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Embrace the Mess: The Upside of Disorder

“We often succumb to the temptation of a tidy-minded approach
when we would be better served by embracing a degree of mess.”
— Tim Harford


The breadth and depth of products and services that promise to help us stay organized is almost overwhelming. Indeed, it would seem that to be messy is almost universally shunned, considered a sign of not being “put together,” while being tidy and neat is venerated to the nth degree.

Tim Harford has a different take. In his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, he flips this notion around, showing us that there are situations in which disorder is beneficial, or at the very least that order has been oversold. (Tim previously introduced us to another counterintuitive thought with Adapt.)


One of the reasons why we put so much time and effort into being organized and tidy is because we make assumptions about what this will do for our productivity. If all our papers are neatly filed and email is neatly sorted, it will be easier to retrieve anything that’s important, right? Maybe not.

Harford cites a paper by Steve Whittaker and researchers at IBM called “Am I Wasting My Time Organizing Email?” to illustrate the fallacy.

Whittaker and his colleagues got permission to install logging software on the computers of several hundred office workers, and tracked around 85,000 attempts to find e-mail by clicking through folders, or by using ad hoc methods—scrolling through the inbox, clicking on a header to sort by (for example) the sender, or using the search function. Whittaker found that clicking through a folder tree took almost a minute, while simply searching took just 17 seconds. People who relied on folders took longer to find what they were looking for, but their hunts for the right e-mail were no more or less successful. In other words, if you just dump all your e-mail into a folder called “archive,” you will find your e-mails more quickly than if you hide them in a tidy structure of folders.

Okay, so taking the time to organize your email may not be as useful as we thought. Computers, after all, are designed as tools to help us work better and faster, so it makes sense that the simple search function would outperform us. But physical filing and keeping our work space neat makes us more productive right?

Once again, maybe not.

Quite a bit of research has been done on people's working environments and it would seem that those with big piles of paper and/or clutter on their desks may be just as effective (and sometimes more so) than those pedantic ‘fillers.’

This is not to argue that a big pile of paper is the best possible filing system. But despite appearances, it’s very far from being a random assortment. A messy desk isn’t nearly as chaotic as it at first seems. There’s a natural tendency toward a very pragmatic system of organization based simply on the fact that the useful stuff keeps on getting picked up and left on the top of the pile.

David Kirsh, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego studies the differences between the working habits of the tidy types (he calls them ‘neats’) and the messy types (he calls them ‘scruffies’). Let’s look at what he found.

…how do people orient themselves after arriving at the office or finishing a phone call? Kirsh finds that “neats” orient themselves with to-do lists and calendars, while “scruffies” orient themselves using physical cues—the report that they were working on is lying on the desk, as is a letter that needs a reply, and receipts that must be submitted for expenses. A messy desk is full of such cues. A tidy desk conveys no information at all, and it must be bolstered with the prompt of a to-do list. Both systems can work, so we should hesitate before judging other people based on their messy desks.

So if both systems work, are there times when it’s actually more advantageous to embrace messiness?

Here Harford hits upon an interesting hypothesis: Messiness may enhance certain types of creativity. In fact, creativity itself may systematically benefit from a certain amount of disorder.

When things are too neat and tidy, it’s easy for boredom to set in and creativity to suffer. We feel stifled.

A messy environment offers disruptions that seem to act as a catalyst for new ideas and creations. If you think about it, we try to avoid these same disruptions when we focus on being more “organized.” But, if you sometimes embrace a little mess, you may be opening yourself up to more creative serendipity:

Messy disruptions will be most powerful when combined with creative skill. The disruption puts an artist, scientist, or engineer in unpromising territory—a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop. But then expertise kicks in and finds ways to move upward again: the climb finishes at a new peak, perhaps lower than the old one, but perhaps unexpectedly higher.

Think about an “inefficiently” designed office plan that looks wasteful on the surface: What's lost in efficiency (say, putting two departments that need to talk to each other in separated areas) can be more than made up for in serendipitous encounters.

Brian Eno, considered one of the most influential and innovative figures in music over the last five decades describes it like this:

The enemy of creative work is boredom, actually,” he says. “And the friend is alertness. Now I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds, to be able to stay on top of it. That kind of alertness is exciting.”

Eno created an amazing system for pushing people into ‘alertness.’ He came up with something he called “Oblique Strategies” cards. He would show up at the recording studio with a handful of cards and bring them out whenever it seemed that the group needed a nudge.

Each had a different instruction, often a gnomic one. Whenever the studio sessions were running aground, Eno would draw a card at random and relay its strange orders.

Be the first not to do what has never not been done before
Emphasize the flaws
Only a part, not the whole
Twist the spine
Look at the order in which you do things
Change instrument roles

Can you imagine asking the guitarist of a group to sit behind the drums on a track? These were the type of suggestions that Eno is famous for and it seems to be serving him well; at age sixty-eight he has a new album coming out in January of 2017 and some variation of his cards have been available for purchase since first appearing for public consumption in 1975.

We all won’t be able to embrace a card from Eno’s deck. Some people do well in tidy environments/situations and some do well in messy ones — it's probably contingent on what you're trying to achieve. (We wouldn't go so far as recommending a CEO be disorganized.)

Reading through the book it would seem that the key is, like most things, to give it a try. A little “intentional messiness” could go a long way towards helping you climb out of a rut. And, if you are the tidy type through and through, it’s important not to try and force that on others — you just might be taking away a good thing.

If you like the ideas in Messy, check out Harford's other book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, or check out another important book on things that gain from disorder, Antifragile.