I don’t normally get excited about books that are centered around ‘chores’ or ‘organizing’ - after all, I am a free spirit. As an artist, I reserve the right to make an abstract expressionist masterpiece at any time by painting myself entirely red and mosh-pitting against a giant canvas.
This summer I underwent a process to clean my entire art studio. I try to clean it thoroughly at least once a year. This task is difficult for me because, as an artist who makes collage, everything is technically re-usable. The tiniest scrap of paper could still be used in a final piece.
Letting go of artwork and unused supplies can be tough. But, with some help, I was able to get rid of about 10 failed paintings, and countless failed drawings. I also tidied our entire house. I got excited.
Two books helped me in this journey.
Marie Kondo builds a persuasive case in her bestseller, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up". Even the cover is tidy.
Long excerpt, emphasis mine:
“I thought the urge to tidy before an exam was a peculiar quirk of my own, but after meeting many others who do the same, I realized that it was a common phenomenon. Many people get the urge to clean up when under pressure, such as just before an exam. But this urge doesn’t occur because they want to clean their room. It occurs because they need to put ‘something else’ in order. Their brain is actually clamoring to study, but when it notices the cluttered space, the focus switches to ‘I need to clean up my room.’ The fact that the tidying urge rarely continues once the crisis is over proves my theory. Once the exam has ended, the passion poured into cleaning the previous night dissipates and life returns to normal. All thought of tidying is wiped from the person’s mind. Why? Because the problem faced - that is, the need to study for the exam - has been ‘tidied away.’ “
- Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up
“Yes,” I said to the book. “That is totally me! That is how all of my roommates were, too!”
Before a test, me and my roommates could be caught tidying our rooms, dusting the furthest corners of our minuscule dorms, apartments, studios, labs. We would try to be disciplined by staying in the lab/dorm, but our minds would try to break free.
The search for not-studying or "something else" took the form of cleaning.
The brain's search for 'something else' to do can be explained deeply in the non-fiction masterpiece, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” by nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman’s book outlines two patterns of thought that dominate human behavior: System 1 and System 2.
These two systems compete for utilization in the human mind when we perform a task or think through an issue, such as doing laundry, making a spreadsheet, or studying.
Here’s how the two systems work within the human mind:
“System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.”
“System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration”
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow
System 1 is always looking to override and outclass System 2. System 1 is lazy and easy, and System 2 takes work.
How this translates to our day-to-day lives, Kahneman notes, is that when confronted with two tasks, we will almost always choose the easier of the two tasks to do first. We are also prone to leap into simple biases rather than leap towards understanding a complex situation.
So, when confronted with two tasks, studying or tidying, most people would choose tidying as the easier of the two. Arranging items on a desk is much easier than Diff Eq, much easier than finishing a painting.
We may not even be aware of what it is that we are doing when we choose tidying over studying or art creation, but most people would chalk it up to an abstract behavior such as ‘procrastination’ or ‘lack of focus’ or even a medical condition like ADD.
Where Marie Kondo's book about tidiness comes in, is, if your entire space is tidy, and you have to spend minimal effort making it so, your mind has more space for Diff Eq, art, anything you like. No tidying left to do = you must do the higher-level task.
Life-improving tidying for Kondo isn’t to spend 10 minutes per day tidying up, it is to jettison all things that do not lend a sense of joy to a household. The depletion of things depletes the consistent need to tidy. She isn't keen on methods of storage, or the gamification of chores, and for good reason.
The secret to Kondo’s success as an expert in her field: Kondo is very, very good at kicking System 1, the lazy ease-seeking biased System, to the curb. In the midst of jettisoning items, hopeful untidy people might try to re-focus on easier tasks like storing the items instead of actually making a tough, System 2-level decision about them. Kondo forbids this. She is a zen master at understanding human behavior around the accumulation and organization of things.
So, there you have it. The life-changing magic of tidying up is changing my life. I hope that this blog helps other people who are prone to following System 1 when it comes to cleaning! The more that you can clean up and reduce as far as a chore, the more time you have to create artwork.
Special Bonus: Donating your unused supplies and items means someone else can enjoy creation!
In the spirit of the chapter recaps in Daniel Kahneman's book, here are some key takeaways for this blog!
1. Don't store - make the harder decision about whether to keep or toss an item.
2. Jettison any item that doesn't lend joy.
3. Clean and tidy all at once, making all of the hard decisions up front. This will open up time later on.