What is the optimal tidy/messy threshold for productive and creative work?

This is the view from the piano today.

Shockingly chaotic, but not really my fault unless you count the fact that I brought four boys into the world, and these boys, now adults, have a very fun time together. After a month of holiday frivolity and debauchery, the two middle sons are en route to their schools out of state, and the house has been left much like a frat house the day after Homecoming. The more judging types might suggest that I should have done a better job raising them to be tidy, respectful of property, civilized in speech, and quiet. My answer is that not even a mother can hold back the tide, especially if that tide consists of a synth, guitar, bari sax jam accompanied by the most enthusiastic of drum set players. I am in no way regretful for this wealth of time with my boys, especially in 2020-2021, but the view from the piano must change soon. I can’t work very well under these conditions.

I’m definitely not a neat-freak. I would describe my organizational style as a nest approach. This is probably a habit picked up from when I was attached to the sofa nursing infants, but still somehow had to practice, study, and make a living through graduate school. I would set up my nest with piles of books, scores, notes, manuscript paper, cd liner notes, snacks, and tea all within reach and not requiring two hands to manipulate, as one hand seemed to always be occupied with a kid. Today, even though I no longer have to nurse infants, I have various nesting areas placed around the house. This became even more evident when I was working exclusively from home in Spring 2020. I like this way of working, as it feels like I’m settling cozily into the task at hand. I can relax, let my guard down, and let the work flow. My piano nest usually contains a black 3-ring binder where I do most of my score work, my practice journal, a set of colored pens, a pencil, a stack of scores and books of peripheral interest, and a beverage according to mood. I turn my phone to airplane mode so I can use it as a timer and metronome without being interrupted, and I get to work.

For me, a mildly untidy workspace is optimal. If it is too clean, I have a hard time relaxing, even to the point of obsessing over what things might be out of place. If it is too chaotic, I feel overstimulated and can’t easily settle down to work. During my practice breaks today, I chipped away at the chaos, enlisting the one lucky remaining son to move the drums and amps down to the basement jamming room. I tidied up the nest area, too, shunting the extra scores that have accumulated over break to a pile that will go back to school. It hasn’t approached that sweet spot just shy of tidy, but at least I don’t have to look at Benedict Cumberbatch in a Christmas Tree hat.

Do you have optimal conditions for practicing or other creative work? Are there any fellow nesters out there? What do you do when family or other factors take control of your workspace?


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