A Perfect Mess

(This is cross-posted at BlogHer)

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The notion that there is a place for everything and everything should be in its place freaks me out. Seriously. My brain does not compute that notion. It doesn't work that way. When I see pictures of perfectly organized rooms and desks I get stressed out. What happens when you bring something new into the room? Where does *it* go? My mind computes locations of items as they are related to the proximity to other items. If someone moves on of those items on me I'm quite simply screwed if I need to find something. My mother never got this and during my teens would get fed up with my "messy" room and decide that she was going to

clean it while I was at work or school. As a result I couldn't find things for days. So when I heard about A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefit of Disorder by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman a few months ago I knew I wanted to get my hands on a copy. When I googled it and found out that the full title was A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. Finally, finally here was something that wasn't going to try to push me into categories that simply don't work for me...or so I hoped.
"People tend to imagine that they are getting the most out of their brains when their thoughts are well organized and focused, when they are able to clearly spell out their goals and intentions, and when the confusing world around them has been sorted out to a distinct scheme. But actually, the mind is built around disorder on several levels, ranging from the processing of raw data to the juggling of complex data. Our brains evolved to think in a messy world, and sometimes when we insist on thinking in neat, orderly ways, we're really holding back our minds from doing what they do best." pp. 245-246

In many ways this book exceeded my expectations. In the back of my mind I still kind of expected there to be a catch, that it would talk only about one area of life in which you were allowed to be messy, or there would be a "you can be messy BUT...". I was extremely pleased when reading to see that this touched on a little bit of everything. It talked about corporate structure and policies. It talked about messy music. It talked about messy bookstores. It talked about messy art. There's mess all over the place. And mess can work...when it is balanced by order. And order can order but sometimes benefits but a bit of mess. One person's mess is another person's order.

For example, if you were to look at my work space I'm sure many of you would think it was a mess. There are piles of paper all over the place. Many of you would wonder how on earth I find anything. But within those piles there is order. My mail gets delivered around noon. When I bring it in I sit at my desk and I open it. And from that point, depending on what it is, it will go in a pile. Magazines, etc get piled to the right and behind me where I don't see or notice them. They are things that will need to be moved but in that location they won't bother me or get in my way. Important papers, such as tax receipts, that need special attention go to the right, usually landing on top of my scanner. I can see them out of the corner of my eye and am constantly reminded of their presence. Papers that need to be filed get thrown on top of my file folders. Paper that are not of high importance get thrown on the pile to my left to be dealt with later. That pile grows the fastest, no doubt in part thanks to the many objects that end up in this pile as well as papers. Unimportant items, empty envelopes, junk mail, etc get thrown in the recycling bin right away. But the thing is...all this "order" was created unconsciously. It was only when I read the section on desks in the book and stopped and thought about it that I saw this pattern. The truth is, I really *am* organized. I just couldn't see it because it isn't what society has taught me organized looks like.

Now lets look at time. My method takes me a few seconds. Things are generally in my hand just long enough to for me to throw them into a pile. If I were to file everything the second it came in I'd have to go to my files, sort things, make decisions on things right away or file things away to do later. The problem there is that I'd have to remember to do them later. And without those piles standing by to remind me of all my things to do I'm not sure how I'd ever remember to do anything. Of course I have to file things eventually. But believe or not it really doesn't take very long. I can file a month's worth of stuff in 20 minutes or less. If I were to file everything the second it came it I could easily spend more than 20 minutes a week performing that task. This is really a more efficient system for me.

The for me above is the important part. I don't expect my system to work for everyone. Doesn't everyone's system seem "messy" in some way to someone else? How many times have we had someone "help" us by organizing things while we were out? Of course the end result being that you can't find anything. Organization is a very personal thing. Find what works for you. Your system shouldn't stress you out. When the piles on my desk start to drive me crazy I know it's time to file - it's time to add some "order" to my "mess". Maybe you need to add some mess to your order. Nobody's system is *the* definitive system. Do it your way. If your boss is nagging you about your cluttered desk hand them a copy of this book...it might just change the way they think about mess.

And while I have your attention be sure to check out the post that Jory Des Jardin wrote earlier this week: Time management: A more intuitive guide to productivity.