The Messy Room

When I was a kid, I lived in a nearly constant state of mess. My brain and body were always going and the carnage would pile up in my room covering the floor and any horizontal surface. No matter how many ‘things that hold things’ I was given, stuff ended up on the floor.

It was epic.

Most of the time, my parents simply kept the door closed, content to leave it alone if they weren’t reminded of its existence. But, periodically, the ominous instruction would be uttered, “Melissa, go clean your room.” And I would head upstairs, the dutiful daughter, to put stuff away.

It rarely went well.

The reality is that I have always been better at creating the chaos than putting it to rights. No matter how many people see me as the practical planner with every detail neatly in its place, that really isn’t who I am. I am a Tasmania devil of energy — someone who would spin from one awesome idea to another if I could. It is hard work for me to create order, but when I do it, I do it well.

As a kid, though, I didn’t. Standing in the middle of a mess of my own making, I struggled. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t get a foothold or come up with any place to start. And so I did what so many people do when they are overwhelmed — I avoided the problem. Usually, I picked up a book off the floor, ostensibly to put it away, and ended sprawled on my bed reading.

One time my mom found me there, hours after she had sent me up. Nothing had been done. Nothing. As a parent myself, I can appreciate what she must have been thinking. I know that if I had walked into the same situation I would have yelled. Loudly.

But, my mom didn’t. She sat down on the bed and calmly started giving instructions. Put the clothes in the hamper. Take your dishes to the kitchen. Put the books on the shelf. Step-by-step she directed my energy to a productive outcome, helping me past my paralysis. She didn’t judge. She didn’t yell. And in watching her, I learned a series of techniques that have helped me become the organized problem solver that everyone knows me to be now.

  • Give yourself a moment. Unless you are a first responder, you usually have some time to triage.
  • Ask for help. You may be stuck, but someone else may see an obvious way forward.
  • Break the work into pieces. Incremental improvements can lead to big results, what’s important is progress.
  • Embrace the cycle. Don’t be surprised when you find yourself back in the same situation — but get better at dealing with it.

At the time, I doubt she had any idea she was giving me a roadmap to deal with the piled messes of life. She was just frustrated with the mess and she knew enough about me to know what I needed. Truth is, I didn’t get it either. It was years later when I was coaching a young employee through a complex problem that I found myself using the “messy room” analogy and the pieces came to light. I saw myself as that teenage girl surrounded by piles and piles of stuff, wanting to do the right thing but helpless to take action. And then I wasn’t.

Because I may still have the piles, but helpless? Not anymore.