I’m a pretty disorganized person. I don’t hide it well — this is a fact that screams itself into the ear of anyone who sees my desk. At home, clothes frequently pile up atop my dresser rather than get folded neatly and placed into drawers. I’ve pretty much always been this way, at least for as long as I can remember.
And yet … I’m able to muddle through. While I do occasionally lose a document I need, or forget to bring home an important printout, for the most part, on a day-to-day basis, my lack of disorganization doesn’t prevent me from doing what I need to do at work and in life. And sometimes it even feels like my lack of attention to tidiness may help me, in certain tough-to-pin down ways. As a journalist, after all, I’m frequently flitting from subject to subject, and I’m pretty good at doing that. Could there be some connection between that skill and the fact that my desk frequently looks like a scene from Event Horizon?
Maybe! That possibility is one of the reasons I was heartened by Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, the latest book by Tim Harford, a.k.a. “the undercover economist.” Released earlier this month, Messy is, in part, a paean to forms of messiness and disorganization that often get a bad rap. It takes an appropriately broad approach to such a big subject. Early on, for example, Harford discusses Brian Eno’s eccentric ideas about how to create music, with my favorite detail being the cards Eno would create for a span of recording sessions with David Bowie and other legends. Whenever these sessions began to stall out or fizzle, Eno would draw a card and read what it said — “Change instrument roles” or “Emphasize the flaws,” for example — to inject some much-needed messiness and chaos into the proceedings. The musicians would follow the instructions, however uncomfortable and off-balance that made them, and decades later we have some great, unique music as a result. In the rest of the book, Harford touches on everything from a legendary dumpy MIT building that was the site of endless important scientific advances — in part because of its dumpiness, Harford argues — to a number of recent findings in the workplace psychology literature.
One theme that pops up throughout Messy is that you can’t really impose neatness on people, or systems, that don’t want to be neat. Employees who work at the few handful of remaining companies with strict policies about how their desks look at the end of the day tend to despise those policies, for example, and when researchers try to force disorganized people to adopt the habits of neat people, it rarely makes them more productive, creative, or effective in general — in fact, it frequently has the opposite effect.
It turns out that even people with disaster desks often have some sort of system that works for them, even if it isn’t as visible as those of their more organized-seeming colleagues. In fact, in some of the research examining the habits of “neats” versus “scruffies,” or “pilers,” who tend to pile a bunch of documents on their desks, like me, and “filers,” who vigilantly file stuff before it can pile up, researchers have found that messiness in workplace settings often holds up surprisingly well. Take, for example, one study on pilers versus filers conducted by Steve Whittaker and Julia Hirschberg, a pair of researchers at AT&T labs.
“We predicted that filers’ attempts to evaluate and categorize incoming documents would produce smaller archives that were accessed frequently,” [the researchers] wrote. But that isn’t what they found. The filers didn’t have lean archives full of useful and oft-accessed documents; they had capacious cabinets full of neatly filed paper that they never used. The filers were filing prematurely. In an effort to keep their desks clear, they would swiftly file documents that turned out to have no long-term value. In their bloated archives it was hard to find anything useful, despite the logical organization, because the good stuff was surrounded with neatly filed dross.
The pilers, in contrast, would keep documents on their desks for a while and sooner or later would pick them up, realize they were useless, and dump them in the recycling bin. Any archives were small and practical and frequently used. When the time came for the office move, the pilers had an easy job — they simply kept the top half of every pile and discarded the rarely used lower documents.
In other words, score one for the pilers.
Let’s not be too Pollyannaish, though — there are costs to being a piler. I do lose stuff, and it does often take me longer to complete certain tasks, particularly administrative ones, than my more organized colleagues. Which brings me to my other key takeaway from Messy: Thank God for the internet. I really don’t know where I would be without it.
Over and over in Messy, to borrow a cliché that is too appropriate to not use here, Harford points out that there’s some order to the chaos of the pilers. We have systems, even if they’re a bit less well-defined and even if they ain’t pretty to look at. But I’ve found there are limits to this: The more crap is piling up around me, the less effective my ad hoc systems get. We pilers can get bogged down when the piles grow to imposing heights. (Unlike the pilers in the aforementioned study, I’m bad at actually sorting through the detritus on my desk and tossing the stuff I don’t need — I can go months between cleaning sessions, and I know I’m not the only piler with this problem.)
But these days, you barely even need a system at all. Almost all of my important documents are in the cloud (the desk piles are mostly research articles I’ve printed out, since I’m geriatric in my reading preferences — if I lose one I can just print it out again, with apologies to Mother Earth). It’s only rare that I need to access something that isn’t. So finding a specific thing, if it isn’t within immediate reach on my desk, is usually just a matter of typing in a few keywords — I don’t even really bother with file names — and up it pops. And if I have an important printed document that I’m fairly sure I will lose, I quickly snap a photo of it and upload it. As I was writing this article, for example, I got a call from the NYPD, which is helping me deal with an annoying identity-fraud issue. The officer I spoke with gave me my report number, which I’ll need in the future. Of course I don’t have any logical place to “put” that number, so I just sent myself an email with “report number” in the subject. The odds are zero I won’t be able to find it, within seconds, when I next need it — even despite my lack of any sort of traditional organizational system.
Twenty years ago, I would have spent a lot more time managing piles of physical documents. It would have been a lot harder to do my job, and I would have spent a lot more time on tasks that play directly to my weaknesses. Today, Google, and the cloud more broadly, makes it incredibly easy to be a disorganized schlub, because we can spend more time on the stuff that matters and less time worried about keeping everything organized. There’s a strong case to be made that the internet has freed up a lot of cognitive potential and creative energy that would have otherwise been lost wandering some distant paper trail.