12.21.2006

YES to mess!

Edward Koren, (c) New York Times 2006


This article is, not surprisingly, the most e-mailed from today's New York Times. Finally, someone is saying what I've known all along in my heart of hearts!
An anti-anticlutter movement is afoot, one that says yes to mess and urges you to embrace your disorder. Studies are piling up that show that messy desks are the vivid signatures of people with creative, limber minds...and that messy closet owners are probably better parents and nicer and cooler than their tidier counterparts. It'’s a movement that confirms what you have known, deep down, all along: really neat people are not avatars of the good life; they are humorless and inflexible prigs, and have way too much time on their hands.
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"Total organization is a futile attempt to deny and control the unpredictability of life. "
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As a corollary, the book'’s authors examine the high cost of neatness --— measured in shame, mostly, and family fights, as well as wasted dollars --— and generally have a fine time tipping over orthodoxies and poking fun at clutter busters and their ilk, and at the self-help tips they live or die by. They wonder: Why is it better to pack more activities into one day? By whose standards are procrastinators less effective than their well-scheduled peers? Why should children have to do chores to earn back their possessions if they leave them on the floor, as many professional organizers suggest? In their book Mr. Freedman and Mr. Abrahamson describe the properties of mess in loving terms.
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Mess is complete, in that it embraces all sorts of random elements. Mess tells a story: you can learn a lot about people from their detritus, whereas neat --— well, neat is a closed book. Neat has no narrative and no personality (as any cover of Real Simple magazine will demonstrate). Mess is also natural, as Mr. Freedman and Mr. Abrahamson point out, and a real time-saver.
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In the semiotics of mess, desks may be the richest texts. Messy-desk research borrows from cognitive ergonomics, a field of study dealing with how a work environment supports productivity. Consider that desks, our work landscapes, are stand-ins for our brains, and so the piles we array on them are "“cognitive artifacts,"” or data cues, of our thoughts as we work.

To a professional organizer brandishing colored files and stackable trays, cluttered horizontal surfaces are a horror; to cognitive psychologists like Jay Brand, who works in the Ideation Group of Haworth Inc., the huge office furniture company, their peaks and valleys glow with intellectual intent and showcase a mind whirring away: sorting, linking, producing. (By extension, a clean desk can be seen as a dormant area, an indication that no thought or work is being undertaken.)

His studies and others, like a survey conducted last year by Ajilon Professional Staffing, in Saddle Brook, N.J., which linked messy desks to higher salaries (and neat ones to salaries under $35,000), answer EinsteinÂ’s oft-quoted remark, "“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?"
At the end of the article, David H. Freedman explains that rather than attempting to eradicate mess, we should simply manage it better. He described a few different mess-management styles: "the pile builders and the under-the-bed stuffers; of those who let their messes wax and wane--the cyclers, he called them; and those who create satellite messes (in storage units off-site)." I am probably mostly an under-the-bed stuffer and a cycler, but have my fair share of piles as well. I think that approaching messes from a "How can I manage this?" perspective rather than a "How can I get rid of this perspective?" is very useful. It would certainly save me the money of buying any more issues of Real Simple (occasional impulse-airport purchase, with a hope and a prayer of never living with mess again) or more products from The Container Store (the promise of a proper place for every thing!).

Any of you who agree with me can print out and post it over your delightfully busy desks:

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”
--Albert Einstein


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Finally, as a nod to the holiday that I am currently celebrating (but haven't blogged about thus far) as well as the one that I am not celebrating...watch this cute YouTube video on ChayyeiSarah's blog. Indeed.

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