It’s probably a given that as a kid, you were constantly told by your mother to keep your room clean, or told by your teachers to keep your desk neat and your papers organized. In fact, from a very young age, we’re all told that organization is a virtue and that in order to maximize your efficiency and do your job the best you can, you must maintain a work environment in which everything has its place and is kept there until the time comes to use it. So it’s no wonder that desk clutter seems to be a major cause for stress for so many people. In fact, even employers who have a messy work area themselves will often preach the wonders of what having a good organization system will accomplish to their employees. One question about this issue though is whether the actual mess stresses us out, or if it’s just the idea that disorganization is bad that does the trick.
As someone who attracts clutter naturally, I’m constantly struggling to keep my desk organized, falling into the belief system that indeed, neat is the only way to go. After all, twenty different shows about how to decrease mess can’t be wrong. However, a recent article in Inc. Magazine makes a good case for the messy desk In his article, “A Perfect Mess,” David H. Freedman uses simple logic not only to conclude that a scattered work area can be helpful, but also that a highly organized one can actually decrease efficiency and produce more stress than the mess (Freedman, David H. . “A Perfect Mess.” Inc. Dec. 2006: 122-125). Of course I didn’t buy it at first. Really…a messy desk being a good thing? If something is where it’s supposed to be rather than in a mess on your desk, it’ll be more easily found, so how can you say a messy desk is good? I was skeptical, but intrigued.
As it turns out, the idea makes sense. Though the theory of organization is that if you put something in one place it will be there when you go to get it, it never talks about the time it may take to actually put it away in the first place. Freedman uses the example of mail. If you were to take every piece of mail as it came across your desk, you’d have to take the time to read it, process it, decide what to do with it, take the appropriate actions, then file it. This would be an organized way of taking on this task. Many people feel guilty when they take a quick glance and pile it on top of an already accumulating pile of mail in one corner of their work area. However, doing it this way not only frees up the time to do other more important things, but when you tackle the mail, you can tackle it all at once. If two items are similar or need to be taken care of in a similar way, you’ll save time when you take care of them both at once.
Another example is the finding of important documents. While it’s true that a paper scattered amidst a bunch of other papers may take you a little bit of time to find, it’s still at your fingertips. Had that same document already been filed in the cabinet across the room, you would have had to make another trip over to find it, grab it, and bring it back to your desk. One thing that occurred to me when I thought about this process is that if you’re speaking with a client or any important person on the telephone, making conversation with them while you look around on your desk for something is a lot less rude than putting them on hold for the time it takes to retrieve that well organized document.
Freedman makes a case of disorganization on a larger scale too, including the hiring process (hiring someone with no skills in your area allows them to give you an outsider’s point of view), teaching (teachers planning their curricula around what students want to learn rather than vice versa), and general operations (serendipity amidst a “mess” can often lead to new and better ideas for the company). For those who have a hard time believing these ideas, Freedman’s example of the moldy Petri dish in Alexander Fleming’s work area should help you look at it in a different way. That mold, something you’d obviously never find in a clean work area, led to the discovery of penicillin.
Appreciating a messy area isn’t going to be easy for everyone, and while Freedman encourages everyone to add a little messiness into their routine, I believe that there are those that are going to be highly incapable of doing it this way. While I understand the logic in the article, and now have a deeper appreciation for my own cluttered ways, I believe that if someone has found themselves to work better in a neat environment, then why change what works? Sure, if they allowed themselves a little clutter they might come across something in the meantime, but let’s face it. Someone so used to organization is going to have a hard time functioning amidst stacks of papers let alone looking for something new and wild and crazy that will work to the advantage of their job. For those who are already messy, this article serves to give them a bit of comfort about their work habits as they’ve probably been taught otherwise. However, there is such a thing as too much of a mess. In the article, Freedman gives missing deadlines and appointments with clients as examples of going a little too far with disorganization. In my opinion, work clutter is one thing, but a desk covered in old soda cans and snack wrappers is going too far. Unless you’re doing a study based on the nutritional value statistics of a Twinkie, then that wrapper should be thrown away as soon as possible.
Kudos to Mr. Freedman for bringing a new idea to the forefront of work. No longer will I have to worry if my desk is in a bit of disarray. No longer will I worry if all my ink pens aren’t in their little cup, or if I haven’t neatly filed that set of papers that I keep putting off. If you’re already a high functioning organized individual, great! Keep doing what works. But for those of you with a few stacks of things here and there, don’t sweat it. Chances are you’re still on a good work track.