A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder

Neatniks: Stand down — there is meaning in messiness

Some scientists think that in life, as in nature, a little disorder signifies flexibility, improvisation

My mother was so neat that we never even had a junk drawer — that catchall most families use for things they don’t know what to do with.

Her sister, my Aunt Janice, completely was different. She lived in a big rambling house on the Deep River in Hobart and bred cocker spaniels who had the full run of the house. It was sometimes difficult to find a clean dish, and dog hairs seemed to float in the air before descending to cover everything.

“Aunt Janice wants you to spend a week with her in July,” my mother would say. “Is that OK?”

Of course it was, as order and neatness were never my strong suit. And even, today, decades later, though I don’t have 12 dogs bounding through the house and my dishes always are clean or at least in the dishwasher, I am more akin to my aunt than my mother when it comes to order.

And I always feel guilty about it. Neatness is a virtue, disorder a sin.

Though my mother never said anything when she would come to visit, she sometimes would ask if she could organize my canned goods.

But I’ve taken a new view of my life after talking to David Freedman, co-author of “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder — How crammed closets, cluttered offices and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place” (Little, Brown).

So after shoving aside a pile of papers so I could find a place to take notes, I listened avidly to what Freedman had to say.

“The idea came from left field, a little more than 10 years ago,” said Freedman, who co-authored the book with Eric Abrahamson, a professor of management at Columbia Business School.

“I came upon a physicist who had discovered that adding randomness makes a system work better.”

The physicist told Freedman scientists usually try to take randomness out when developing systems.

“But it turns out with everywhere in nature, particularly in the human brain, there is a lot of randomness,” Freedman said.

“If you reduce the randomness, the brain doesn’t work as well.”

In other words, messiness is random, or a lack of order. But it’s even better.

Smart and important people are messy, or should we say organizationally challenged.

“Einstein was a total mess,” Freedman said.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger lived his life in a very messy way. Even in body building he was one of the people who pioneered the mixing up in the way you lifted weights. He always advocated that way. Until then, body builders did the same repetitions over and over. He’s also random in his life. Is he a body builder, an actor or a politician? Is he a Democrat or a Republican?”

Being neat is about doing things a certain way, and messiness is about improvising, being flexible, Freedman told me. We both agreed that people with absolutely empty desks made us nervous.

“It turns out that when you take a look at the problems the messiness causes, except for the guilt, there are really no problems associated with it,” he said.

“People spend an average of nine minutes a day looking for things, while people who are really neat often spend more time trying to figure where they put things.

“Our clutter on our desk and around us have a personality, and it’s almost as if there’s a system to it that is very well suited to the way we think. That’s why the messy are pretty good at finding things. There’s a bit of a method to our messiness. There is meaning.”

Freedman, who lives in Needham, Mass., and has authored several other books including “Brainmakers: How Scientists Are Moving Beyond Computers to Create a Rival to the Human Brain,” emphasizes though it was initially science that lead him to write this book, it’s not a scientific book. But he did do extensive research.

“There is one scientist at Boston University who discovered that old people keep their balance better if they wear vibrating shoes,” he said. “The reason is that it is sending random signals to the brain through the feet.”

His research also revealed that many people feel guilt and shame about their messiness in America.

“We really do envy those neat people,” he said.

“Neat people have become heroes in our society. Messy people are seen as weak people, people who fall short. It gets reinforced by our parents, our teachers and our colleagues.”

Though there’s vindication — and relief — for paper stackers, there is a reason for order, too.

“Even we messy people need to straighten up, and there is an appeal to order,” Freedman said.

“Messiness is comfortable and natural and works well, and neatness also has its appeals. The message is to find the right balance for you.

“When you hear it, it sounds rather obvious, but up until now you have heard that neatness is better.”

Tips for Dealing with Clutter

Since “A Perfect Mess” isn’t a license to never pick anything up again, author David Freedman offers advice on managing clutter without stifling creativity.

* Take it slow and in small steps: If people see too much clutter, they think of picking everything up. But you don’t have to do it that way — that’s paralyzing to people. Do it a pile at a time over days or weeks.

* Don’t throw it out: Instead of thinking you have to get rid of all this mess, maybe you can just put it in neat piles or in a closet or in a drawer. And it’s OK to have messy closets.

* Understand it’s not permanent: People think you have to remain neat after picking up. But you don’t. You can save your periods of neatness for when you’re not under deadline or a certain time of month.

* Your whole abode doesn’t have to be a clutter-free zone: Don’t feel you have to be well organized everywhere. You can be messy one place.

* Living with a neat freak: Freedman advocates that families compromise on messy issues instead of constantly arguing. People constantly argue with their family members. Neat people have to ease up a little bit and messy people have to clean up a little.

Debunking the neat freaks

In a chapter from their book “A Perfect Mess,” authors Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman look at three suggestions commonly presented to help people get organized — and then debunk them.

The suggestions:

1. Use colored labels on your files, and cut filing time in half.

2. Given that there are 37 hours of unfinished work on the average desk at any one time, buy “filing solution” products and get the work off your desk.

3. Buy a quality label maker to print your file labels, because 72 percent of people who print file labels end up wasting time wrestling with jammed or stuck labels in printers.

Their comeback:

1. Because whatever information a colored label might convey also could be conveyed with a word, the most time that a colored label could save you is whatever time you save by glancing at a color rather than reading a word, perhaps a half second for very slow readers.

If you spend three hours a day filing, then saving a half second per label examined will save you one and a half hours, or half your time, only if you examine the labels of 10,800 files in those three hours — in other words, if you spend just about all your time examining file labels. One could imagine unusual situations where a color scheme might save several minutes at a shot, as, for example, if there were a need to find the only green-coded file in a vast sea of red-coded files, or if the entire population of yellow-coded files had to be pulled.

But since most filing work involves not just looking at file labels but also examining files’ contents, doing things with the contents of files, walking to and from filing cabinets, and creating new files, the time saved with colored labels will be just a tiny portion of the total filing work. This will come as a relief to the roughly 8 percent of people who are color-blind.

2. This advice seems meant to imply you have saved yourself 37 hours of work by clearing your desk. But if you have 37 hours of unfinished work, and the work then gets filed, don’t you end up with 37 hours of unfinished work now hidden away in files instead of at hand on your desk? Plus, you’ve spent a chunk of time filing it — not to mention the time spent buying filing-solution products.

3. Other research indicates that 0 percent of people who don’t bother printing labels for their files spend a single minute wrestling with jammed or stuck file labels.

One Comment Add yours

  1. You may enjoy this essay about the pros and cons of the “neatnik” vs. “slob” approaches. https://petersironwood.com/2017/05/11/family-matters-part-two-garlic-cloves-and-puffer-fish/

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