Clutter is a topic that divides people much as mustard on hot dogs or catsup on eggs. We have camps of believers who rarely even attempt to cross over to the other side to look for mutual ground. Some claim a cluttered office calms them and helps them think. And other see clutter as a mess that wastes both time and energy. I fall into the latter group—I’m sentimental about homemade gifts my grown children created as youths and a few old photographs, but even those are rather well organized.
I don’t do clutter, but I know a lot of faculty who do, and I’ve theorized as to why academics often have messy offices. For one thing, despite embracing technology as early adopters, faculty members still work in a world filled with paper. At San Jacinto College, as across the nation, assignments, essays, lab reports, reflections, journals, and sketches often arrive in faculty offices on paper. But before that instructor can look at the first stack of student brilliance, she’s off to teach another section—generating yet another stack of paper. Rinse and repeat. In mere moments, this scenario can create huge amounts of clutter.
Clutter impedes creativity. Think about it—in an office spewed with unidentifiable stacks of paper, books you meant to read last semester, coffee cups with something dark shimmering at the bottom—if you did have a creative thought or exceptional idea, where would you put it? Near the coffee cup turned petri dish? Teetering on the book stack that threatens to fall behind the bookshelf to be found only by curious archeology students at some indeterminate time in the future?
Folks who have given up on controlling clutter typically ignore the issue, make excuses for keeping things, or feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the project and so continually put off attending to it. The prospect can seem daunting, and we so easily transfer emotional significance to our stuff that this clutter issue certainly isn’t trivial. Just thinking about clutter can make some people nervous and defensive. If you are interested in tackling clutter and making more room for creativity, try chipping away at the mountain one bucket at a time.
If possible, take a few minutes each day to attack one cluttered area, staying in that area until it is at least more reasonable. Assess what is in that stack. If it is your tax forms that should have gone to the IRS last month, take the appropriate action (those people are intense). If it’s less important, decide if you really need that item. Here is where you have to move rather quickly. If the item is a flyer for an event from long ago or a brochure for an expired sales event, put that into the trash. Do it!
If your clutter isn’t just paper based but reaches into objects, books, and equipment, go through the same sorting process. If you haven’t used the item in a year, why do you think you’ll use it in the next year? For items that may not be yours to sell or give away such as departmental office supplies, think of it this way: Do you really need several staplers? More than one pair of scissors? Tape guns? Jumbo binder clips? Despite how much fun those items can be, they do rob you of much-needed space, especially if your work area is small. Can you place those items in a common work area away from your desk? Make them work for you.
And finally, once you have controlled the clutter, can see the surface of your desk, and are loving the clutter-free environment, stay diligent about keeping it that way. Don’t allow stuff you don’t need/want to destroy your inner sanctum. Be diligent. When the textbook reps come by and just want to drop off the latest six exam copies, ask them to place these in the faculty workroom for all your colleagues to review as well. If you receive unsolicited mail from a business with whom you have no intention of doing business, don’t bring it to your office.
Savor the clutter-less surface and begin to create, reflect, and work on projects without worry that you will lose important documents or objects.
Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.