Some people are just untidy. Madeleine Chapman is one of them, and this year she’s decided to embrace the mess.
“I was going to clean that up,” I said, feeling a distinct shame I’d never felt before.
The cleaner just shrugged. “It’s not that messy, we get this all the time.”
I was panicking. I had been housesitting for a month, and in that time had settled in enough for the house to be messy. It was that messy. And it was fine, I thought, because I had already set aside my last day there for a spring clean. When the family got back their home would be so much cleaner than when they left it and no one would have to know my messy ways. Except I forgot that they asked their cleaners to come before then. And now they were here, a husband and wife, clearing the kitchen bench I’d cluttered and throwing away old newspapers.
I stood there, ashamed. I was fine with being a messy person. I was not fine with other people cleaning up my mess. But it was too late. They were doing their job and now I was making it harder by apologising and getting in the way. I took the dog for a long walk and when I got back, the kitchen was clean and I was trash.
I’m actually a very good cleaner. Being a daycare cleaner was my high school part-time job, and throughout university I amassed a handful of residential cleaning clients. Once I start cleaning I’m very particular about it. But it’s the everyday maintenance I struggle with. I’d love for a psychologist to explain why it is that I love to clean up a giant mess but can’t handle stopping something from becoming a giant mess. Please help me.
One of my 2020 resolutions is to keep a tidy room. It has been one of my new year resolutions every year since 2007, because I still believe that if I learn to keep a tidy room, every other aspect of my life will improve.
I have never been a tidy person. Many hours of my childhood were spent watching while my mum cleaned my room and lectured me simultaneously. I’ve always known how to make a room spotless but I’ve never been able to maintain one for longer than three days. My desk at primary school was a nightmare, no matter how meticulously I cleaned it at the end of every term. And now my desk at work is a nightmare, not for me but for the few colleagues that despise clutter. “Can we clear all the rubbish from our desks please?” will be the semi-regular email. I look at my desk and know that I’m the target of this email, despite not a single piece of rubbish in sight.
It’s not rubbish, it’s just stuff. Stuff is fine. Stuff has value, both to creativity and productivity. Stuff is there because at some point in the past you needed it and at some point in the future you’ll need it again. I have stuff on my desk at work because if it wasn’t there it would be in my room, which already has too much stuff. But is it making me less productive?
There have been countless studies showing that a messy work environment lessens creativity, most simply because too many things in the visual field are a distraction for the brain. Tidy space, tidy mind, apparently. All I’ll say is that I am equally likely to waste time on the internet at a clean desk as at a messy desk.
A messy environment is sometimes unavoidable, and assumptions that mess equals disorganisation or a hoarder lifestyle are often misguided. Messy rooms have been used to diagnose all sorts of shortcomings in people. Can’t keep your room tidy? You must have bad time management. Don’t fold your laundry? You’re probably not that reliable. Leave things on the floor? Your attention to detail must be lacking. The messy room or messy workspace as a symptom is annoying. Sometimes it’s just mess.
I live in a seven-bedroom house with six flatmates. My room is always messy and theirs are always clean, often disconcertingly so. Even when mine is clean it looks cluttered compared to theirs. How was everyone managing to keep a clean, minimalist bedroom while mine looked like it had my entire life in it? The answer was in the question. My flatmates, like most people in their 20s, still have bedrooms, or at least a closet, full of their stuff at their parents’ house. All of my worldly possessions are in my bedroom at my flat.
Without turning this essay into yet another class critique, it takes a certain privilege to live a minimalist life. I actually have this privilege (if I dropped three boxes of old school reports and team photos and artwork at my parents’ house, they’d complain for five minutes then forget about it), but many don’t. The recent concept that “clean” means “empty” and “messy” means “dirty” has been particularly harsh on those without the time or money for neat, hidden storage.
The next time you enter a nice house and admire how sparse and clean it looks, remember it’s probably not because the owners live with few possessions, but because the owners’ possessions live somewhere else.
I have a messy room. For the first week of 2020 I experienced a weighted blanket. I didn’t buy one, but I did have two loads of laundry on my bed for six days that I slept under instead of folding. I broke my new year resolution almost the moment I made it. Every time I walked into my room I thought “I should clean this”. Not because it was affecting my mood or stopping me from completing important tasks, but because somewhere ingrained in me is the belief that messy rooms are bad and are symptomatic of greater ills. “I’ve attributed my worsening schedule to a messy room,” I wrote to a colleague, “so will clean it tonight and then my new year starts tomorrow”.
It had been a long first week of the year and I wanted to blame it all on my unfolded clothes. The urge is not unlike that which leads people to buy up cartons of vitamins believing that it’s a deficiency that’s the problem, not general bad work and sleeping habits. How could I be productive and focused at work if I couldn’t even make my bed? Never mind the near infinite other factors influencing my schedule, mood, and life. All the most successful people have minimalist, clean rooms, don’t they? That’s definitely the solution.
So last night I cleaned my room for almost three hours. Every t-shirt is now perfectly folded, every shirt ironed and hung up, and every book neatly organised on the shelf. My shoes are all in a tidy line and my bed is made. It still doesn’t look as crisp as the other rooms in my flat because of all the stuff, but it’s clean. I like that my room is clean, even though I know it will have no effect whatsoever on my productivity because it never has in the past.
I still agree that cleaning your room is a positive exercise. You feel productive while you’re doing it, your mood lifts at having completed a task, and you get a clean room. But just because a clean room is good does not mean a messy room is bad. Having failed in my initial 2020 resolution immediately, I’ve changed it to something more achievable. In 2020 I want to embrace and accept my messy self because sometimes unfolded washing is just unfolded washing and nothing more.