For those of you who have come to my office, you would have noticed that it sometimes looks a bit messy. Every now and then, I try to go into “declutter” mode. While I have been trying to get better, I still have some distance to cover to get to a pristine desk.
In general, as you all know, messiness is usually seen as negative. Your guilt levels probably escalate along with the stacks of paper on your desk. And you may find yourself casting a disapproving eye at a colleague’s unruly workspace. This is because people tend to dislike disorder, perceiving it as a sign of being unorganised or unproductive. Surprisingly enough, this is not exactly true. In fact, as I learnt recently in a great book by Tim Harford, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, the right kind of messiness can actually make you more creative, efficient and productive.
Science suggests that perhaps tidiness (or the lack thereof) is an inherent trait: some of us are naturally neat, while others are born messy. If you fall in the latter category, then imposing a compulsive orderliness on yourself goes against your essential nature and could actually damage your productivity and peace of mind.
Plus, as leaders, we must ensure that we don’t force our teams to adhere to our personal preferences. We may thrive in an uncluttered environment, but other people’s best work might go hand-in-hand with a more relaxed approach. Just think of Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Mark Twain…all these geniuses were also “slobs”!
So, drawing from this, my message this week is about going against the norm and embracing your inner mess-maker.
Here are some of the ways in which messiness could make you more effective at your job, and happier in life:
1. It unleashes creativity
A recent study at the University of Minnesota found a clear link between chaos and creativity. Working in a messy room inspires people to be far more innovative than those in a tidy room. Why so? Essentially, creativity calls for thinking outside the box. It’s about rejecting convention and striking out in a new direction. While neatness is very much in line with society’s expectations, messiness is the opposite—it’s rebellious and exciting. Such an environment enables you to let go of traditional notions and go beyond the predictable. Plus, the very act of seeing items that are “out of place” can nudge your brain to make unexpected connections and spark non-linear thinking, helping you come up with surprising, unconventional ideas.
2. It clears your mind
Being disorderly can actually reduce stress levels and mental clutter. Your mess usually contains physical reminders of important tasks—that document you need to proofread, that invoice you have to pay, that book you want to lend to a colleague. Tidying up takes away these tangible reminders, but the tasks still need to be done—so, your brain takes over the job of reminding you about them every few minutes, which makes you anxious and tense. If, on the other hand, the reminders are right there in front of you, your mind can relax in the knowledge that you will see them and get around to doing what needs to be done eventually.
3. It boosts efficiency
When it comes to messiness, there is generally a method to the madness. If you have ever tried to help a loved one by organising their messy kitchen or store-room, you probably know what I mean—afterwards, they almost always complain that they can no longer find anything! The fact is that each person’s mess comes with a certain logic of its own, which evolves over time for maximum efficiency. Harford gives the example of a paper-strewn desk, which may look unruly but is actually organised exactly as its needs to be:
“Your pile of paper is self-organizing. The stuff that you keep using keeps arriving on the top of the pile. The stuff that you don’t touch sinks to the bottom of the pile. We think of it as being a random pile, but it’s not a random pile. It’s actually naturally and organically organized by the process of using it….a person who appears to be disorganized because there’s paper everywhere actually has a much better organized system and they’re much more on top of their work.”
Harford goes on to mention how high-performing employees at the office design company, Herman Miller, were found to be pilers:
“They let documents accumulate on their desks, used their physical presence as a reminder to do work, and relied on subtle cues — physical alignment, dog-ears, or a stray Post-it note — to orient themselves.”
Compare this with an artificially organised system of filing where everything is kept away, out of sight, in the interest of tidiness. While this may look aesthetically pleasing, it’s not the most efficient way to work since you end up wasting time and effort in locating the things you need. Thus, ironically, a messy-looking workspace can result in greater productivity.
4. It makes you less of a hoarder
We tend to associate messiness with hoarding, but research suggests the opposite. When you compulsively sort out and file things away, you become less likely to discard them. This is because they are squirrelled away in files, boxes or drawers, or hidden deep in the labyrinths of your computer. Harford attributes this kind of bloated archive to “premature filing”:
That’s what happens when we take a new document and promptly file it in a fit of tidy-mindedness before we really understand what it means, how it fits into our ongoing commitments, and whether we need to keep it at all. The result: duplicate folders, folders within folders, folders holding just a single document, and filing cabinets that serve as highly-structured trash cans.
Moreover, people who make a fetish out of organisation tend to become very attached to the things they stow away oh-so-carefully—whereas messiness makes it easier to toss unnecessary items without regrets. Think of the documents you categorise and place into carefully created folders on your laptop, for instance. You are far less likely to delete these than the files scattered across your desktop.
5. It frees up precious time
Sure, you could allot half an hour a day towards scrupulously cleaning up your workspace—but is it really worth it? While people often praise the value of tidiness, they rarely account for its cost. Eric Abrahamson, co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, asks a pertinent question: If you spend 20 hours cleaning up your desk, are you going to get 20 hours back of greater efficiency?
The benefits of cleanliness are difficult to calculate in any tangible sense. For most of us, dedicating excessive amounts of time to the ongoing task of orderliness simply doesn’t make sense—the costs far outweigh the possible advantages. It’s better to cultivate a more flexible approach: tidy up at regular intervals (rather than constantly), and save the big spring-cleaning for a time when you don’t have a lot on your plate. This way, you don’t sacrifice more important things for the illusory advantages of a clean desk.
6. It allows you to be yourself
Forcing excessive organisation upon people who are naturally inclined to be messy can be taxing and frustrating. In the face of relentless pressure to declutter, you can end up feeling constantly ashamed and guilty for not tidying up fast enough, frequently enough, or well enough. Focusing on the positive aspects of your disorderly side frees you from that burden, allowing you to just relax and be true to yourself. Next time someone tells you to clean up that mess, refuse to feel guilty and send them a link to this article instead :-).
Remember though that an excess of disorder will work against you. Red flags include the inability to find important documents when you desperately need them and complaints from colleagues about the expanding radius of your personal mess. When untidiness gets in the way of productivity it becomes a problem, so it’s important to achieve the right type of messiness. This means cleaning up occasionally (put it on your fortnightly to-do list) and establishing boundaries (promise not to let your personal paraphernalia spill into the team space).
Albert Einstein, whose famously messy desk was immortalised in print, once quipped, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” Interesting, for those of us who feel guilted by the world into constantly decluttering, even though we actually thrive on messiness. So, the next time you feel the urge to conform and clean up, thanks to yet another magazine photo spread with Zen-looking workspaces, think of Einstein.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts.
On clearing your mind… To-do lists just do that for me!
Keeping Myers Briggs as a reference, I think this attribute mainly applies to the P types as against the Js.