Dear Wombat and Dingbat,
I hate how messy my office is, but though I try to keep it neat, it never lasts long. Help?
 —Messy in Michigan

Dear Messy,

In my observation, this is a common human problem. At least, common to our Human. Her solution is to let things pile up over time, and then get annoyed enough with the mess that she invests an hour or so in going through papers and putting stuff away. Then she dusts and admires her work and the process of making a mess starts over again. Luckily, her threshold for annoyance is low enough that usually things don’t pile up so high on her desk that they slide off onto our heads. Usually.

But your statement that you “try to keep it neat” makes me think that you are looking for a solution where things are usually in a state of tidiness, and not just usually in a state of not accidentally landing on dogs. For that you need a different solution, one that requires that we look upstream.

Ah, now we get to the good part. We’re going for a hike by a stream?

No. Someday remind me to explain metaphor to you.

I’d rather have a petit fours than a metaphor. HAHAHAHA!!

Moving right along…. The point is that if you want to change a behavior, you need to look at what comes before it (the antecedent) and what comes after it (the consequence) as well as the behavior itself. So the first thing to do would be to look at your study and figure out what is making the mess. Unopened mail? Unfiled papers? Crap that your kids leave around?

Half destroyed dog toys? Because that is not actually a mess. That is a design style called “shabby chic” and it is very in right now.

So, let’s say that in looking around your office you saw that there were a bunch of random paper items—bills and requests for donations and receipts and manuals for small appliances and whatever. Basically, the only way to keep your office clean is to either not let that stuff come in, or to put it away as soon as it gets in the door. For instance, if you pay all your bills online, you can just never let that paper in the door.

That is called management. Like the very annoying way The Human keeps me from helping myself to her food by never leaving food within my reach. Almost never. Boy, do I love toast.

But one option would be to change your behavior around what you do with paper. So maybe what the Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence (ABC) loop looks like at the moment is: Paper comes in the mail (A), paper gets dropped on desk (B), no longer have to deal with paper (C). Of course, the reinforcement of being done with that piece of paper is really just putting off dealing with that piece of paper. It’s not like it goes away.

Unless someone shreds it. That happens.

Yes, if you’re around, it does. But maybe not so much for Messy, who gets the pleasure of being done with that paper at the cost of having to do it later. Which is a normal choice. We pretty much all feel like a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

What about cats? Could there be two cats in the bush? I don’t much care about birds.

My point is just that the normal thing to do is what’s easiest in the present moment, even if we have to pay a cost for it later. So if you want to change the behavior, you would need to change the consequence.

That could look like teaching yourself to notice when you walk into your office with a piece of paper (A) and choosing to deal with that paper rather than just drop it in a pile. Go ahead and pay the bill or file the receipt or recycle the appliance manual, which you can always find online if you need it. (B) This takes more effort in the moment, but gives you the reward of a tidy office. (C). So it is important that you actually pause to enjoy how nice and neat your office is when you have dealt with that piece of paper. Maybe take a picture of your clean desk and post it on Facebook to share your awesomeness with your friends. Maybe leave something pretty that you love on your desk where you can enjoy it if there isn’t a bunch of crap in the way.

Rather than being constantly punished by how much you hate your messy office, try to reward each act of not making it messy by appreciating how much you like it when it’s clean.

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to keep a bowl of M&Ms on her desk, and eat one every time she put something away rather than just setting it down? If you want to reinforce a behavior so that it happens again, don’t you need snacks?

That could work too. But there are lots of reinforcers in the world besides snacks. You should think more broadly.

I think I’ll ask The Human for a snack.

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