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Cleaning my workspace with WORMS
Posted Friday, April 15, 2022

The studio where I do art and electronics projects tends to get very messy very quickly. When I'm working on something, my focus is dialed up to 11, and I avoid anything that might distract me or take me out of the moment. That means scraps fall to the floor, tape remnants get stuck to the arm of my chair, coffee cups pile around, and supplies and tools are abandoned on the nearest surface.

What does this have to do with WORMS, though?

By the time I've snapped out of my Art Trance and begun to assess the damage, the task of cleaning feels deeply daunting. My ADHD brain, struggling to get a start on the task, throws me into a negative feedback loop of my own creating. What's worse, my escape hatch is often to walk away from the problem entirely, leaving the mess for poor Future Me!

I wished there was some kind of formula or simple structure I could use to help me breakdown the tasks needed for tidying a chaotic workspace. Ideally, it would be flexible enough work for different kinds of spaces... sometimes a tabletop, sometimes a room, sometimes a bookshelf. So, after some trial and error, I created one that works well for me. It starts with the tasks that require the least decision making in order to build progress and momentum quickly. I'm sharing the strategy here in case it's useful to anyone else.

In this system, cleaning up a workspace is divided into five sequential stages: waste, out-of-towners, residents, miscellany, and style. (That spells, you guessed it, WORMS.) I admit that it's a little odd to refer to my art supplies as out-of-towners and residents. But the idea that my workspace is a little village with guests and residents is a funny, Animal Crossing-inspired mental image that has stuck in my mind.

Each stage of WORMS is done completely with respect to the workspace before moving on to the next.

  • WASTE: Items that are obviously trash should be put in the appropriate recycling, compost, or trash bin. If you look at something for more than two seconds and aren't sure if it's trash, leave it for a later stage.
  • OUT-OF-TOWNERS: If you know where an item should go and it isn't in this workspace, it's an out-of-towner. Take it back to where it belongs. The coffee cup goes in the dishwasher, the jacket goes in the hall closet, etc. If you look at something for more than two seconds and aren't sure where it's supposed to go, leave it for a later stage.
  • RESIDENTS: If you know where an item belongs and it is in this workspace, it's a resident! Put it back in its home. Scissors go in the Kirby's Adventure cup, paper clips go in the blue box, etc. If you look at something for more than two seconds and aren't sure where it's supposed to go, leave it for a later stage.
  • MISCELLANY: Hopefully, your space is looking less chaotic, and you can more mindfully assess the things you weren't sure what to do with before. In instances where there are a lot of miscellaneous items, it might be helpful to repeat the out-of-towners vs. residents exercise to see if you can at least get items put back in the right room or general vicinity.
  • STYLE: Finally, arrange the decor, wipe up the dust, turn on the lava lamp, or do whatever puts the finishing touches on your space. Celebrate the achievement!

I've been a messmaker my whole life, and that's probably never going to change. But this somewhat silly mnemonic has helped me get over the anxiety of cleaning it all up. It seems to work especially well for workspaces and small rooms that have eclectic contents. After doing the WORMS thing, I'm at least ready for the next fun project and the mess that will inevitably ensue.