Neat Freaks Unite! (And line up in an orderly fashion, please …)

Organized Pantry

“I’m untidy, but I have an organized mind,” said my former faculty roommate earnestly, as we sat looking at our office.  We had just moved in to the office together, and I dismissed her comment out of hand, especially since I already owned my own  fastidious nature.  We were like the ECE Faculty Odd Couple.  She was relaxed,  unfettered by rules, and integrated enough to not be hooked by campus politics.  I was less experienced, with an over-developed sense of responsibility that, at the time, had me up grading my papers until 1am.  Lord knows how we survived our two years together.  Perhaps it was a case of opposites attracting, but all I know is that we had a marvelous time.  I don’t think I laughed so much at work in my life.   She turned out to be the best teaching mentor I’ve ever had.

My natural tendency to be neat goes way back,  likely a combination of constitution and a home environment that supported  organization and cleanliness.  Still, though, even my  mother seemed a little mystified at its early manifestations, suggesting to me when I was in kindergarten that I let my bed air out just a little before making it every morning.

My neatness evidences itself in many ways.  I store similar dishes and beverage vessels together in the kitchen cabinets; refrigerated food items are placed neatly in compartments, ordered by food category and size, as necessary; pantry items are also placed, in order of potential consumption, by height, in that most-popular foods are placed higher on the shelf (I draw the line at alphabetizing items, Accidental Tourist-style;  however, it just makes good sense to place the soup cans with the labels facing front).  My toiletries are placed in specific reservoirs of a make-up divider, while larger items, such as deodorant, lotion, and bath powder are stored in a line, by height.   I have been known to pick up microscopic dust bunnies, food bits, and fallen medicine tablets from tiled or carpeted surfaces, and to sweep such objects from chairs and couches as well.  I have also been known to re-align dishes in the dishwasher  and correct mis-arranged table settings.  I’m only doing this  to be helpful.  When  I gave up my 12-year-old VW Beetle last summer, the dealer marveled at its excellent condition.  I blushed my thank-you, but secretly hoped that no fuzzy pennies or melted Skittles had  escaped my search-and-seizure cleaning.

At work, I use a filing system for all documents and textbooks.  I am quite fond of binders, as retro as they may be in this world of cyber-storage.   The bulletin board outside my office is organized into attractive quadrants, with appropriate notices placed tastefully in departmental-, field-, event-, and class-schedule categories, atop a color-sequence of construction paper stapled over the cork.   I still write “take attendance” on my class agenda every week, in case I forget to do that.  I may re-write notes on the white board before class 2 or 3 times, to get them just right.  OK, so there might be some mild OCD operating here, but don’t you think everything should be clear?  Huh?

During my years as a cantor at my neighborhood church, I wrote the hymn introductions on post-it notes, placing them strategically in my song binder.  I didn’t want to botch an announcement or say the wrong number of a hymn.  That the music was right there in front of me didn’t  suggest necessarily that I would actually read from it.  The post-it just made it official.  Doubly-clear.  Doubly-right.

So here’s the thing with we neat folks.  We value the predictability that organization, planning, and ordering the environment provides.  When the physical environment is cluttered, we get tense.  When I have to store fliers and upcoming event materials in my tiny office, and the floor space begins to shrink, I feel claustrophobic.  I actually close my eyes when talking on the phone during those times.  When the physical environment is more orderly, calm is restored.

I invite you to consider the benefits of being connected to a neat freak.

High standards for aesthetics and guest-readiness are clearly in order. We want you to feel good.  Things just look pretty.  I can find just about anything you’re looking for.  Things are very clean.  There are no surprises (or hardly any).  You will get the prettiest, most attractively-wrapped gifts ever.    Need I say more?

Yet, research has delved into the implications of our nature and its connection to the physical environment — and how a propensity for conscientiousness or sloth (are these terms too strong?) may influence not only the kinds of choices we make, but how creative we are.  An article in the September 22 issue of the New York Times Magazine summarized recent studies exploring such themes.  More recent studies have  explored the positive role a cluttered physical environment plays in creative thinking.  For example, college students placed in messy or neat offices were asked to make a list of different uses for ping pong balls.  The lists generated by students in the messy offices were deemed more creative.   Researchers were surprised, but concluded that the cluttered environment might have a hand in thinking that is “… free of tradition” and “… produces fresh insights.”

Still, the study’s director, Dr. Kathleen Vohs, at the University of Minnesota, also suggested that one’s goals may require some careful thought in connection to the state  of the physical environment.  She suggests that if your goal is creative thinking, then a disorganized environment may prove helpful; if, however, you have a more direct goal, such as your own physical health or fitness, then organizing your environment first may help you march in that direction more successfully.

Interesting.  This seems to imply, of course, that both tidiness and disorder have a place in our lives.  We need both dispositions, though we may need to determine how to use them more effectively.  Perhaps the fastidious and the slovenly can come together in a meadow (not too far from an urban area and access to high-speed, comfortable transportation) for a  convention.  The fastidious folks would plan the agenda, and the slovenly would plan the entertainment.    And therapists well-trained in conflict management would be on hand for some post-meeting de-programming.  It could happen.

This study also proves that two very different folks can successfully share physical work space and thoroughly enjoy their different bents. Yours truly is living proof.  It may not work all the time, but it’s lovely when it does.

So, you need us.  We need you.  I can weed your garden, clean your house, and organize your calendar.  You can help me  double my time between loads of laundry, drink juice beyond the expiration date, and  stop ironing my slips.