Why Being Messy Can Be Good For Your
Messy Desks Are Productive Desks
Most knowledge workers have to deal with a constant inflow of digital and physical documents. Should we file them neatly away in filing cabinets or email folder structures? Or should we let them pile up? Several studies now tell us that the “pilers” have the edge over the “filers”. The problem is premature filing: in your urge to get stuff off your desk you give it labels that don’t make sense to you later. You lose information under a tidy veneer of filing systems and you don’t really know where anything is. The happy “piler”, in contrast, can see where documents are. Piles of paper gradually sort themselves, the dross sinking to the bottom. The messy desk looks unattractive – but it works.
Tidy Bosses Are Nightmare Bosses
The world is full of clean-desk policies, with pen-pushing bureaucrats insisting that by day’s end a desk must contain just computer equipment, telephone and a single A5 photo frame. (I’m not making this one up – it’s from BHP Billiton.) But when pushed, companies are often at a loss to explain the purpose of these rules. Experimental research by two psychologists, Alex Haslam and Craig Knight, has convincingly shown that such policies are counterproductive: people feel helpless, screwed-around, even physically ill when their capacity to control their own work space is removed. Bosses need to let go. And yes, that probably does mean that some desks are going to be untidy.
You're In Good Company
Both messy and tidy people have found their own paths to success. If you’re in the messy camp then there are some good people on your side: Messrs Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Mark Zuckerberg and – surprisingly – Steve Jobs all seemed to function best with a messy desk in front of them. Agatha Christie, arguably the most successful novelist in human history, had impossibly chaotic work habits, allowing her ideas to sprawl randomly across multiple notebooks, cross-fertilising each other and being punctuated with reminders to buy toilet paper. Mess doesn’t work for everyone, but there’s no sign that it held any of these people back.
Give Yourself Some Slack
Benjamin Franklin – writer, inventor, social entrepreneur and founding father of the US – lived one of the most remarkable lives in history. He also had a serious self-improvement habit, systematically trying to erase his character flaws. He usually succeeded, but not when it came to tidying up. In his autobiography, he lamented the fact that throughout his long life he never mastered the art of tidying up his office or organising his diary. But these regrets are absurd: could Franklin really have achieved more or been a better person if only he’d been more assiduous with the filing cabinet? I think we all make his mistake: we think that untidiness is holding us back. We think it’s a flaw in our characters. It isn’t. Mess is part of life; humans weren’t born to be tidy. Say yes to the mess.