Cluttered Space Cluttered Mind

environment Dec 15, 2020

At the first law firm I worked for after my clerkship there was a partner named Jim. Jim was a successful defense attorney in construction litigation. At some point in my time there, I stopped by his office and commented on how neat it was. The man's office was spotless. It was kind of freaky!

Jim was a highly productive, driven guy. He was one of those partners who got in his car with a list of people he needed to follow up with and it was common for associates to get calls from Jim while he was in his car on his morning commute following up on the status of projects or asking them to touch base later in the day. Not a moment of that driving time was wasted.

I'll never forget what Jim said that day. He said, "A cluttered desk leads to a cluttered mind." He told me he always put everything away before he left work at night, and that the only things on his desk were the things he needed for the work at hand.

I would like to say that Jim's influence changed me. I was always messy. I had a messy room as a kid that drove my mother crazy, and a messy room in my college sorority. Law school was probably my neatest time, mostly because the desk I worked at was too small to accommodate much clutter. At work, the mess on my desk had order to it, but it wasn't uncluttered. Multiple piles would surround me, each pile representing a project or, when it got really bad, the projects or parts of projects would be piled, one vertical and the next horizontal. I was never unable to find anything, so I thought that was ok.

It wasn't until years later that I realized the psychological impact of those piles. They created a subtle and chronic distraction and, at times, anxiety and a feeling of overwhelm. I was working while surrounded by visual reminders of all the other things I needed to get done. Depending on my workload, that visual "background noise" could create a significant amount of stress.

At some point, I started clearing everything off of my desk before I started a major project, even if that meant moving the piles to the floor or behind me onto my credenza. It was so much easier to be focused!

Putting the papers and other materials related to the various projects on my running "to do" list in a drawer or on a shelf, out of sight, is a fast and easy way to reclaim a feeling of control over the chaos that is inherent to some degree in a litigation practice. My attention isn't being distracted from the project I am working on by a different pile calling to me from behind my telephone or under my rules book. I stick to the task at hand until it's done, put that stuff away and start with the next project.

Clearing out at the end of the day with a plan for the morning allows for a fresh start and a feeling of accomplishment. The clean slate allows you to walk away, enjoy your evening, and come back fresh the next day. The increase in productivity that has come with the elimination of what I will call "clutter distraction" is noticeable, as is my feeling of peace during and at the end of the day and of purpose at the beginning of the next one.

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