Is it neat to be messy?

In AFR Boss Jul 07, Fiona Carruthers asks “Messy or neat? Which state signifies a more intelligent and/or creative mind? Which is more conducive to producing top-quality work? Does the state of your desk even affect productivity?” She makes much use of work by Eric Abrahamson, professor of management at Columbia University’s School of Business in New York, and David H. Freedman, business and science journalist, who attempt to come up with answer in A Perfect mess the hidden benefits of disorder-how crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place. (Little, Brown, 2007). They argue that moderate or controlled messiness is more productive and creative than overt organisation.

I’m not so sure, but I like the picture.


The book features some entertaining types, including the “mess phony” – an individual who pretends to be messy while hiding order. There’s also “the mess pervert”, someone who actively creates mess because they derive pleasure from the process. However, Abrahamson and Freeman argue that constant order is ultimately costly. . . . “If you’re messy you can let 20 things pile up on your desk. When it all gets too much, you’ll spend one morning or an hour or whatever filing them all away. That expends a lot less energy than stopping what you are doing to deal every time you get a new piece of mess.” A more interesting point he makes is that allowing mess to accumulate increases your chances of creating interesting connections, patterns or cross references you may not have thought of. “Mess tends to juxtapose things that would otherwise have been separated by order,” says Abrahamson.

Abrahamson points to three types of empirical research that helped the authors qualify their assertion that mess reigns supreme. The first was conducted by computer simulation, using desk scenarios ranging from very messy to very neat. The exercise showed that of all the parameter settings, moderate mess helped employees finish their tasks the fastest. Abrahamson and Freedman also interviewed 100 people, and another 160 via a web-based survey. “It’s a topic people love to talk about, but I’d say two thirds of messy people feel guilty about their mess says Abrahamson.

Corporate adviser Mark Struk does not know of any research that proves a link between intelligence and either messiness or neatness. “It’s fair to say that more creative, more right-brained people tend be messy, but being messy or or neat has no implications for intelligence,” he says. Struk says most comp, are following the American corporate model of trying to clean up their employess and limit the amount of paper piling up on desk There’s a definite trend towards decluttering.”

. . . So celebrate your mess, allow it to pile up, and , what grows out of it. Just remember to keep it private.