January – Relax in 2017 – Embrace The Mess

The Economist Tim Harford wrote about embracing the mess in your office in the January issue of Southwest magazine. You can also learn more at timharford.com, and  his book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives.

There are mixed views on this topic. I used to believe in the clean desk ideas and for many years did a pretty good job of it. However, with age I notice my desk seems to get messier and messier. Through the years I have worked with some very brilliant and messy desk people. I have also worked with some messy desk people that were so unorganized that they became ineffective and spent lots of time just looking for papers. The key seems to be to give people lots of authority regarding how they work.

Each person works differently. If you are messy and productive and effective, go ahead, be my guest. But, if your disorganization is slowing you down, time for some new approaches. As for me, here are three approaches that work.

  • First, recognize the power of the alphabet. In my company, all of our reports use the alphabet as an organizational approach. The chapters are arranged that way and the topics within the chapters, the same way. Clients find these easy to read and easy to use to locate areas of interest.
  • Second, try an open rolling file. Use hanging folders and arrange them all alphabetically.
  • Third, for the stacks on your desk, mark a post-it note for each stack with the topic of the stack.

Harford’s writing is so clear I will simply repeat it below:

“British psychologists conducted an experiment where they created two different spaces: one stripped down and minimalist, the other more typical with a potted plant and posters on the wall. Not surprisingly, workers preferred the latter and were more productive. But researchers found it wasn’t so much due to the space – it was the control workers felt they had. With one group, they encouraged workers to arrange everything, but right before they sat down, the researchers rearranged it. If you saw a picture of the space, it still looked fine, but workers resented it. They felt physically uncomfortable, they despised the experimenters and the company, and they got less done.”

What can a messy desk tell us about ourselves?

“There are subtle hints about our behavior in the way things are organized.Take a pile of papers. It seems random, but it’s not. As you work, you pull out one document and stick it on top of the pile, and then the next. Slowly, the good stuff that keeps getting used rises to the top and the less important things sink to the bottom. At some point, you can discard the bottom half. With a filing approach, you store things prematurely and wind up with cabinets of neatly labeled stuff that you can’t really find and don’t really need. You’ve spent a lot of effort to have the appearance of tidiness, but it’s not practical.”

How can tidy people learn to let go and embrace the mess?

“Recognize that life itself is messy. It’s fine to tidy up, but don’t think of mess as some terrible moral failure. It’s just a sign that life is being lived.”

the Management Doctor