U.S. News

Clutter and mess trump clean and neat

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Karen Jackson would be the first to admit her desk looks like a disaster area.

A new book, "A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder," by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, argues neatness is overrated, costs money, wastes time and quashes creativity. REUTERS/Shai Goller

Her stacks of papers and photographs are so sloppy that the Texas schoolteacher won first place in a contest to find America’s messiest desk.

Sponsored by publisher Little, Brown and Co., the competition promoted “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder,” by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, a new book that argues neatness is overrated, costs money, wastes time and quashes creativity.

“We think that being more organized and ordered and neat is a good thing and it turns out, that’s not always the case,” said Freedman.

“Most of us are messy, and most of us are messy at a level that works very, very well for us,” he said in an interview. “In most cases, if we got a lot neater and more organized, we would be less effective.”

That’s true, said Rochelle Wilson, 57, of Moville, Iowa, whose messy desk earned her a runner-up spot in the contest, in which 50 entries were judged by the book’s authors.

She says she hasn’t recovered since an incident when members of her family tried to clean up her mess.

“I still haven’t really found where the stuff really is,” she said. “There were some Girl Scout cookies from last year in that room. Now it’s time for some new cookies, and I don’t even know where my old ones are.”

Barry Izsak, head of the National Association of Professional Organizers, disputes the authors’ claims, saying they oversimplify and confuse mess with disorganization.

“The bottom line is, the average person feels negatively affected by disorganization in many ways: increased stress, missed deadlines, lost opportunities, that sinking, drowning feeling,” Izsak said. “For the average person, disorganization and chaos simply doesn’t feel good.”

The group also argues that messes are costly, citing research showing that a company employing 1,000 knowledge workers, who primarily handle information, wastes $48,000 per week, or nearly $2.5 million per year, due to an inability to locate and retrieve information.

“When you’re disorganized, it’s an expense you have no control over, the cost in lost productivity,” Izsak said. “You’re losing money if you’re not organized.”


Freedman argues that it is neatness that is expensive.

“People who are really, really neat, between what it takes to be really neat at the office and at home, typically will spend anywhere from an hour to four hours a day just organizing and neatening,” he said.

Yet messy people are often cast in a negative light. In one study cited by NAPO, two-thirds of respondents believed workers with messy desks were seen as less career-driven than their neater colleagues.

“If you walk into my office at home, you would think, ‘Oh my God, something just exploded in that room,’” said Jackson, the contest winner. “But it’s an organized mess. It’s a mess I made, and I know where everything is.”

Messiness has overtaken neatness as modern lives have changed, the book argues. Many women used to be at home, cleaning up, rather than working outside the house, while jobs used to be simpler and more linear with less multi-tasking.

Hunting through messy piles has its value, Freedman says.

“You discover things that, if you had filed things or containerized them or purged them, you never would have seen them again. It becomes a natural reminder system,” he said.