In everyday life I may seem like a put-together quasi-adult, but that perception usually shatters when someone enters my dorm room for the first time.
More often than not, my space is littered with discarded clothing, the evidence of tea made and all manner of academic supplies. It’s not like I set out to be the messy roommate; I try my best to keep my things organized and out of the way, but I seem to have some sort of longstanding mental block preventing me from keeping my living space completely orderly.
I’m not even a particularly disorganized person. Sure, like all students I sometimes struggle with time management and procrastination, but overall I usually have my act together with intangible organization. It should be easy to just apply that concept to my living space, but every time I get close to consistently maintaining order, something throws me off. I’ve definitely noticed that my messy tendencies spike whenever I experience extra stress. My tea-making supplies overtake my workspace, which is a useful metaphor for my coping strategies as a whole.
Luckily, I have an actual angel for a roommate, and she understands that I really am trying not to let my giant piles of stuff expand to fill all available space. She will occasionally hint that maybe it’s time to clean up a bit, but she never judges me. I think that by this point, she has come to understand that my outer space greatly reflects my inner space; chaos in one increases entropy in the other.
Even though she usually prefers to stay neutral on the topic, Samantha Steeves ’21, my roommate, reluctantly agreed to give me her honest opinion on my cleanliness habits. She diagnosed, “I just feel like you think about 100 things at once and your space reflects that because all of your stuff is out and half-finished. You take off your clothes but don’t put them away because you’re on to the next thing.” As flattering and gentle as this sounds, it does point to a problem that I encounter in the world outside my room: I take on too many projects at once and end up struggling to get them all done to my satisfaction.
Steeves elaborated, “Someone’s living space reflects what they value and how their brain works. My brain can’t work if my stuff isn’t organized, which reflects the fact that I like all my thoughts to be organized. But in your case, I feel like having everything everywhere helps you think, because mentally you like to focus on different things at once. Like when you listen to music while typing essays. I could never do that because I can only really focus on one thing at a time, which is why I like all my stuff in one place.” This fundamental difference in our personalities makes it easy for us to take a step back and notice when the other might need some extra support, so in that way my disorganization has positive side effects.
While her outside perspective gave me a new outlook on my problem, I wanted to find someone else who understood my cleanliness conundrum firsthand. I became curious as to whether the relation between inner space and living space held for other people. Shockingly, few will admit to their own battles to keep their space clean, but I did convince Danyal Rahman ’20 to tell me his experience.
He had some different insights to offer than myself or Steeves. He remarked, “I definitely notice that when my room is very messy, I’m in a bad spot, whether that’s catching up on work or emotionally or socially. But I’m not really sure whether one is a catalyst for the other. Maybe I’m in a bad mood and I’m not doing well work-wise because my room is messy, or maybe it’s vice versa.” The uncertain causal relationship between stress and messiness does raise some interesting quandaries. The two seem to operate in a feedback loop: The more stress, the more mess, which causes more stress.
Rahman highlighted the positive aspect of this seemingly unavoidable phenomenon, saying, “I have noticed that cleaning up my room often does translate to me doing better, school-wise. At the same time, doing well in school makes me think ‘Oh wow, I’m doing well and I’ve got extra time, I’ll clean up my room.’ It definitely snowballs in both directions.”
In the rare moments when I do manage to keep my space clean for any amount of time, I have experienced a small boost of productivity. I don’t enjoy wallowing in my own chaotic mess, but I do sometimes feel that I can’t avoid it. Often, I feel that I don’t have time to straighten things up when I could do something more important instead; I perform a rapid optimization calculation and figure that the productivity gained from having a clean room is offset by the time required to make that happen.
Rahman voiced a similar sentiment with a quip: “When I’m stressed socially I don’t pick up after myself. I’ll change my shirt and just leave it on the floor and say ‘That’s a Weekend Dan problem.’”
Everyone can relate to this sentiment to some degree, whether or not they struggle with disorder in their space. The connection between one’s mental state and their living space may not always be as clear as it is in my case, but I do think noting the impact of environmental factors on the mind and inversely, the mind’s impact on environmental factors, leads to a better understanding of both.