Stop Feeling Bad About Clutter!

Most ADHD adults don't realize how effective their dis-organization strategies really are.

Saying Yes to Mess, Part 3

To a professional organizer, brandishing colored files and stackable trays, cluttered horizontal surfaces are a horror. To cognitive psychologists, like Jay Brand, who works in the Ideation Group of Haworth, an office furniture company, their peaks and valleys speak to intellectual intent and showcase a mind whirring away: sorting, linking, producing. (By extension, a clean desk can be seen as a dormant area, an indication that no thought or work is going on.)

His studies and others, like the 2005 survey conducted by Ajilon Professional Staffing, in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, linked messy desks to higher salaries (and neat ones to salaries under $35,000). Such findings echo Einstein’s oft-quoted remark, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”

Don Springer, 61, is an information technology project manager and the winner of the Type O-No! contest sponsored by Dymo, the labelmaker manufacturer. The contest offered $5,000 worth of clutter management — for the tools (boxes, bins, and systems, including a labelmaker) and the services of a professional organizer — for the best example of a “clutter nightmare,” as expressed by contestants in a photo and a 100-word essay. “Type O-Nos,” reads a definition on the Dymo website, are “outlaws on the tidy trail, clutter criminals twice over.”

The junk room

Precisely, and with great humor, Springer professes deep shame over the contents of what he calls his oh-by-the-way room — a library/junk room that his wife would like to see cleaned out to turn into a nursery for a new grandchild. With a full-time job and membership in various clubs and organizations, and a desire to spend his free time seeing a movie with his wife instead of “expending the emotional energy it would take to sort through all the stuff,” Springer is unable to prune the piles to his wife’s satisfaction. “There are emotional treasures buried in there, and I don’t want to part with them,” he says.

So, why bother?

“Because I love my wife and I want to make her happy,” he says. According to a small survey that Freedman and Abrahamson conducted for their book — 160 adults representing a cross section of genders, races, and incomes — of those who had split up with a partner, one in 12 had done so over a struggle involving one partner’s idea of mess. Happy partnerships are not necessarily those in which products from Staples figure largely. Freedman and his wife, for example, have been married for more than two decades, and live in an offhandedly messy house with a violently messy basement where their three children hang out.

The room’s chaos invokes one of Freedman and Abrahamson’s mess strategies, which is to create a mess-free DMZ (in this case, the basement stairs) and to acknowledge areas of complementary mess. Cherish your mess-management strategies, suggests Freedman. He speaks approvingly of the pile-builders and the under-the-bed-stuffers; of those who let their messes wax and wane—the cyclers, he calls them; and those who create satellite messes (in storage units off-site). “Most people don’t realize their own efficiency or effectiveness,” he says, with a grin. It’s also nice to remember, as Freedman points out, that almost anything looks neat if it’s shuffled into a pile.

© 2006 The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.


This article comes from the April/May 2007 issue of ADDitude.

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