Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Perfect Mess

I often run across interesting books at Amazon.com while I am shopping, so I couldn't help but click through to a book with this intriguing title: A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder--How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place. Initially, I started to dismiss the book and move on to something else, thinking, "Great, a book telling people who are basically disorganized and messy to stay that way," but when I thought about it, this idea started to make sense.

Many people I know who are successful at what they do have a cluttered desk, can't remember all their appointments, and their closets are so full to the brim with clothes and other items that the door bursts open when you so much as touch it (I won't name any names). On the other hand, I know people who are so anal retentive that they spend all their time organizing and obsessing over what goes where, so much so that nothing else gets done; those who are fans of feng shui come to mind. I don't mean to pick on these organizers; some of what they do, I am sure is of benefit to people, but how much organization is too much? In other words, do cluttered closets make for more creative minds and vice versa, do overly neat and organized closets make for a mind devoid of creativity?

I doubt it is that simple and as the authors of the book suggest, it appears to be moderately disorganized people and businesses that tend to be more efficient, robust and creative than obsessive neatniks. But how mess is too much mess? Is there a fine line between being an "organized slob" and being just a plain slob? As one book review of A Perfect Mess aptly puts it:

The book's peripatetic path eventually proves that despite what your mother, your boss or your girlfriend tells you, a certain amount of disorder is a good thing. "There is an optimal level of mess for every aspect of every system," they argue. The question is, how much chaos is too much, before the weight of disorder, the hoarding of junk or worse still, the fear of throwing things out, "disposophobia," obstructs your ability to function?

So the million dollar question becomes, what is the optimal level of mess for your particular system and how do you know when you have found it?


Blogger knox said...

I'm fairly organized, but when I went freelance this summer, I was unpleasantly surprised by the amount of time required of me--just to do my taxes. It certainly takes loads of time away from what I could/should be doing professionally...

10:05 AM, January 09, 2007  
Blogger David Foster said...

I once knew a senior marketing executive who was very obsessively clean-desk...he and his assistant would insure that every piece of paper was filed somewhere by the end of the day.

Thing is, he had very little feel for marketing, and I don't think he was really very effective in his job (although he was an excellent project manager.) I think that to some extent the focus on the clean desk and on orderly processes was a substitute for dealing with the real substantive issues.

10:23 AM, January 09, 2007  
Blogger mean aunt said...

I am not naturally organized so when things start to pile up I start to throw away.

But getting rid of books is the hardest--even if I know I'll never read it again. But there is only so much shelf space.

10:26 AM, January 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When the fumes from the ever growing pile of dirty underwear start to burn my nose and make my eyes water - about two days after that is our peak clutter season.

10:35 AM, January 09, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


I have been self-employed for most of my career and cannot imagine how many hours I have spent with paperwork in the course of doing my taxes. It could even add up to another part time job--without the getting paid part.


I will throw out anything but books. There is a bin at our local used bookstore for free books and I just take my extra books there knowing that others will soon be reading them.

Thor's dad,

You obviously have not perfected the technique of buying three months worth of underwear so that you only have to do laundry four times a year.

10:39 AM, January 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's all relative.

I'm sure people that have to stockpile fresh food and water due to some kind of natural disaster are going to have an untidy dwelling. Then you have the stockpiling of materials for shielding - plywood for the windows, etc.

Same thing for people displaced that have to fit all their possessions into a much smaller space. What a situation if you had to run into a combination of these factors.

Some neat freaks are also very insecure. In many cases they view their obsessive cleanliness as some sign of intellectual or moral superiority. They may have an empty barrel upstairs, but at least its a spit-shined, spotless, reflective barrel. And of course these types are often pathologically controlling - their cleanliness is their security blanket, and its going to be yours (or at least theirs through you) if they have any say in it. Which is why its good to stay away from them and not tolerate their nonsense when you can't.

10:45 AM, January 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahh, McKay's. No trip to Knoxville is complete without a stop at McKay's.


10:45 AM, January 09, 2007  
Blogger Mercurior said...

i am extremely organised in a chaotic way, my room is organised chaos.. only i can find anything in there, anyone else.. they will be lost, and wont be able to find anything.

its always been the same, i could always find anything within 5 minutes of being asked. my mind put systems in place, links that normally people would never think of, but it makes me better at finding stuff..

3:26 PM, January 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The influence of coincidence on scientific discovery (e.g., the discovery of penicillin), and the fact that greater chaos and disorganization typically produce more opportunity for coincidence (and, thus, more discovery) is one of the themes of one of my favorite books: Connie Willis' _Bellweather_. She provides enough historical reference for the idea to be plausible.

4:10 PM, January 09, 2007  
Blogger mean aunt said...

Helen, don't worry. I never throw books in the trash I always donate them to book drives, schools, thrift stores. I keep a donation box in the garage for everything we don't use/have outgrown. It just is harder to part with books than outgrown baby clothes.

