The mind seeks order in order to function more effectively in perceived chaotic environments.

Anyone who’s worked in a corporate environment knows the meaning of a Clean Desk Policy (CDP). The reasons behind it are corporate conformity (and appearance), a need to keep track of priorities and, these days, the very real need to keep sensitive information locked away. 

From a certain perspective those are desirable targets but they’re also kinda repressive and controlling which is what makes them so attractive for anyone who is in charge. And we naturally resist them, which is a healthy response. Except it isn’t as it turns out and we shouldn’t, which means we need to better understand what’s going on. 

If we take work as a place where we need to make small, reactionary stands (childish but true for many) and home the place where we’re adults and which we control by arranging it and leaving it pretty much as we please, we can quickly see how we become subject to our environment and our behavior and thinking a direct product of the pressures it applies on us. 

We may think we are bodies that have brains but really we are brains that have bodies. The distinction is important because in the latter case the brain is impacted directly by what the body experiences. Have a messy desk or keep a messy house and what happens is that the stimulus you experience as your eyes take in the disorder and your brain processes it is energetically a little higher than it should be. 

In plain English, working and living are just that little bit harder. When things are going swimmingly well that’s no biggy, but add to that pressures at work, relationship problems at home, life’s general messiness and the currently aggravating influence of the external world and suddenly even easy tasks become hard. 

We already know that we are bad at multitasking. The reason we are bad at it is precisely the cognitive overload we experience and the energetic demand it makes of us when we have to divide our attention to the completion of more than one task at a time. 

Research shows we struggle even when we are performing only two tasks. Dual Task Performance Theory shows this is because “…of the psychological refractory period effect indicate a stubborn bottleneck encompassing the process of choosing actions and probably memory retrieval generally, together with certain other cognitive operations.” 

While context, physical abilities and training play a pivotal role in performing more than one task and still obtaining a positive outcome the emphasis here is on context and training. Nothing that divides our attention, fragments our focus and overloads our brain comes easy to us. 

Stress And Anxiety As A Result Of Experienced Disorder

Which brings us to our homes and offices and places of work. Studies of messy work environments show that those who experience them feel such stress levels that they engage in mitigating but harmful behaviors like the overconsumption of food[1] and they report feeling a loss of control. 

Similarly stressful experiences are reported by research when we come to describe our home environments as restorative or stressful.[2] The former is experienced in households where a certain order has been imposed and the house is seen as a place of refuge from the world while the latter is felt in relatively chaotic households where, again, a perceived sense of loss of control leads to physical and hormonal changes such as elevated blood pressure, high resting heartbeat and elevated blood cortisol levels. 

It isn’t just the attentional blink we experience as we go from task to task, nor is it the sheer cognitive overload felt when the demands made upon us by each task pile up. It is more like a war of attrition. Even when we successfully cope with one particularly demanding task, we have depleted more energy than we should which makes it harder for us to now go on with our day with the same degree of focus and enthusiasm. 

Chaos And Order Complement Each Other

The world around us is inherently chaotic. A sense of chaos allows us to break with the tradition, change perspective and perceive things differently. The widely overused “think outside the box” effect is often the result of such environments and creativity owes a lot to chaotic environments. 

Orderly environments, on the other hand, help us feel more secure, stable, and in-control. In turn, we behave in ways that create and bolster traditions, make healthier choices and feel more open and generous.[3]

Obviously we’ve evolved to live and thrive in either environment. Within reason. Spend too long in a chaotic environment and we become chronically over-stressed and psychologically shut down. Spend too long in a orderly environment and we become conservative, risk-adverse, staid and boring. Unwilling to consider or maybe even deal with change. 

A balance is required. This much is obvious and even a short time thinking about it all would lead us to the same result, except now we have the research data to back it up. So, why are we discussing all this? Well, because knowledge leads to awareness and awareness gives us power to do things differently even when what we experience is not always within our ability to control. 

Deal With The Unexpected

It’s no accident that jobs that by definition have been created to multitask or deal with unexpected are performed within highly structured environments. Emergency services or air-traffic controllers are two classic examples of this. 

The more structured an environment is the better we can perform a difficult job in it because we have the available bandwidth to allocate to the issues that arise. If, on the other hand, we spend energy dealing with our immediate environment each day, either at work or at home, we lack the resources necessary to rise to the occasion. So an emergency will break us. In just the third chapter of Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully I finished the section on how to achieve the goals you set by focusing on ways you can reduce the energetic cost of daily life for yourself. 

Image above from Chapter 3 of Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully 

Applying Order And Disorder In Work And Personal Life

What we learn from all this is that when it comes to business, for example, orderly environments, orderly daily work experiences and even orderly customer/business transactions allow for a better overall level of personal satisfaction. 

Your website, for instance, may have exactly what someone needs from you but if you make them go through a twelve-step registration process just so they can place an order they are less likely to want to do so and even if they persevere their overall perception of how good your business is will be tainted by their experience of the perceived obstacles they encountered. 

If your personal life is chaotic, if you’re struggling to know who you are and what you want, if your home life is a mess and your personal relationships are problematic you are less likely to succeed in business. You will have insufficient ability (and energy) to focus on what matters, to process the details you need and, as a result, you will make decisions that will lead to outcomes other than the ones you want to achieve. 


Nothing is ever guaranteed in life. The world is chaotic and beyond our control and life is always full of unexpected events. However, by failing to control what we can control and impose order upon the things we can impose order upon, we set ourselves up to fail. Learn to safeguard your energy. Reduce the friction that surrounds your work and personal life and everything else around you will become that little bit easier too. 


  1. 1. Vartanian, L. R., Kernan, K. M., & Wansink, B. (2017). Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption: The Role of Mind-Set in Stressful and Chaotic Food Environments. Environment and Behavior, 49(2), 215–223.
  2. 2.    Saxbe, D. E., & Repetti, R. (2010). No Place Like Home: Home Tours Correlate With Daily Patterns of Mood and Cortisol. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(1), 71–81.
  3. 3.    Vohs KD, Redden JP, Rahinel R. Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity. Psychol Sci. 2013 Sep;24(9):1860-7. doi: 10.1177/0956797613480186. Epub 2013 Aug 1. PMID: 23907542.


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