Tidying One’s Room

Previously (Compass Rose): Culture, Interpretive Labor, and Tidying One’s Room

Epistemic Status: A bit messy

She’s tidied up and I can’t find anything! All my tubes and wires, careful notes!” – Thomas Dolby, She Blinded Me With Science

From Compass Rose:

Why would tidying my room involve interpretive labor? 

It turns out, every item in my room is a sort of crystallized intention, generally past-me. (We’ve all heard the stories of researchers with messy rooms who somehow knew where everything was, and lost track of everything when someone else committed the violent act of reorganizing the room, thus deindexing it from its owner’s mind.) As I decided what to do with an item, I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose that information. So, I tried to Aumann with my past self – the true way, the way that filters back into deep models, so that I could pass my past self’s ideological turing test. And that’s cognitively expensive.

It’s generally too aggressive to tidy someone’s room without their permission, unless they’re in physical danger because of it. But to be unwilling to tidy my own room without getting very clear explicit permission from my past self for every action – or at least checking in – is pathologically nonaggressive.

From my wife, upon seeing the draft up to this point:

You know, in the time it takes you to write this, you could actually tidy your room.

Proof that the subject of cleaning, and cleaning that which does not belong to you, can escalate quickly in aggressiveness!

There are a few dynamics I’d like to talk about here. I won’t (today) be relating them back to Ben’s larger questions of how generally to deal with the intentions of the environment, instead choosing a more narrow scope.



Your past self left you an ideological Turing test, of a sort, by leaving items in seemingly random locations.

Good news! I have the cheat sheet.

Close, but wrong: “I’ll remember that it’s there and I’m too lazy to optimize its location further.”

Usually correct: “I’m done with this, I should put it somewhere. This is somewhere.”

Don’t give your past self too much credit.

Most things are (hopefully) where they are because you put them there on purpose. That’s where they ‘live’. If they’re not in a permanent location, they’re probably in an arbitrary location.

One should think about intention behind the current location of a thing if and only if the location was clearly chosen intentionally. 

If the location doesn’t seem random, this is probably why: “I predicted I’d look here for this item in the future. This is where I seemed to have indexed it.”

Ben worried he needed to pass an ITT against his past self before he could alter his past self’s wishes.

I think that’s backwards. Past you’s work is done. The key ITT is against your future self!



Whether or not a location was chosen carefully, it has the great advantage of memory. If you put something somewhere, there’s a good chance that’s where you will look for it. If you put it there regularly, that chance is better still.

This is why ‘tidying’ someone’s room for them is an act of aggression. 

If I’m the one who put a thing somewhere, I could figure out where it is by remembering where I put it, or asking where I had it last (which my family called ‘The Papa Josh method’ as if it wasn’t universal, but specific names are still useful, and Papa Josh was apparently kind of an annoying jerk about it). I could also pass the ideological Turing test of my past self and figure out where I would have chosen to put it.  Since, philosophical objections aside, I am me, my chances are often very good.

If I have a strong indexing of an item to a location, I’ll instinctively put it back in the same location, confident I can find it in the future. My ability to automatically look in the right place, and find it now, is good evidence of that. If it was hard to find, I should probably move it. Over time, this improves indexing.

If someone else puts the object somewhere, I now have to figure out where someone else would place the object. Over time, if they keep doing this, I’ll figure out where they put it, but when a new person starts cleaning a location, chaos reigns. What is logical to them is not what is logical to you.

An especially nasty trap is when you’re not sure if you know where an object is, so you check, it is where you look for it, then put it back in a different location. Oh good, you think, I have it, I’ll now put it over here. Classic mistake. If an object is in the first place you look, and you need to find it soon, put it back exactly where you found it! If an object isn’t in the first place you look, put it in the first place you looked! You’ll look there again.

Otherwise, what you are doing is systematically taking things you can find, and moving them to locations where you might not find them. Whereas if you fail to find them, you won’t move them, and they’ll stay not found. This is why you can’t find the remote – it keeps moving randomly until it finds a place where you can’t find it, then stays there until you figure that one out. Repeat.

It took way too many times when the only thing I needed was reliably in the wrong pocket for me to figure out how this works.



