The second Monday in January sees the professional personal organising community aflutter over National Clean Off Your Desk Day. In fact, the whole of January is Get Organised Month SM.
In a brilliant stroke of post-modernism, the day was first declared by a leader of the Professional Day-Declaring Community.
This intrigued me. No, scratch that. It pissed me off.
Evidence shows that people with fire-hazard desks are at least as productive as their neat-freak counterparts, if not moreso.
When others confronted him about his famously messy desk, Einstein posed a question: If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is an empty desk a sign of?
Einstein's Desk at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton
From a 1955 Life Magazine photospread, shortly before his death.
Whether they be a nitpicky teacher or a neat-freak spouse, organised sorts tout the efficiency of an ordered environment. Contemporary psychologists who have considered it methodically, however, hold a more cautious view.
Dr. Jay Brand is a psychologist who specialises in productivity—and, by the way, he works for a company that makes desks, so he should know. Brand argues that work put out of sight, remains out of mind. People with messy desks are using the surface to park stuff they would like to keep in their heads, but don't have room for. If a company enforces a clean-desk policy, he says, they give employees an "environmental lobotomy".
Dr. Wayne Nemeroff runs a human resources company with the rather scary name of PsyMax Solutions. PsyMax surveyed some 240 Presidents and CEOs about their working habits. These high-achievers were substantially less organised and more creative than people on lower levels of the ladder, which is consistent with the fact that messy desks seem to follow the better educated, the more experienced, and the better paid.
Much such evidence was collected in a volume called A Perfect Mess, written by Eric Abrahamson, a professor of management at Columbia, and science writer David Freedman. It sparked a strident response from the personal organising community, and others.
Author and success coach Brian Tracy lectures on Leadership, Selling, Self-Esteem, Goals, Strategy, Creativity and Success Psychology. He has established Brian Tracy University, an online learning environment which "will teach you how to make more money, more consistently, and faster than you ever thought possible."
Ambrose Clancy got him to comment on A Perfect Mess for the Long Island Evening News. He called it "preposterous".
"Tracy believes that a sloppy workplace denotes indifference and a lack of focus." Clancy reports, " 'In every area of life, from setting the table for dinner to fixing your refrigerator, you have to be able to concentrate,' [says Tracy] and neatness is a first priority."
WHICH GENIUS DO YOU PREFER?
Abrahamson and Freedman cite the haphazard Einstein as an example, but Tracy counters with the industrious—and meticulous—Edison. Edison kept detailed diaries of his work, now online at Rutgers University in his home state of New Jersey. Some maintain he wrote 5,000,000 pages—that's over 250 a day for his entire life. Even if he reached only a fraction of that number, it showed discipline that would make any personal coach proud.
"During all those years of experimentation and research, I never once made a discovery," he was quoted to say, "All my work was deductive, and the results I achieved were those of invention, pure and simple." He then goes on to tell of over 3000 experiments to determine that bamboo was the most viable long-life filament for his new electric light bulb. He eventually reverted to carbon, which his rivals had been using all along.
The process which led to Edison's "invention" of the light globe bears a good deal of scrutiny.
First, to call the process "invention, pure and simple", gilds the lily. His efforts to make a practical light bulb were noble, but Edison lost a number of embarrassing patent cases about whose idea it actually was.
And frankly, three thousand experiments to find a suitable filament seems an awful lot like inefficiency. So inefficient, that he needed scores of assistants, a number of whom were charged with "ransack[ing]...every corner of the globe" for the "queerest materials"..
It sounds like a "discovery" to me.
It also sounds surprisingly haphazard. Disorganised, even. Maybe less time writing in notebooks, and more time thinking, would have helped.
(Since Einstein had to wait for an appropriate solar eclipse to prove his theory, he couldn't use experiments to take stabs in the dark. He had to engage his imagination. It's more important than knowledge, right?)
