Organization “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder by Abramson & Freedman” (May 2009)

Susan's Thursday morning note May 7, 2009
A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder
How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place by Eric Abrahamson & David Freedman

Good morning!  The cat is sitting on my mouse pad & rolling on the keyboard on my right, the coffee is perfect on my left…here I go!  You’ll be glad to know spring has officially arrived because the first gift of a little mouse was presented at our sliding door yesterday morning from the cats to me… disgusting….such pride!  I made sure the screen section was closed after that… are you awake? (grin)

I handed Stu his pink socks out of the dryer yesterday…the stitching on the white letters of his t-shirt now a perfect beautiful hue of light pink…and had to laugh (that or cry…) – because I’m reading a book this week that is extremely interesting and fun to read, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder…How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place.  I don’t even know where to begin on what to type for you.  The book isn’t for pack rats & slobs (grin again), but for those of us that want to be “neat” and “organized” but are LIVING at the same time…how our society has placed such importance and stigma on how our homes & offices & drawers & kitchens & living rooms & kids’ rooms….(shall I go on?!?!?) look from the onlookers perspective.  How much energy we spend on the illusion of organization because of how we think we’d be perceived otherwise.  How we’ve been ingrained that all must be neat at all times for us to think the clearest, to have our kids turn out civilized and responsible.

He describes the types of “messies” and “neat” people – the author is a professor of management at Columbia Business School, so he is not making fun of either.  He uses the book to discuss the benefits of being somewhat disorganized.  The time saved where we LIVE instead of clean and file.  How a lot of what is ingrained in us as “right” isn’t necessarily correct after all.   Here is some of what I’ve underlined:

Though it flies in the face of almost universally accepted wisdom, moderately disorganized people, institutions, and systems frequently turn out to be more efficient, more resilient, more creative, and in general more effective than highly organized ones.  (Quote by Albert Einstein:  If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk?)

Can the case be made that, in many situations, chasing after neatness and organization is largely pointless? (He discusses the amount of time we spend on getting our children’s rooms organized…neat…efficient…tidy.  What if we instead spent 1/2 an hour each weekend tackling it with them?  Their personalities would be all over their rooms…their fun from the week out for them to see & observe & mix up….giving us possibly 15 more minutes a day of time with them reading or playing instead of seeking “the perfectly tidy room” (instead an ordered room)….

Being messy and disordered and disorganized, as we mean it, is just what you probably think it is: scattering things, mixing things around, letting things pile up, doing things out of order, being inconsistent, winging it.  You get the idea.

If one looks at organizations where people tend not to have neat-freak managers breathing down their necks  in other words, where they have a choice in the matter – people tend to have messy desks. …In particular, academia is an unrestrained haven of the messy work space, so much so that faculty at colleges behave as if their reputation will grow in direct proportion to the height of the piles on & around their desk…it makes perfect sense too keep a messy desk (and he goes into detail what is beneficial to not filing everything right away for our creativity…)

There is an entire chapter on the benefits of mess.  Flexibility, completeness, resonance, invention, efficiency, robustness.  He goes into detail with each….not being neat saved time that he was able to put to better use…

Messiness is often taken as a sign of weakness.  In a person, it’s regarded as a character flaw.  …but in fact, disorder can confer certain kinds of strength….That idea gave me a memory of my mom.  She constantly fought her disorganization…in fact, when we cleaned her room after she died we couldn’t believe the number of books we found (buried!) to getting better organized.  We laughed, but I also cry at the thought of the amount of pressure she put on herself to constantly fight what she knew others were perceiving as her main character flaw when it had nothing to do with her character.  She was the main entrepreneur in my life for an example – the woman who began our book business…who thought “outside the norm” on everything.  But the memory that stands out is her telling me that the morning my dad died in his accident she locked the door, put up a sign, and cleaned the coffee stains off the kitchen floor before anyone saw them….I can just picture her panicking over such details – for she knew…..the “not perfect” look of her home, the home that welcomed anyone at anytime….that the housekeeping was what was viewed as so importantly to the women who would be in her home…..from her perspective anyway.  She believed it was a sign of weakness….maybe that’s why this book appeals to me.

There is so much in this book.   On relationships.  On parenting.  On who we are.  I am loving it.   Do my dishes HAVE to be done each evening, when that is when the family is playing outside and relaxing in the other room?  Can they be stacked neatly to be done later?  Can we spend 10 more minutes with our kids in the morning – just letting them see us not always “doing” – but LIVING….trying to not have the pressure on ourselves or on them that it is a character flaw to not leave things in such order?  Another idea that was interesting is that those that let their kids and themselves leave some “clutter” – then those are the personalities that we can then see easily around the home.  All isn’t in containers and files….but LIFE is around.  Fun.  Personalities.  Because it’s not all put in the closet neatly….what expectations do we have because of the mass money made in organizing departments, aisles, advertisements?  Where is just LIVING & filing every few weeks after keeping stacks by the day?  The disciplines of business, law, medicine….the need for utmost organization is there.  But for homes, rooms, desks, educators, planners, diversity we must let ourselves LIVE by keeping our lives out of files, out of rubber containers…out on the counter….it’s okay to be a little messy….even if it means turning our clothes pink once in awhile & eating the pie before the salad!  I am always putting Stu’s books back on shelves & in cabinets….why not keep some of the stacks around….see the person in the stacks – not having to have the floor completely cleared…

Now, go take on your day, and if you have any books on organizing, let me know (just kidding!  I’m already reading them all & trying “fly lady” and subscribing to women who give me their recipes……I’m as pathetic as some of the rest of you!!!  Not looking for an excuse, but appreciating the author for letting me know that I may be more creative & live a fuller life if I’m not constantly thinking all around me must be in order!   Go take on your day & make decisions that will help you write a great epitaph tonight on how you used your time given to you today the best you could.  Even if your best is survival – survive by noticing the blossoms on the trees.  You noticed.  That’s what counts.  Thank you letting me in your world again today.  Have a beautiful spring day!  Go play with your kids or take a walk with yourself.  Your drawer doesn’t need organized today!  It won’t matter if you wait a few weeks.  It honestly won’t.  Life is so short.  Don’t use your time constantly arranging things! (grin)  Susan

Latin for this week:
Modus vivendi - Way of living
Works Cited: Abrahamson, Eric, Freedman, David.  A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder.  2006.  Little, Brown.  New York.