As a child in the days before the internet, I would keep stacks of sports and gaming magazines in my room. In order to quickly locate the one I wanted, I’d spread them out so part of the cover was visible on each copy, allowing a quick visual scan.

Then someone would, against my will, come in and ‘clean’ the room, stacking them all into one pile with no way to tell which one was which.

So the moment I came back, I’d undo the pile and spread them back out again, since the pile was almost optimizing for lack of legibility.

I’d complain about this all the time, and make my wishes clear, and the stack would reassemble twice a week anyway.

Space, especially visual space, is a resource. Using it draws things to your attention. That’s good if you want to find them! It also threatens to distract. It gives the appearance of clutter, and threatens to clutter the mind.



It is tempting to ‘tidy’ one’s room, to give appearance of tidiness, or to clear necessary space, by accumulating debt. You shove things aside or into closets, rather than putting them in a place that is helpful. Even sorting things into seemingly organized piles is still debt, if you don’t know the indexing and won’t be able to find them. At some point you’ll be paying search costs.

If you are not careful, this debt will accumulate, and interest on it will add up. It is hard to get motivated to pay down such debts, even when returns are good.

It is also tempting to ‘tidy’ that which does not need to be fixed, or to let this task distract you as a way to procrastinate other tasks.

My solution is simple. Any time you look for something, you give yourself a reasonable amount of time to find it. If after that time you cannot find it, but you are confident it is there to be found, you stop looking for the item and instead clean the room (at least) until you find the item. This inevitably finds the item and creates equilibrium – the more you need to clean, the more likely you are to do so. If you can always find everything, then everything is fine.



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16 Responses to Tidying One’s Room

  1. benquo says:

    This seems like a great starting point. Do you have a decision rule for getting rid of things (or transferring them to long-term storage)? That’s maybe my biggest block.

    • TheZvi says:

      I don’t use storage.

      Two kinds of things. Things you can replace easily when and if you need them, things that can’t.

      If you can easily replace, e.g. buy it again, then you need an explicit use case or pattern of use, or you should throw it out.

      If you can’t easily replace, it’s harder. You have to balance the cost of clutter and extra search against if you’d actually want it. One good question to ask is, if I use this, am I actually happy I did that? Sometimes the answer comes back with no. Another question is, what’s the bound on the loss by throwing it out? If you don’t think you could regret it all that much, you likely want to get rid of it. But where I have a hard time is where there are things that if I want them, I’ll really want them, but it’s likely I’ll never want them, like weird wires connecting unknown things…

  2. Doug S. says:

    One scenario not addressed:

    You have a table. It is covered with things. This would be fine, except that you want to have empty space on the table so you can use it to hold other things, such as food. Therefore the things that are there must be “cleaned”…

    • TheZvi says:

      I think of that as debt. You’re spending time to clear off an area without decreasing the amount of tidying that will be necessary, likely increasing it as well. In exchange you get space right now. Which can be good.

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  4. michealvassar says:

    Funny, this post on cleaning makes me feel that I understand one of my oldest friends significantly better. It makes me wonder what other hacks there might be to understanding one another by knowing the solutions we discover for ourselves to the challenges that life presents to all of us.

  5. Peter Gerdes says:

    I think you’re being too harsh on tidying. Think of the convenient places for stuff (i.e. next to bed, on kitchen counter etc..) as an in memory cache for frequently needed references. As time passes more and more stuff gets shoved into that cache and eventually the need to search through all the rarely used gunk degrades performance.

    Even the worst, most disorganized, kind of tidying flushes that cache. Doing so regularly ensures that this cache is primarily filled with frequently used objects and not random crap. Even if searching through the stuff you tidied up takes a long time you’ve at least still freed up the cache for the truly frequently used items.

    Of course, if one is being intelligent one never moves the frequently used items from the cache space, Ideally, we would keep track of what we take out all the time and leave that conveniently located but that can be hard.

    • TheZvi says:

      I think we’re mostly on the same page here. It’s good to periodically flush the cache but you need to put the cached items into places you also have indexed, and avoid doing this to items you’ll frequently need anyway. I’m not against tidying as such.

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