Delight in Disorder

Vindication!! I'm buying this book and sending excerpts to every stupid boss I ever had who criticized my on-desk filing system.

Two monitors

A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder--How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place
“A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder--How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place” (Eric Abrahamson, David H. Freedman)

Why Clean Up Your Desk? Delight in Disorder Instead - engaging polemic against the neat-police who hold so much sway over our lives. For all too many people, neatness is a virtue in and of itself. The CEOs who appear on the cover of business magazines inevitably gaze out at their conquered worlds from perfectly neat offices with perfectly tidy desks. Americans pay millions of dollars every year to neatness experts: The National Organization of Business Organizers boasts more than 3,000 members. General Motors and United Parcel Service are among many U.S. companies with formal “clean desk” policies. There is more than a touch of Calvinist severity about office managers everywhere, as they cast a cold eye of suspicion on the untidy workers in their charge.

Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman note in “A Perfect Mess” that the costs of being neat and well-organized frequently outweigh the benefits. If this is true for mundane things like tidy desks, it is even truer with big things like organizations. Businesses can become so focused on transforming their internal processes into studies in neatness -- setting crystal-clear objectives (strategic planning) or removing organizational clutter (re-engineering) -- that they forget to focus on their real business.

But Messrs. (as it is especially pleasing to call them) Abrahamson and Freedman go on to make a larger claim: that mess actually has its uses. Most messy desks conceal an underlying order: Messy-desk owners usually know how to lay their hands on important documents among the jumble. Mess can serve as an efficient filing system: The least pressing documents can be shoved to the bottom of the pile. And mess can also serve as a valuable time-saver: The sloppy desk liberates the desk owner to focus on more important things. All that time spent straightening piles of paper -- or working your way diligently through memos, messages and mailings -- could be better used to crunch numbers or to think of a shrewd way of marketing Widget 2.0.

...Mess can be a catalyst of creativity, they argue, and neatness can be a symptom of sterility. They observe that great creative thinkers like Albert Einstein reveled in mess. (“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,” the great man once said, “of what then, is an empty desk?”) They speculate that great cities like Los Angeles are exciting precisely because they avoid detailed planning. The authors praise messy organizations for their ability to satisfy quirky customers or adapt to a dynamic environment. The New England Mobile Book Fair, for instance -- a Boston-based bookshop -- has thrived despite not putting its books in any particular order: People like the deep discounts and the chance to browse randomly. The authors note that much modern art -- from James Joyce to Jasper Johns -- seems to celebrate disorder and confusion.

That said, there are times when cleaning up my desk (and office) is beneficial. Clutter does become distraction, eventually. And empty wine bottles serve no purpose.


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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on January 2, 2007 3:52 PM.

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