Every flat surface is going to get covered with stuff. It’s a universal law. Just like a cat will always find an empty box and my dog will always find the snacks in my purse, flat surfaces are an irresistible attraction. This is how entropy happens. If I have stuff in my hands and I think Future Me will have more fun dealing with it than I would right now, I’m going to put it on the nearest flat surface I can find. For later. Eventually, this is going to include the floor. While a lot of this stuff is going to include dirty dishes, dirty laundry, and a general excess of objects, for most people the surface clutter is made of paper. We turn every possible place we can find into an auxiliary desk.
Not everyone has a desk, of course. They don’t always fit. I currently don’t have a desk; I work either at the dining table, in an easy chair, at the public library, in a cafe, or in my lap on the bus. Of course, I did all of those things when I did have a desk. The entire world is my backup workspace! The major drawback to this is that, while I am paperless as much as possible, tangible material objects do keep inserting themselves into my mental bandwidth. I have to put them somewhere. They wind up either in my work bag or in a stack on the entertainment center. This drives myself crazy.
Mail to process
Receipts to process
Bound manuscripts and screenplays
Stacks of index cards
As soon as every book ever written is available electronically. As soon as we have wireless power. As soon as everyone agrees to switch to electronic billing and electronic receipts. As soon as the entire world catches up to the 21st century, I can stop having this annoying stack in my brain space. Until then, I’m looking for a design solution. I have the luxury of caring about a single square foot of chaos in my home.
There’d be plenty of room for this stack if I got rid of another shelf of books.
Most of my people do have desks. Some have more than one. There’ll be a computer desk, often used by the entire household, and then an older desk that is covered with papers. The drawers will be full of random stuff. If there are shelves, which there often are, they will be filled with stuff, too. In most cases, these desks are like historical archives, where time came to a standstill at a certain state of fullness, and everything shifted to the next auxiliary desk.
First it’s the desk. Then it’s the dining table. Then it’s the kitchen counter.
Then mail starts getting stuffed into crevices all around the house. Sideways between books in the bookcase. Stacked horizontally on top of books or other objects. Wedged under something that’s supposed to hold it in place. Strewn across the coffee table. Piled on top of the microwave or the fridge. Hidden in a drawer. Used as a bookmark. Stuffed into a tote bag, backpack, purse, briefcase, or all of the above. On the nightstand. In the passenger seat of the car. On the dashboard until it all slides off. In clipboards and pinned to bulletin boards. On the windowsill.
This is what chronic disorganization looks like. It looks like someone made a scale model of a distracted, overwhelmed human brain and put a lot of effort into making it as 3D as possible.
Really, I blame junk mail for all of this. The trouble with paper is that almost all of it looks alike. It comes in faster than we can process it, and missing a single day exacerbates what is already a significant externally imposed interruption. Every piece of paper we didn’t ask for sits there calling HEY! HEY HEY HEY HEY HEY. Every single time we look at it, each piece again triggers that mental HEY. We learn to blur over it and stop seeing it. It’s the only way our attention can possibly survive in this world of a million words.
Go outside. Tally every time you see an advertisement, a bulletin board, a bumper sticker, a corporate logo, a sign for a yard sale or a lost pet, a t-shirt or tattoo with writing on it, a piece of discarded food packaging. There are a million billion things crying for our attention all the time, everywhere we go. That’s not even counting our phones and all their alarms and reminders and ringtones and notifications. Our simple primate brains were not designed for all this stimulation!
This is the argument for a streamlined work area at home. Your home is your private retreat. It should be a place where you can escape the demands of the outside world, pause, and remember who you are. It should not be yet another arena of distraction.
The point of a desk is to have somewhere to sit and think. Everyone needs a quiet place to step away and do strategic thinking. Everyone needs a clear flat surface to be able to work. Whether that’s creative work, household bureaucracy, or simply poring over a coloring book, even the smallest home should have at least a single square foot of bare, empty surface to work.
Yes, a clear spot on the kitchen counter to cook. Yes, a clear spot on the bathroom counter to get ready for the day or for bed. Yes, a clear spot somewhere to put your feet up. Hopefully, most of all, a clear spot to think and plan. If we have to commandeer auxiliary desks off-site, at libraries and coffee shops, we have permission to do this while we get our heads straight.
The only way to start sorting through multiple auxiliary desks is to create a command central. One spot to rule them all. Somewhere to sit down and make decisions about today. Deal with the incoming mail and receipts that have come from today. Accept or decline the invitations that came in today. Try out the recipes you chose today. Recycle and shred the junk of today. Stop adding to the chaos and entropy - today. As this becomes a habit, gradually start weeding through the junk of yesterday and the expired invitations of yesterday and the filing and shredding of yesterday.
Don’t let random papers invade your peace of mind. Fight the tide. Decide that you are going to reclaim some space and peace and quiet. Create a space for yourself where you can sit and think whenever you like.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.