Three Things I Learned from My Messy Desk

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Albert Einstein

That’s not how I was raised. Mom and Dad — by their words and their actions — taught me and my sibs that cleanliness and order are right up there next to you know what. Like so many, they believed the broken-windows theory: the smallest mess leads to bigger messes.

However, a recent study says that sometimes a messy desk might be a good thing.

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” Dr. Kathleen Vohs states. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe,” she adds.

Yep. As a momma, I encouraged convention and playing it safe with our two kiddos. Pick up your dirty socks. Put away your toys. Don’t take food outside the kitchen. Hold my hand. Don’t talk to strangers. Good rules, especially for momma’s sanity.

But what about creativity? Taking risks? Discovering something new?

Ooooh. It seems that some messiness is good.

So that makes me feel a little better about my messy desk.

Except for one thing.

Since moving into this new-old house and doing some crazy major remodeling, I have an awesome writing space. My desk sits in the front corner of the main floor, in the space that used to be the formal dining room, facing into the big open room we’ve created after knocking out a few walls.

Compared to my Utah writing space, a small dark room, this one is flooded with natural light, views of the bird-feeder and the goings-on in my neighborhood. (That’s not always a good thing.)

I love this space for all kinds of reasons except that I see my messy desk. All. The. Time. And everyone else sees my messy desk, even the UPS delivery guy standing at the front door waiting for a signature. I can’t shut the door and ignore it because there is no door to shut.

My desk has forced me to see who I really am. Yes, like a counselor.

#1 —  I’m not organized.  I just like to look organized.

My husband has always applauded me as the organized one in our relationship. I’m pretty sure that started when we were dating, and he left me alone with his messy desk one afternoon. I broke all the dating rules. (Isn’t it written somewhere that you shouldn’t mess with a guy’s messes until you are married?)

Mind you, I didn’t file anything or toss anything. I just straightened the papers.

Anyway, I knew he was a wonderful man when he saw what I’d done and he smiled and said thank you.

I figured out much later that my 20-minute desk detox probably freaked him out.

By the way, he’s been thanking me for more than thirty years.

And telling me I’m the organized one.

But I’m not. I’m just slightly more organized than he is.

#2 — I’m a procrastinator.

If I have a fast-approaching deadline, whether it’s finishing a story or editing someone else’s, and I see a stranded paper clip or a few stray catalogs? I stop being productive and I start to putter. Writer Anne Lamott calls this sacred puttering which makes me feel a little better.

I’m so good at sacred puttering.  Anything to avoid the real work of writing, editing, creating.

And to remove the temptation to putter — and to create the illusion that I’m organized (see #1), I’ve started doing a quick desk detox.  I shove the paper clips and the notebooks, the scattered post-it notes and catalogs and whatever else I don’t need into the desk drawer.  It’s a lick-and-a-promise act of avoidance. Out of sight. Out of mind.

#3 — I’m still learning stuff I thought I would have figured out by now. 

Like what does my messy desk mean?  Who am I in the midst of this messiness? The messes may be out of sight, but they aren’t really out of my mind. Is it working?

There, just inches from my work, is a mess. I will have to face it. Eventually.

Just like my life messes.

I can ignore them. Shove them aside.

The completely disorganized but out-of -sight basement? A difficult conversation I should have with someone I love?  My next mammogram? That moment of self-righteousness when I really thought I was better than someone else? The phone call to an old friend where I couldn’t wait to hear the latest “news” — a.k.a. gossip?

Or open the drawer and hand them over to the One who is the expert at dealing with my messes. Seek His wisdom, His grace, His perfect peace.

Yes. Then I can deal with the messes — perhaps creatively. Perhaps more easily. Perhaps not.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10

Or check out how The Message paraphrases this same passage. (No, it’s not theologically exact but it really sings.) “God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.” Love that.

Yes. Renewed. Refreshed.

Now go have a Genesis week, my friends, because in Christ, you already have a clean heart.

No matter how messy your desk might be.

How do you deal with your home messes and life messes? Do you have a favorite way to putter and to avoid puttering?

One thought on “Three Things I Learned from My Messy Desk

  1. Judy says:

    As someone who just cleaned out my desk yesterday I can relate. I am a classic “sacred putterer” (love that term!). I realize that I am far more organized, and do much less puttering, when I am very busy. I know I don’t have the time for fooling around, so I don’t! But with a little wiggle-room, I can find all kinds of things to do rather than the tough stuff. Like yesterday. I didn’t do anything on my to-do list. Instead, I took a long walk with a neighbor, went to lunch with a friend, took a nap (because it was one of those 4:30 wake up mornings), and watched a movie. Hmmm. Part of that is intentional, for this is a time of rest for me. However, there must be a happy medium between constant productivity and aimless puttering over the long haul. Neither extreme is healthy. Thanks for the challenge, Beth!

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