Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cluttered thinking

I get frustrated when my students come to my office with a backpack overflowing with miscellanious papers of unknown origin spilling out of zippered pockets, unable to locate the one thing they came to my office to talk about.  I like to pretend I am an organized person. However, frequently it is my desk that is a stationary version of their backpack,  and I am the one who can not locate the paper I need to give the student.  I have found that the days when my desk is most chaotic are the days I suffer from most from cluttered thinking.  And students...frequently the reason they need to see me, with their overflowing backpack and stuffed pockets, is the result of cluttered thinking.

In our increasingly busy world, we are expected to have many balls in the air. As I have written previously, humans are not built that way. Multitasking is a myth; it's just doing many things poorly instead of one thing well.  A physical manifestation of that is the cluttered desk or the cluttered backpack. We pick up one task, only to be distracted by the other four that are screaming for our attention.  A student moves to put away their laptop, when the teacher passes out a handout, which has no natural "home," so it gets shoved to the bottom of the laptop case, where the student will not be able to find it when they are preparing their outline.

We aren't going to change culture any time soon. We need to find a way to manage our life without letting the clutter overwhelm us.  Physical clutter leads to or is the product of cluttered thinking. Cluttering thinking--including too many facts in a brief, monster outlines, disorganized essay exams--makes for an unhappy, unproductive law student. Amy has written some amazing posts about including too many facts in a brief (What Kind of Motor Vehicle is this Case? Feb. 27, 2009) and overly-inclusive outlines (Condensing Monster Outlines, March 23, 2009).  Here are some of the additional tips to help cut down on the clutter--both mental and physical--to help the thinking process:

1) One thing goes in the backpack (or on the desk) at a time. Credit for this goes to Professor Judy Stinson at Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at ASU.  Judy's desk is always immaculate.  She only has one thing on her desk at a time, and she puts away whatever she is working on before she leaves her office or moves on to another project. Everything has a logical, labeled home in Judy's office. The same principle can be applied to backpacks.  Don't shove everything into your backpack at once--you won't remember where you put important papers, and they are easily lost.  Everything that goes into a backpack should have a home; handouts to file folders labeled by class, each class should have it's own folder on a laptop or notebook section.  When a student has to dig into multiple places to find notes or handouts, they get distracted and it clutters their thinking when they should be focused on just one task. 

2) Only keep one webpage on your computer at a time.  Multiple windows are distracting, and it's too tempting to "just check email one more time" while researching or writing. By closing a window when you are done, you are less tempted to click to a webpage when you should be focused on the topic you are reading, researching, or writing. Even if you do receive an important email, you won't be able to attend to it if you are working on multiple projects at once, and you are more likely to write something that is too long, has too many facts, or leaves out information because your thinking became cluttered by extraneous information.

Keeping physical and mental clutter at bay is an ongoing process. It is not a natural thing for many of us, students and professors alike. But organizing your thinking by organizing your life leads to better work and a happier law student (or professor!)


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