Pointless Cleaning – Why Working in Clutter is Necessary and Impossible

It was physicist Michio Kaku that said it is “pointless to have a nice clean desk, because it means you’re not doing anything.” Naturally, there is a difference between a desk cluttered with paper, notes and ideas and a space dominated by empty wrappers, Waterstones paper bags and the remnants of what could have been good ideas for articles long ago. Extreme decluttering or an acceptance of the status quo. There is no happy medium for the burnt-out mind. The brain that has been working overtime, figuring out the next idea while three are already being stoked in the fire. It is fun, but when the temples begin to throb and the face goes a bit numb, it is time to take a step back.

Having taken that step back, it is worse. Now it is just watching an accumulation of stuff and things grow and grow. More books, more films, more ideas, just growing and mounding on top of each other in this insufferably inevitable growth that can’t stop until action is taken. But action can’t be taken because to take action would be another chip away at healthy living. Living healthy is not working and working, but when there is so much to do, or rather so much to perceive of doing, it is difficult to take a moment to acclimatise and realise it isn’t all that difficult. Case in point, organising a bookshelf. The desk was another problem altogether, but behind the desk chair was a cluttered gathering of books, vinyl and film with some semblance of order.

On further inspection, there is none at all. A shelf in two halves. Alphabetical here, cluttered there. Genre here, complete oblivion elsewhere. That is no way to construct some organisation, but it is also necessary. To fish out the occasional gem that had been forgotten about, packed away at the bottom of a pile of books, inspires some sense of importance because it stood out from the pile. There is no explanation as to why it did, or what it could be for, but there it is. Some books are littered about on their own on different, almost clean shelves, and the sole reason for them being there is either a recency bias of purchasing them or the hopes that having it out on the shelf will imply some future reading close down the line.

Either way, it is a tug of war between the mind and the shelf. It sounds infantile, to be overwhelmed by an amount of stuff bought and owned by someone actively making the choice to invest in more items, objects to litter on the shelves or in the room. But it is the necessity to have a backlog, to have something to move on to after an accomplishment is made. So many books will go unread not because there isn’t time for them but because they are shunted further down the pile, new purchases taking precedence over a Shaun Ryder autobiography or a rough history of The Rat Pack. Interesting topics, surely some notes of worth to be found in them, but no chance of getting to them any time soon.

Clutter can work sometimes, although finding a bit more organisation would be much preferred

It all links back to burnout. The freezing of abilities, the actual inability to make a decision. Writer’s block is not the challenge, but the actual act of overcoming it and what it brings. Too much work can certainly bring about some change to the brain and the system of working. Waking up to plug an eight-hour shift, writing extra articles for other websites in the downtime, following up the end of a shift with a quick scuttle off for a coffee and interview prep, all the while wondering where in that mess dinner will land and the note-taking for tomorrow. Part of it comes from developing hobbies into careers. Everything untouched goes unloved, everything loved goes onto the pile of potential profit.

That is an active choice. One that has since caused a disassociation, an almost inability to connect. People, things, art. All of it just sloshed together in a grey, festering pile that feels more like a to-do list for living than anything that could be forgiving or even rewarding to experience. Music still moves, people still engage, films still tick over to the end credits, but it all feels so fleeting, rather than exciting. Time feels sped up, and the more that litters the shelves the more the realisation sets in that, eventually, you’ll not need to have anything else. “That’s your lot,” as Brian Limond once titled his book of short stories. That isn’t on the shelf yet. Into the basket it goes. The cycle goes on.

To have a “nice clean desk” would be to remove the emotion from it. To remove the cluttered memories, the empty coffee cup, the half-formed ideas that get thrown into a notebook and discovered months down the line when it’s far too late to do anything with. An organised desk is a different story. The size of the desk too. All of these variables, like the shelves behind the chair, are too much to think about. To order it would be Herculean, an impossibility that feels necessary for the straight and narrow. To order the shelf is to order the life under the desk. But that means getting rid of all those Jon Ronson paperbacks or flinging the Best Of: Talking Heads CD in the bin. It’s not hoarding, it’s just not knowing what to do. 

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