A Perfect Mess


As a fan of organizational books,  methods and gurus, I thought I owed it to myself to listen to an opposing viewpoint.  The full (messy) title of this book is: A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder – How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place (long enough?). The authors, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, make a compelling case.

Sometimes, the authors say, organization doesn’t give us a good return value for the time, effort and money we put into it. In fact, sometimes organizing makes us LESS productive, happy and creative. They churn through example after example in many fields: personal organization, office organization, city planning, politics, science, art. It would be easy to dismiss their examples as a few strange exceptions, except that there are so many of them.

A few simple examples: On a slightly messy desk, it’s more likely that I will see my most important or urgent papers and projects right in front of me. Sitting neatly hidden in a file cabinet, it’s more likely I’ll forget them. Overly clean houses can actually make allergies worse and breed more lethal bacteria than slightly dirty ones. Many scientific discoveries were made due to disorganized accidents. The time I save by having a neat personal filing system may not make up for the time I spend filing everything in the first place, and then maintaining that system.  Companies that invest in long-range strategic planning do no better than companies that don’t.

You get the general idea. The book certainly hasn’t converted me away from believing in the benefits of basic organization. But it gives me something to think about. I better realize now the benefits of incorporating a little controlled disorder into my life. It makes life more creative, more productive and more satisfying.

Abrahamson and Freedman certainly aren’t arguing against ALL organization. The best results, they find, happen when there is a mix of order and disorder – a basic ordered framework in which some creative disorder is permitted.

The fact of the matter is, the world is a messy place. As human beings, we have strong psychological needs to catigorize and order things. We like to feel that there is a safe underlying order in the cosmos. For example, there is a phenomena, which the authors discuss, known as the “just world hypothesis”. People have a tendency to assume that when something BAD happens to someone, they deserved it. A man who drops dead of a heart attack at 45 must not have been fit. A woman who is raped must have been engaging in risky behavior. This gives us a sense of security about the world, but the fact is, bad things happen to perfectly innocent people all the time. By assuming the “just world” hypothesis, we stigmatize innocent victims.

The cosmos is a facinating combination of ordered principles and strange incongruities, and so are our lives. It’s wonderful to rely on organization to make our lives more comfortable and happy – but let’s not try to organize out ALL of the strange and wonderful mess. It makes our lives much to sterile.

If you are a VERY organized person – I’d recommend this book. It will give you something to think about. If you are a disorganized person who feels horribly guilty all the time – this book might give you some comfort.

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