On the other hand, I've done Edison an injustice. His relentless trial-and-error method clearly worked. But it churned through money, and manpower—which Edison managed to get, at first, though his chance association with gold brokerages after the Civil War. More power to him, if you'll pardon the expression.
Edison's many pages of professional diaries prove interesting, but the single, slender volume of his personal journal even moreso. He kept it from mid-summer 1885, and it shows the man behind the sick workaholic.
He can't sleep easily; he wakes and dozes repeatedly. He tries to imagine the perfect woman, constructing her out of bits of his wives and mother. He complains of dyspepsia; an undiagnosed ulcer, perhaps? After a trying day with the family—his daughter talks to him about her career goals—he judges himself so agitated that he must read the Encyclopedia Brittanica "to settle his nerves". He dreams of demons. He complains a lot.
A Publisher's Weekly review of Neil Baldwin's Edison biography put it succinctly. "[He was a] torn family man whose neglect of home and hearth contributed to the death at age 29 of his chronically ill, emotionally troubled first wife, Mary Stilwell. His second wife, heiress Mina Miller, by this account became his subservient helpmeet, while his domineering, impossible-to-please ways drove his six children into convoluted patterns of dependence and alienation."
Do I really want to make Edison's habits a model for my own?
NATIONAL CLEAN OFF YOUR DESK DAY: A DOMESTIC DRAMA
We can learn from the tale of National Clean Off Your Desk Day.
Bill Chase was a journalist and experienced newspaper librarian. Together with his brother, sociologist Harrison Chase, he published his first almanac of events, holidays and celebrations in 1957. Over the years, the business grew until they sold it in the mid-80s.
In order to make her father clean off his desk at least once a year—or to get his attention once a year, perhaps?—she declared the day in 1982.
Let's unpack this little family saga.
- Did it make Bill any better at his job? The man was a librarian, for chrissakes. Not a profession known for losing track of information, is it? Some of the messiest desks I know belong to librarians, tellingly.
- The person who actually created the intellectual property that put food on the table was being told how he should do his job by his helper.
- Surely it would have been more comfortable and efficient to clear a space and work on a hard surface, than to drape a cloth over stacks of paper. Surely Bill needed a minimum surface on which to work, too. Could she not simply use Bill's work surface? Or did Ann drape the cloth over the stacks of paper because the very sight of them upset her?
- Was the cloth, and the day, a way of saying buy me my own desk, you cheapskate?
I don't know the Chases personally. The whole thing could be a harmless family joke. But to me, the story of National Clean Off Your Desk Day sounds less like In Search of Excellence and more like King Lear.
The former Miss Chase used her father's profession to work through her own neuroses on more than one occasion. Another of her creations is National Blame Someone Else Day, which occurs on the first Friday the 13th of every year. In 2017, it coincides with The International Day to Bite Me. When biting meets blaming, watch out.
THE MEANING OF STUFF
Why do people get so upset at someone else's clutter? Why do we hate clutter, yet continue to accumulate it?
Long-time readers will know that the Honourable Husband's clan are big hoarders. So let me lay it on the line.
Stuff can mean security. It can mean memory. Some use clutter, in an unhealthy way, to stave off loneliness. Or as a barrier against the world. Or to convince one's self that one lives amongst abundance. Such people become cat ladies.
In my observation, clutter gives off powerful signals to those around us. It certainly says that you're struggling to control your environment, and don't feel very secure in it. You obviously need the company of people, but the same time, clutter says that you're emotionally unavailable. Stuff takes the place of people. And people don't like that.
Over the years, I've conquered the family trait of hoarding. Not by conscious choice; I didn't consult The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, or anything. It happened naturally as my emotional needs were met in healthier ways. My life is now neat enough to live, in acceptable harmony, with a Japanese bloke. And that's neat, lemme tellya.
EMOTIONALLY NEEDY, OR INTELLECTUALLY INSATIABLE?
Back to the messy desk.
Many observers confuse intellectual clutter and emotional clutter. A messy kitchen shows low self-esteeem; a messy desk doesn't.