6:48 PM, January 09, 2007  
Blogger mean aunt said...

Bellwether is one of the books on the keep shelf!

6:53 PM, January 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops. Yes, TabithaRuth, Bellwether, not Bellweather. S'what I get for watching storm predictions while blogging.

8:49 PM, January 09, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Many people I know who are successful at what they do have a cluttered desk, can't remember all their appointments, and their closets are so full to the brim with clothes and other items that the door bursts open when you so much as touch it

I know the kind of people you're talking about. They're calle "men".

11:00 PM, January 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Duck, I don't see the connection. Please elaborate.

11:10 PM, January 09, 2007  
Blogger Melissa Clouthier said...

Dr. Helen,

You can't imagine what this has done for my self-esteem. I'm going to share this with someone (and my readers, too:) right away.

I'm only partly joking. In my youth, I was obsessively anal and decided in adulthood that I was channeling my mother who couldn't clean up her life so she just cleaned the house. Once I made that connection, I stopped the madness. My desk has three or four projects going and it's a mess. It bugs me some, but not enough to do anything.

11:12 PM, January 09, 2007  
Blogger DADvocate said...

I have found that the optimal level of mess is one in which I pretty much know where everything is but don't have to take very much time to put things in their place. At work my level of messiness seems to be about average, at home slightly messier than average.

Browsing through books can be a dangerous thing though. A week ago I went to a bookstore to buy a book for my grandson. While browsing, I came across a section of books on OCD. I kept looking and them and looking at them. I just couldn't stop. :-)

11:28 PM, January 09, 2007  
Blogger tomcal said...

Three months of underwear... That's just one pair of boxer shorts, isn't it?

11:31 PM, January 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say that it is difficult to be successful if you are at either end of the spectrum--slob or OC. I do think that each of us works a little differently and the person whose desk appears messy, may still know where everything is.

Regarding the underwear issue--don't forget about the commando option.

6:03 AM, January 10, 2007  
Blogger tomcal said...

Commando is good... Occasionally leaves a few dangling problems; but on the whole, quite liberating.

1:45 PM, January 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I were a commando, rappeling down a cliff to take out sentries and suchlike, I would want all my gear properly secured.

12:17 AM, January 11, 2007  
Blogger Cham said...

When I see a person whose home or work environment is extremely clean, orderly, and nothing out of place, I assume they are trying to hide something. When someone is an incredible slob I figure they are not going to be responsible and will lose things. I can handle anyone that lives in between the spectrum extremes.

9:38 AM, January 11, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Duck: I know the kind of people you're talking about. They're called "men".

SaltedSlug: Duck, I don't see the connection. Please elaborate.

Duck: You don't see the connection between men and slovenly behavior? As Mr Spock would say, "fascinating".

DrHelen: Many people I know who are successful at what they do have a cluttered desk, can't remember all their appointments, and their closets are so full to the brim with clothes and other items that the door bursts open when you so much as touch it.

Duck: Yes, this is known as the "Fred Flintstone closet". For those of you gen-x'ers who were denied the experience of watching the Flintstones by the cruelty of Fate, the exploding closet was a stock gag of the show. Every time Fred went to get his bowling ball (he always has to ask Wilma where it is, by the way) he is buried by an avalanche of junk as soon as he opens the door.

I'd say that neat types and slob types gravitate to different professions which are optimized for the peculiarities of their temperament. You'll see clean, neat desks in the sales department, but you'll search forever to find one among the computer programmers.

I also read somewhere that you can tell what side of the ball a football player plays, offense or defense, by the orderliness or lack thereof of their locker. Offensive players lockers are neat, defensive players lockers are messy.

1:12 PM, January 12, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The author of the book must be reading my mail.
Honestly, what is the sense of having a horizontal surface if you are not going to load it up with stuff? My desk at work always looks like the aftermath of a wind storm. I clean it from time to time, then can't find all the necessary tidbits of info on the various never ending projects I'm working on.
Duck's response made me laugh out loud.
Boxer shorts...another hoot! I prefer white ones with no flap. Easy enough. Install with yellow toward the front, brown toward the back.

8:29 PM, January 14, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am looking for an article I read years ago that was published in the 70's by the psychiatrist for the San Diego Chargers.

He observed, and theorized, on the Defensive line locker room which was neat as a pin; as opposed to the Offensive line which was a mess with locker door open, socks on the floor, etc.

He commented that aggressive behavior requires setting aside building castles and moats (Sic) in lieu of the focused attack, Contrary to Defensive strategy requiring careful attention to closing all possible loopholes (Sic).

Are you familiar with this article, the Doctor, or the name of the theory, if any?



6:13 PM, February 06, 2008  
Blogger harryr said...

Hi Jim,
I believe the article you are looking for is "A psychiatric study of professional football" Saturday Review, 5 October 1974. pp.12-16 by Arnold J. Mandell.

8:49 PM, April 11, 2008  
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