In Praise Of (A Little) Mess: Be (A Little) Scruffy

At Unclutterer, we know that getting started on an organization project can be a difficult task — especially when your home or office are in complete disarray. Since we believe in baby steps, we wanted to present a guest post from someone who has found that a little mess is still better than a lot of mess, and that striving for perfection may not be necessary (at least not immediately). Thank you, Stowe Boyd, for once again sharing your valuable insights with us!

I am not a naturally organized person. Left to my own devices, I think I might have become a truly obsessively messy type. As it is, I have adopted some of the tools of being organized — like task lists, and well-honed scheduling for meetings and calls — but I am definitely a bit scruffy compared to most.

I use the term scruffy not just for a poetic turn of phrase, but in its application as a scientific term among those who study human organization, pro and con.

[from A Perfect Mess, by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman]

What is it in your office environment that helps you figure our how to pick up where you left off or to being a new task, when you’re interrupted, leave the office, or finish a task? “Neats,” he’s [researcher David Kirsch] found, depend on a small number of “explicit coordinating structures” such as lists, day planners, and in-boxes to quickly and surely determine what to do next. Scruffies, on the other hand, are “data driven” — that is they don’t explicitly plan out and specify what they do but instead rely on the office environment to give them clues and prompts, in the form of documents lying on the desk, files piled up on top of the filing cabinet, comments scribbled on envelopes, Post-it notes (which , surprisingly, many Neats disdain) stuck here and there, books left open on the floor, and so forth.

Kirsch and others have shown that Scruffies do overestimate their ability to keep track of things in the physical world as a means of structuring work, but they have also demonstrated that Scruffies gain a significant amount of traction from this approach, anyway. Perhaps most important, Kirsch states that different folks work better in ‘different work landscapes:

“People shape their environment over time until it conforms to the way they are comfortable working, even if it seems out of control to someone else.”

Worst of all, trying to make Scruffies into Neats won’t work, and will just make them less productive. They will just end up disorganized anyway.

So, organizations may want to be somewhat more tolerant of (slightly) cluttered desks than they generally are. Many companies have an explicit clean desk policy that simply doesn’t take into account the brain/desk landscape relationship of Scruffies.

The Iowa-based First Federal Bankshares posted their policy on the web:

Work areas should be kept neat and orderly. The Company must always look its best. Just as we are judged by our personal appearance, so is the Company. Good housekeeping makes it easier to organize your work, prevents loss of items, and provides a professional appearance. Excessive display of personal items is unprofessional. Supervisors and managers are expected to maintain a professional appearance in their department and stores, and they may request that you remove items if they detract from a professional appearance. In addition, they may require you to clean or straighten your work area.

The implication is clear: a well-ordered desk leads to better work habits. Or else.

Let’s be clear: I am not advocating McDonald’s wrappers under the desk, or a White Snake poster in the cubicle. But leaving your active work open on your desk when you leave for the day — three folders, a manual, a stack of reports on the corner of desk, and post it notes hanging off your PC monitor — could save an hour of time the next morning. Every morning. And trying to force Scruffies to be Neats just won’t work.

Some of this is driven by senior executives who have assistants to keep their desktops empty, and some of it is motivated by a misplaced overemphasis on empty desks as a good in their own right, independent of actual functionality.

Many extremely productive people rely on a messy work landscape. Looking at the desk of a busy scientific genius, it’s clear that the piles of papers and books that fill the surface give a pretty good indication of what an Einstein has been working on recently.

Albert Einstein has been considered the patron saint of useful messiness, and once stated “The cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind; what does an empty desk sign?”

Einstein’s Desk

You might say that a messy desk is fine if you are a Da Vinci, but the average guy isn’t a Da Vinci, and without genius you need structure to compensate.

The evidence suggests otherwise. There is a psychological division in the world, and all the hypothetical benefits of an uncluttered desk simply don’t play if you are a Scruffy.

There are many other benefits of (a little) mess, not the least of which is that the novelty of looking up from our task lists periodically, and scanning the real world for new inputs can enliven a hidebound agenda of work, work, work.

