirely agree with it. I’m basing this on a scientific study of one person: me. At the age of 46 I know enough about myself to know that I do have a chaotic mind. It isn’t going to change. It is and always has been chaotic. It is what it is. But then I thought about my working environment. When I had a full-time job, a job which entailed huge piles of paper everywhere (piles of proofs, revisers, ozalids etc) and huge piles of books everywhere (that’s what publishers make), you might expect my desk to have been very messy. It wasn’t. Or at least, it got messy each day but at the end of the day, I would straighten all the piles up, wash my mug, and create a desk space for the next day. So although I am quite messy in many respects, I like to put things in order. There is a limit to how much mess I can deal with. Perhaps Mrs Nichol’s weekly desk inspections rubbed off on me. She encouraged me to at least give a semblance of tidy at the end of the day.
Now I work from home and my desk is the sofa. It is a little messy, but not excessively so. I need to be surrounded by books and sketch pads. But it is not hugely messy and I do straighten the piles up now and then. So perhaps my chaotic brain can cope with a little chaos but not a lot.
I have another desk now, it is my art studio in Wolverhampton. This is a place where I am expected to be messy. Yet, even here, at the end of each day, I find myself straightening the piles and tidying it up.
I have never considered myself as a tidy person in terms of my environment. The house is full of piles of books, odd socks, X-box games and the like in random places around the place. The mantelpiece is a mixture of cats in hats, which is hardly tidy and pleasing to the eye. But in my work environment, perhaps, although I allow mess to develop during the day, I need a sense of order (or at least a sense of order to me) to help calm my chaotic brain which is known to spill out with ideas and thoughts (like today – this is my second ‘weird thought’ of the day). If it gets too messy, I get jittery. On that note, I ought to tidy up my piles now.
So, Mrs Nichols, you were three quarters right. I do have a messy mind and mostly I do have a messy desk, but I have aspirations for a tidy desk and it is always tidy at the end of the day, at least it is now.