Albert Einstein is reputed to have once said about desks: ‘If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?’
This witty quote is often bandied about by people to defend the state of their own cluttered desk. The implied argument is that if this is the preferred state a genius likes to work in (Einstein’s desk was always very cluttered), then it’s OK for everyone else too. However, there are some major flaws with this reasoning, as I’ll explain.
There is also no evidence that Albert Einstein ever said this. It’s not listed in the most comprehensive and reputable source of Einstein quotes, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, published by Princeton University Press. Quote Investigator has discovered that it was not attributed to him until 51 years after his death, in a New York Times article published in 2006, where its source was not cited. So while it sounds like something he could have said, he probably didn’t.
Messiness on the outside is always a symptom of some kind of chaos on the inside
Read any of the biographies about Einstein and what quickly emerges is that his life was not a happy one. Like many creative geniuses, he was chaotic to live with and found it impossible to sustain healthy relationships. It’s said he was an indifferent father and a habitual philanderer who had at least ten extra-marital liaisons.
So even if he did make this often-quoted remark, it’s still highly debatable that a cluttered desk is desirable. Having worked with clutter issues in people’s homes for many years, I’ve seen on numerous occasions how straightening up their home helps a person to straighten up their life, and also how much more productive they become after decluttering their desk. So it really does beg the question, how much more could Einstein have accomplished and how much happier could he have been if he’d been able to do that too?
An empty mind is a sublimely creative state
The quote suggests that an empty desk is a sign of an empty mind, inferring that this is inferior to a cluttered mind. But I’ve found the opposite to be the case.
The most notable experts I’ve met don’t use their mind at all. They ignore the relentless chatter of their thoughts and learn to access streams of creative brilliance that exist at much higher levels. The more they can clear their mind, the higher they can fly.
As experienced meditators know so well, the mind is a cage that keeps people boxed into conventional norms. Being able to still the mind and empty it of thoughts can take years of practice but it’s a very worthwhile endeavour. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that until a person has found a way to bypass their mind and access higher levels of consciousness, they have no real idea who they are or what the world is about anyway. Everything is skewed by the mental conditioning they are subject to.
Viewed from this standpoint, anyone who genuinely wants to make a difference in the world would value being able to empty their mind. And it would be obvious that being immersed in clutter would hamper rather than help them with this.
A cluttered desk is a symptom of a cluttered mind and a stuck life
Take another look at the photo at the top of this article. Even though you can’t see the person’s face, their body language and the state of their desk conveys much about them. Do you think they are happy, productive, in control of their life? Do they find their work fulfilling or are they overwhelmed? What are the chances they can find something when they need it? And even if they can, how much time will they waste looking for it? It’s clear that all is not well in their world.
So am I advocating pristine neatness or spartan minimalism? Heck, no. That’s about as inspiring as living your life inside a neatly compartmentalized Tupperware box. What I’m recommending is a happy balance. Not so much stuff that there’s no room to work and not so little that it feels stark and sterile.
The most productive desk setup will vary from person to person, depending on what stimulates and stifles their creativity or productivity. So if you tend to be messy, try having a good clear-up before you start work and see what a difference that makes. And if you’re ever so tidy, relax a little. The sweet point for most people is not too cluttered and not too rigidly organized either. Discover what works best for you.
Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2018, updated 2023
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