Mess in your home signals poor emotional stability—that's unhealthy. Mess on your desk signals poor intellectual stability—in other words, imagination.
A boss may decode your groaning desk as either of these.
As a flake who can't be trusted because he acts at the whim of his feelings. Or as a dangerous imagination thinking thoughts that the boss cannot control, and might not like. Besides, taking time to let your imagination run free is goldbricking, isn't it?
An out-of-control mind is a beautiful thing.
ON JANUARY 13, YOU CAN BITE ME
It's suprising how much of our behaviour is dictated by someone else's hangup, rather than by what makes an objective difference. Many cast your behaviour as immoral, inefficient, indulgent, lazy or wilful, simply to salve their own discomfort.
The parent who insists you rug up against the cold, beyond any objective measure of thermodynamics. Teachers who will punish a poor performing student, because they feel him an affront to their professional skill. The codependents who won't give their partners privacy. The anorexic who scorns fat people. The spouse who insists that a beard is unhygenic. The don't-squeeze-the-toothpaste-from-the-middle police. A celibate clergy which preaches against masturbation. A closeted clergy which preaches against gays.
Time has come to resist. The Honourable Liberation Front declares January 13, the International Day to Bite Me.
Somewhere between cat-lady and OCD sits a happy medium. Find your own, and stick to it.
Refuse to accept someone else's emotional agenda. Draw a boundary. Don't let them bully you into it, with bogus arguments about what's best, what's right, what's more efficient, what's pretty, what's nice. Your emotional comfort is as important as theirs. Say so.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE
Sign up at the 2017 International Day to Bite Me Facebook event page.
Tweet or share this page with the hashtags #ID2BM or #bitemeday. To your left, you'll find an array of buttons for your sharing pleasure.
Post a story on your own blog, and link back to here. If you fee really enthusiastic, you can use the (royalty-paid!) graphics below as a link. I'm not skilled enough to make them into HTML-type buttons, so you'll need to do a bit of linkage. If that's too hard...sorry, you can bite me.
Or, you can just leave a comment, below. Let us hear your stinging riposte. Tell us who you told off. How did they take it?
And when you set the dinner table, feel free to do it with indifference, a lack of focus, and as little concentration as you can get away with. Set the dinner table, and think a thousand beautiful thoughts at the same time. It's possible.
And by the way, I didn't buy Chase's Calendar. A hat-tip to Brownilocks for all the holiday information.
He tells us of I'm Not Going To Take It Any More Day on January 7. Bite Me Day is catchier, no?
SOME CHOICE BITES
2011: The inimitable Rumproast gets in the spirit.
2011: The very neat but otherwise pissed off Ian in Hamburg flips the bird!
2011: Artist Emmy uses the (royalty-paid!) graphics to tell haters to stay away from her highly-creative desk. It's on Pinterest, the home of excruciatingly meticulous home decor.
2011: "Brief review. Messy people have a quote from Albert Einstein and an official logo. What do the neat people got?" My point exactly, Mr. Scott G. of the 300 blog! He has elevated the phrase "let them kiss your sweet, fragrant buttcheeks" into the ID2BM pledge.
2014: The Weather Underground recalls past ID2BMs fondly, but fails to link back to this page. Even the most disorganised slobs should be able to do that, you killer of fresh SEO bait! Still, you write so nicely, and your mission is noble. I'll send some link love back your way
2016: Spanish journalist Daniel Vidal includes ID2BM on his blog Himajina: Because today is not an ordinary day. But he's a little coy about translating bite me into Spanish. He must have some very sensitive readers, indeed. Through the miracle of machine translation, I am able to offer him the phrase ¡Muerda mi culo! You're welcome.
2017: A superb effort from @Lodoviko
Let us know how you flipped the bird this year.
CLICK FOR A SELECTION OF GRAPHICS YOU CAN USE ON YOUR PAGE OR BLOG