Uncluttering the Mind

January 27th, 1997

Old age seems to render us cynical and bitter, but the only manifestation I have (so far) experienced of this phenomenon is a diminishing confidence in the power of sweet reason. What we call "thought" is truly a Potemkin veneer of rationality laid over a growling hulk of emotional processes. I am certain that people’s position on the political spectrum has more to do with their psyches than their intellects. In this essay, I’d like to zero in on one of those psychological factors that can have a profound influence on the reasoning process.

Ever since childhood, I have been obsessed with cleansing myself of untoward biological clutter. This subject makes some people uncomfortable, so I will resort to delicate euphemisms. Let us just say that I have snipped, clipped, pulled, squeezed, scraped, or otherwise eliminated everything on or in my body that wasn’t fresh, clean, and pink. It’s a psychological hang-up of some sort, but I’ve never worried much about it. In some cases, it has provided some slight benefits, such as my frequent tongue-cleaning of debris in my teeth. In some other cases, it has been detrimental, such as over-clipping of my toenails leading to a viciously ingrown toenail when I was 24. But most of the time it is a harmless psychological eccentricity.

However, the basic attitude spills over into other aspects of my life, and I think that this has led to some significant benefits in my thinking.

I first noticed it back in the early 80s, when I supervised a group of programmers. Everybody needed floppy disks to store their work, but one day my boss complained to me about the high cost of keeping my programmers stocked with floppy disks. After some reflection and low-key research, I realized that there was substance to my boss’s complaint. I myself used few floppy disks, but the programmers working for me ran through them quickly. The key difference, it turned out, between our behavior patterns was my obsessive uncluttering of floppies, freeing them up for re-use. I had organized my diskettes into three groups: heavily used, moderately used, and archive. The single heavily-used floppy was constantly getting new stuff, which I would just as quickly flush out to the archive. My employees, on the other hand, would format a new disk, copy stuff onto it willy-nilly, and then dump it into their storage archive as soon as it filled. As a result, they had huge archives of floppies containing manifold copies of each piece of software. Even worse, they had no way to find stuff quickly -- their archives were so big that there was no clean organization. They had to plow through it floppy by floppy looking for files that could be anywhere.

I tried to show them how to organize their floppies to increase organization and decrease floppy wastage, but I never made any headway. It was a matter of psychology, not intelligence.

Later on, when hard disks became standard equipment on personal computers (around 1985), I noticed that most people had similar problems keeping spare space on their hard drives. No matter how big the drive was, it quickly filled with stuff. But my drives always had lots of free space because I was always throwing away files that were no longer in regular use. Indeed, my Mac II with 80 MB of hard disk space served me quite comfortably well into 1995. Of course, files are bigger these days, and so I do use more hard drive space than I used to, but the principle remains the same: in idle moments, I pick through the hard drive, looking for files to trash, with much the same low-key pleasure that baboons groom each other, looking for lice.

Don’t get me wrong -- I’m not a neatness freak. My office is cleaner than most, but it certainly isn’t immaculate. As I survey my work surfaces this moment, I see a variety of papers scattered about. But here’s the big trick: every loose piece of paper is something that I worked on today. There’s an in-box full of papers that I haven’t been working on in the last 24 hours. Every few days I pick through it, looking for anything that needs attention and can now be attended to. Otherwise, open desk space is only for current work.

I am not arguing for a highly organized lifestyle, with everything catalogued, sorted, and prioritized into its proper place. Good lord, I don’t have time for all that organizational effort! For most stuff I rely on a simple, black-and-white organizational system: everything that’s not necessary is clutter, and must be purged. It’s brutally simple, and occasionally it fails -- I find myself needing some minor tidbit that is long gone. But the cost of these failures is less than the cost of coping with clutter.

There really is a deeper point to my expansive rambling about my personal habits. Clutter is the nemesis of clear thinking. Whatever psychological hang-up impels me to unclutter things (my body, my magnetic media, and my desk) also keeps my mind uncluttered. I hate all forms of mental clutter! I loathe memorizing petty details like which drawer has the soap and whether a constructor has to be declared in a private or public section of an object definition. I detest software designs that have special cases or exceptions. I’m always cursing Microsoft -- they seem to design all their software by random accretion of features.

What’s particularly odd to me is the pride some people take in their mastery of clutter. It’s especially true of techies -- they love to indulge in the memorization of mountains of meaningless minutiae. Indeed, I suspect that the pride they take in this pap influences the design: software tools are most successful when they create a priesthood knowledgeable in the arcane incantations required.

Perhaps this is all for the best -- after all, society can’t afford a high ratio of geniuses to grunts. Perhaps society has come up with the perfect means of profitably employing those moiling masses of mental midgets. They’re not dullards -- they’re specialists! They may not understand much, but they certainly have gotten all the details of c++, HTML, Java, perl, Windows 95, or JCL down pat. So I don’t want to be too hard on the mentality. But you must ask yourself where you fit into the grand scheme of things. Are you one of those moiling mental midgets, or do you seek grander things for yourself?

The truth is simple and obvious: you can only think clearly when you purge your mind of clutter. Any real-world decision is impinged upon by milliards of factors, but turns on only a few. The ability to slice through all the secondary factors and zero in on the crucial ones is central to good decision-making.