Shelf Life

Time to get organized? Not so fast

Kai Ryssdal Jan 2, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: You might not have known this, but January’s been named ‘Get Organized Month’ by The National Association of Professional Organizers.Trying to capitalize, no doubt, on all those get-organized New Years Resolutions. The group estimates 10,000 people will be seeking professional organizing help right around now.

But before you hit the phone, consider that neatness might not be so virtuous — or profitable — after all.

David Freedman’s new book on the topic is called “A Perfect Mess.” David, good to have you here.

DAVID FREEDMAN: Thanks, great to be here.

RYSSDAL: Let’s skip straight to the subtitle of this book, if we could for a second. It’s called “A Perfect Mess,” and then you go down and you read further and it says “The Hidden Benefits of Disorder.” Help me out here, I thought disorder was bad.

FREEDMAN: Well, disorder can be bad sometimes. But it turns out that a lot of the times, it’s quite good. If you’re really neat and it’s working out for you, I wouldn’t dream of asking you to change. However, if you have a messy desk, and people are gettin’ on your back about being neater about it, there really is very, very little evidence that neatness really does much for you. And you can come up with some very interesting arguments that messiness will work better.

RYSSDAL: Alright, give it up.

FREEDMAN: It turns out we did a survey, and most people have messy desks. They tend to people guilty about it and they assume they oughta clean it up. In fact, if you have a really neat desk, then that means you’re spending a certain amount of time taking every piece of paper that comes across your desk and processing it in some way. If you keep a really messy desk, and what happens naturally is the stuff that you’re really working on and that’s more important tends to gravitate towards the front of the desk and the top of piles. Now you’re gonna end up searching through some of these piles sometimes, but that’s not a bad thing. Because when you search through piles you end up finding things that would have been buried away in a neat person’s file cabinet and you can make connections. And in fact one Nobel prize directly owes its origin to a researcher who made a connection by searching through a stupendously messy desk.

RYSSDAL: Is it expensive in a corporate sense to be neat?

FREEDMAN: It’s extremely expensive. I mean let’s start off with the fact that U.S. corporations spend some $45 billion a year on management consultants. They come in and they help companies figure out what’s the best way to organize your work processes and your work force. But when you look at studies that have been done, you can actually make a rough correlation between companies that plan less and the fact that they end up doing better for it.

For example, most peole would tend to think of Microsoft — and let’s think about Bill Gates too — as sort of a rigid kind of company. In fact Microsoft is really a mess. Bill Gates is famous for letting his teams pretty much run on their own, and I think Microsoft in fact does a great job of taking advantage of mess. On the other hand, Steve Jobs at Apple, he’s really famously a neat freak — he pushes his teams to finish right on time, he has very specific ideas of what he wants them to do. Of course, Apple has tremendous and very vocal fans, it really is very much the minority in the marketplace.

RYSSDAL: You know it occurs to me a lot of what we’ve been talking about has to do with physical paper, but so much of what we deal with is actually on the computer.

FREEDMAN: It’s true. For one thing, people tend to feel that they’re really working much more neatly when they work with a digital document. I mean a digital document of course you don’t have cross-outs. But it turns out that a lot of these sorts of mars on paper — the irregularities, the mistakes — turn out to have a lot of information in them. And that’s something we really lose in digital documents.

We tell an interesting story in the book of a manuscript of Beethoven’s, and what made it a valuable document was the fact that it showed the way Beethoven worked in terms of all his cross-outs and his mistakes. I mean these things really tell us things about ourselves and the way we think.

RYSSDAL: But isn’t there risk involved? I mean, you know, you say disorder, but really it’s a form of chaos.

FREEDMAN: Yeah, it’s a form of disorder, it’s letting randomness in. Is there risk involved? Absolutely. We grow up believing that neatness is really the way to be and that it works better. But I’ll tell you what: it’s really the risks, the unexpected, it’s really the interesting clutter in our lives that make life worth living.

RYSSDAL: The book is called “A Perfect Mess.” David H. Freedman’s one of the co-authors with Eric Abrahamson. Mr. Freedman, thanks a lot for your time.

FREEDMAN: Thanks for having me.

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