Not my desk. But close.

Clean Up. If It Makes You Feel Better.

May 15, 2019|Posted in: Uncategorized

I am a bit of a neatness freak … but only by necessity: my apartment is so small that anything out of place not only gets noticed, it gets tripped over, which leads to cursing, which leads to the lady downstairs knocking on the door and asking if everything is all right and should she call 911.

Hey, it’s San Francisco … you gotta expect a little weirdness.

But that is about the only reason I care about neatness, and if you don’t believe me, just take a glance at my desk at work. Most days it looks like an archeological dig after a devastating earthquake. I mean, I’m not dirty—no snacks in the drawers, no two-week old Jack-in-the-Box wrappers under that pile of invoices—but there ARE piles of invoices, leaning towers of binders, and stacks of unanswered memos. From the number of sticky notes on my monitors, I’m pretty sure I’ve been solely responsible for 3M’s profits over the last 4 quarters.

I own my mess. I LIKE my mess. And yet … every so often … out of the blue … I feel the need to clean up.

Psychologists tell us that a sudden urge to organize is often the result of underlying mental angst or unrest: when our lives seem particularly uncertain and out of our control, there is a natural drive toward finding activities where we feel in charge—say, mowing the lawn, or cleaning out a closet, or even just putting all your playlists in alphabetical order on your phone.

I’m not sure that explains things for me: Google “underlying mental angst” and the first 30 results will probably be my picture. That’s NORMAL for me.

At least one study has demonstrated how apprehension can more or less directly lead to repetitive, ritualistic behaviors; cleaning or organizing falls under that heading. Links can easily be established between rising stress levels and the need to put order to one’s surroundings. It’s just how humans operate.

That makes more sense: when other events in our lives make us feel helpless or impotent, tidying up can be psychologically settling. It’s like, if you can organize your inbox or get rid of all the dead pens in your drawer, it can feel like you’re not totally out of control.

The thing is, tidying is finite: Point A to Point B. There’s a definite and satisfying ending. Yes, that stupid little Walmart fern will likely be dead this time next week. That’s not the point. The point is that this morning, showing it attention was a job you had been meaning to get to for months. But right now, dammit, it’s been fed, it’s been watered, and there isn’t so much as a single errant brown leaf. Today the fern, tomorrow the world.

So cleaning up doesn’t just deliver a sense of control; it also provides the kind of resolution few other things in life do. It’s temporary, of course—what high isn’t? But as our gonzo world gets more splintered and tasks more abstract, it can feel impossible at times to get any feeling of closure or completion at the end of the day: we DO and we DO, but we never seem to get anything DONE.

In other words, going all Marie Kondo on your dresser can be immensely satisfying.

Naturally, there are numerous activities that can leave you feeling confident and accomplished: dancing, exercise, meditation (check out what entrepreneurs do in their spare time), or even brushing up on your typing or spreadsheet skills (like that’s gonna happen, but you get the idea).

So my little cleaning forays are more about control and less about clean. So what? If it makes you feel better/prettier/more confident/whatever, I say go for it! Just remember that anything you clean or organize today will likely need it again next month: cleaning up is a Band-Aid, not a cure.