Kevin Kelly perhaps takes this thinking to new extremes in his writings on what he calls the “Network Economy” — this new era we live and work in. The gist is that the old measures of personal productivity don’t really matter as much as they once did, as we move away from industrial age notions of work and efficiency, and when the major challenge is not really doing many things but choosing the right thing to do:

Productivity, however, is exactly the wrong thing to care about in the new economy.

The problem with trying to measure productivity is that it measures only how well people can do the wrong jobs. Any job that can be measured for productivity probably should be eliminated from the list of jobs that people do.

In the coming era, doing the exactly right next thing is far more fruitful than doing the same thing twice.

I think that Einstein would have thought a (slightly) messy desk can play a structural role in helping people decide what is the next right thing to do given all the things you might do. Well, at least if you are a Scruffy, anyway.

And what about places like First Federal Bankshares? Increasingly, the sort of work being done in places where clean desks prevail is being automated, so people won’t be processing banking reports, or processing claims, or any of the myriad office jobs of the past. As Kevin Kelly puts it:

Productivity is for machines. If you can measure it, robots should do it.

Perhaps he goes a hair too far into a glistening future, but we shouldn’t accept the premise that invention, insight, and imagination are less important than and somehow disconnected from the tangible landscape of our work, either. We have to accept a (little) disorder in the world, if only for inspiration; and for Scruffies, a smidge of disorder is like a signpost, pointing the way forward.

Signpost image from alisdair.

15 Comments for “In Praise Of (A Little) Mess: Be (A Little) Scruffy”

  1. posted by Alex Fayle on

    I’m all for a little mess, especially when it helps the people work better. With my clients I always called it ordered chaos – in that if their personality thrives on chaos (as mine does) then to make sure they are getting things done that need to get done, we put a simple order to the types of chaos happening.

    No Professional Organizer (often the target of the ‘Neats’ label) worth their salt would ever try to make a ‘Scruffy’ into a ‘Neat’ because the system would never work.

    In fact, I usually talked my clients out of aiming for perfect because perfect never lasts. Functional or good enough is usually just that – good enough. You don’t need any more.

    People who need organizing are the ones whose lives are disrupted by the clutter and the lack of things done. Everyone else, no matter what the state of their desk can keep on keeping on. No one’s going to force them to change. Nor would we want to!

    Great post as always!

  2. posted by philip on

    Makes me feel better about my desk, I have a few items scattered about that are projects I still have open and working on. I do attempt to once a week clear as much as I can from my desk.

    I have also started using a white board to track what else needs done, that allows me to remove that item off my desk without losing track of progress.

    Great article though

  3. posted by [email protected] on

    Refreshing! I have known many brilliant people that had nothing on their desk and many that are absolute a mess. It is a different take and I like it, plus I feel much less guilty about my mess!

  4. posted by Lauren - on

    There’s something to be said for a messy office from the view of a client. It creates a bad impression and what’s worse is sometimes people don’t clean up because they don’t consider it to be a part of their job. Yes, there are janitorial services at most buildings but employees should all help out occasionally. It shouldn’t be beneath anyone to help the office look professional instead of slovenly. Great article.

  5. posted by Shanel Yang on

    We all have different tolerance levels for clutter. For some the threshold is quite high (like one of my sisters who loved the fact that there wasn’t an inch of clean space on her bedroom floor while we were growing up), and for others it’s pretty low. My spaces are usually clutter free. (Perhaps as a reaction to my sister?)

    But, it sounds like what you’re describing as a little mess (“three folders, a manual, a stack of reports on the corner of desk, and post it notes hanging off your PC monitor”) is not really a mess at all. I worked in law offices for over 10 years, and that’s as good as it gets! Okay, there was one neatfreak who actually had nothing on his huge desk surface besides a telephone. No blotter, no photo, no nothing! He even polished his desk regularly! But, he was only there part time.

