Sick or Sane Mind?

By Chris Crouch

I am fully aware that many people believe a clean desk is a sign of a sick mind. The opposing viewpoint is that a person’s external word is a reflection of their internal world. If the latter is the case, a quick look at many people’s workspace suggests that they are secretly (or more likely not so secretly to those around them) experiencing a tremendous amount of internal chaos and disorder.

The word clutter apparently is a derivative of the Old English word clotter. And clotter is also the source of the world clot – to form into lumps and inhibit the free flow of substances. In other words, clutter has to do with things getting stuck, as in the healthy flow of work in and out of your office.

Now let’s talk about first impressions. When you experience something for the first time, your brain is designed to immediately begin recording mental associations related to the experience. In general, there are only two broad categories of mental associations, positive associations (I feel good about this and want to approach or embrace it) and negative associations (I feel bad about this and want to escape or move away from it). Much of this process of creating and assigning a positive or negative spin to these associations is handled by your subconscious mind. Therefore, you record many of these “approach or move away” messages for future consideration without always being fully aware of doing so.

Enough brain talk – here is a real-world example. Say you are a bank officer with an incredibly cluttered office. The first time a new prospect enters your office they will likely consciously or subconsciously think, “What, this person wants to handle my money and financial affairs? I’m not sure I am comfortable with that.”

Most people spend a lot of time getting their house ready to list for sale. Agents often encourage sellers to fix up, clean up, turn on the lights, bake cookies and do other things to create positive associations in the minds of prospects. If you go on a job interview, I suspect you once again take extraordinary measures to create positive first impressions. And what about a first date, or a school reunion, or any other event that is important to you? Such events are certainly important, and you should try to make positive impressions. But why wouldn’t you do the same thing when it comes to one of the most important ongoing events of your life – your career?

Maybe it will not matter. We all know plenty of people who have done quite well with a messy office. However, if your career – like the bankers – heavily depends on creating positive associations with your prospects, clients, coworkers and others, you might want to think about maintaining your office or workspace in a way that sends a message that your internal state of mind is calm, collected, centered, grounded, orderly and focused.

Perhaps a clean desk is a sign of a sane mind.

Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through