The ‘Messy Drawer’ Mindset Rewards Your Brain With Mental Flexibility

The benefits of disorganized thinking

Image: Anna Shvets/Pexels

In my house, the ‘messy drawer’ is filled with various miscellaneous items that don’t have a home.

In one of my desk drawers, I have an old phone case, an unopened bag of spicy peanuts, some deep heat muscle cream, a plug, a deck of cards, and a lot more besides. I’ve made no attempt to organize it, but I don’t need to. I know where everything is — that’s the beauty of it.

As much as we like to plan and organize everything in our lives, we can’t have complete control. You might be financially sound, but a hospital bill sideswipes you, or a holiday itinerary goes awry after a car breakdown (I've been there).

Whatever the problem is, you can dump it in the messy drawer.

As I've named it, the ‘messy drawer’ mindset teaches us you don’t need to plan everything meticulously. Learning to let go of matters, particularly when they’re out of your control, can give you a sense of freedom.

Eventually, it will become your brain’s safety net, and you can overcome any fear of plans or schedules being ruined.

Most importantly, having fun becomes easier.

Your brain makes your decisions for you (and that’s a good thing)

Up to 99% of cognitive activity is nonconscious, according to neuroscientist Emanuel Donchin, but neuroscientists will probably “never know precisely how much is outside awareness.”

While you may think the decisions you make are entirely conscious thought, that might not be the case. According to social psychologist Dr. Robert Zajonc:

“When people explain why they’ve made a decision, they are simply rationalizing, attributing what sound like reasonable bases for what is in fact a murky, unknowable process.”

A messy drawer isn’t too different. There is no reason for it; it’s full of random stuff that you’ve dumped in there. Its creation is a “murky, unknowable process.”

Yet, it always throws up something useful, as your brain does.

For instance, if I dive into her messy drawer at my mum's house, I know I’ll find a backup iPhone, some painkillers, and maybe an old payslip. When I’ve lost something, the ‘messy drawer’ always feels like a lifejacket.

Just because you don’t know your brain's full contents (even neuroscientists don’t), that doesn’t mean there isn’t something useful in there. Your brain uses previous experiences to make decisions for you without you knowing.

Despite not fully knowing your brain’s full capacity for nonconscious thought, it still works for you. It holds something useful, and like your messy drawer, becomes a safety net.

‘Routine disruption’ is what makes spontaneous times fun

Allow me to paint a quick scenario for you. I was at university, watching a film with my housemates. One of them, Charlie, turns to us at 10:30 pm, saying his girlfriend and a few of her friends are going out. Naturally, he asks if anyone wants to go. Given we usually started drinking at 8:30 pm, most of us said no. I didn’t. Instead, we got ready, bought and drank ten beers, and made it to the nightclub by midnight.

It was one of the most memorable nights during my three years there.

Although I assumed the evening's spontaneous nature is what made it fun, the author of The Sociology of Fun, Dr. Ben Fincham, disagrees. Instead, it was both the people I was with and the disruption of my routine.

Routine disruption is more important than spontaneity, Dr. Fincham says. In an interview, he gives an example:

“If you think about a festival, you know exactly the dates when that’s going to happen. It’s hardly spontaneous because you book your tickets months in advance. But actually, what’s fun about them is the disruption from the routine.”

The key is learning “from the ways in which we feel less inhibited.” When you stop worrying about what people might think, for example, you can potentially have more fun. You’re disrupting your mind’s routine thought process.

You’re allowing things to get a bit messier.

Letting go becomes easier

When I was 16, I wouldn't do any planning for my English essays. Fortunately, I did well because I was naturally talented. However, when I started higher education, that approach didn’t work (as much as I tried). By the end of my time at university, I was planning and organizing my references well in advance of writing an essay. It helped me get a good grade.

So yes, planning is a vital life tool. It helps you avoid unnecessary wasted time. However, our brains seem to enjoy a more relaxed, messy way of looking at things. It makes it easier to let go of our inhibitions and encourages a flexible mindset.

As writer Jamiee Ratliff says:

“The more we can simply watch our thoughts come and go without attaching our identity to them, the easier letting go becomes.”

Allow your thoughts to find a home in your messy drawer. As we’ve learned, the brain will store them for later use anyway.

Let go of your routine once in a while — both in your head and daily life. The disruption may feel messy, but that’s a good thing.

If you dive into that mindset, there may be something in there to help you out and make you happy. It gives you an added layer of optimism. Put it this way: you may not know what you’re searching for, but you’re likely to find something you need.

Words in Forge, Debugger, Better Humans, & more. | A 23-year-old writing about self-improvement that interests me. | Get in touch ->

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