    As for those memos ordering employees keep their work areas squeaky clean, we got those all the time but no one paid any attention to them and no one enforced them. Probably because some of the worst offenders were partners! I agree that you have to leave out the stuff you’re actually working on. But, the trick is to completely put away all the stuff you’re not working before you can’t tell the difference. And, that kind of clutter is a real waste of time. I suspect Einstein’s huge stack of papers is all stuff he’s working on. My desk looked like that, too, whenever I worked on a document-intensive case and stayed that way for weeks till I got through those stacks.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  6. posted by ClickerTrainer on

    Wow Einstein’s desk doesn’t look all that messy. I’ve worked with folks who have a lot worse.

    I’m in between. I have stuff on my desk – toys for people to fiddle with when they talk to me, whatever 3 or 4 projects I’m working on, and a file organizer with everything else. Moderation is the key, neither too messy nor OCD neat. If your desk has only two things on it, IMHO you need a hobby.

  7. posted by Ann - One Bag Nation on

    I loved this post for so many reasons!

    I started my blog because as a natural Scruffy aspiring to become a Neat, most of the advice I found was from natural Neats. I thought that a little empathy and advice from the trenches might be useful – and I use my blog to keep me accountable.

    On the subject of productivity: as a nation, we’re obsessed, no doubt about it! For some folks, productivity is about the destination, never the journey; it’s about checking something off the list and moving on.

    I don’t know about the new economy, but I do know that it’s hard (for me) to be productive without joy. I love the idea that productivity only measures the wrong jobs. I’m searching to find work I love, where focus and productivity (for lack of a better word) come naturally.

    While I’ll never be a natural Neat, I’m working hard to clear some physical and mental space and make more room for serenity and joy.

  8. posted by Jen C on

    I had one VP who judged your preformance based on how messy your desk was. No mess? You obviously were slacking and not contributing. You want a good review, toss some paper around. He must have thought I was a paragon.

  9. posted by Min on

    I think the key here is the difference between a “working” desk and a “messy” desk. Work isn’t a mess, it is necessary. A mess is just unproductive clutter that should’ve been put away, to allow room to work!

  10. posted by Kat on

    While in school we had an interm president who was an OCD neat freak. He wanted our studio spaces clean all the time and would leave notes around asking us to clear off our desks, so it would look good to prespective students. Considering it was an architectural school and we made models, drew, sketched, painted, etc at all times, we couldn’t have cleared off desks. If I walked into an architectural school as a prespective student and saw nothing on the desks, I would never attend there.

    I love the term Scruffy.

  11. posted by Meghan on

    Ah, so I’m a scruffy! It all makes sense now! It does help me to write down to-do lists, mostly because I may not have any visual cues if the project was just given to me verbally. Although I tend to write my to dos all over scraps of paper, and my to do list notebook is full of random non-work related information I just thought of.

    I work in a design studio/office – and everyone’s work area is covered with design reference, papers, fabric, measuring tape, pins, etc. Luckily my company has no clean desk policy! They also let us wear flip flops! Yay!

  12. posted by Pat on

    “The implication is clear: a well-ordered desk leads to better work habits. Or else.”

    I’m pretty sure the real point of that paragraph, and the policy behind it, is that BANK clients do *not* want to see a piles of random scraps of paper on the desks at their financial services institution, or even lots of action figures in funny poses.

    It’s comfortingly eccentric in Einstein’s office, and we can imagine him accidentally leaving the paper with the word “gravity” next to the one with “Reimann geometry” and AHA!

    If the main job of First Financial Bankshares was, say, putting out new episodes of The Simpsons or something, I’d say right on.

    But nope, not at my bank, and I’m temperamentally Scruffy as all hell. That’s what I pay ’em for: to be Neats ‘cuz I’m not! I don’t want happy accidents, or any instances “where did we put his cashier’s check that we have to send to the consulate?” It don’t matter if that stuff is really automated, and all the paper is just scrap. It puts out an image that is damaging to a company whose entire basis rests on whether clients trust them to not make mistakes with their money.

  13. posted by Sara on

    I’m not into messes, but I do enjoy the satisfaction that comes from cleaning up small messes. It’s not like having some laundry out at home or some papers out at work is really going to throw you into a productivity tailspin. And well, if that’s the case, you’ve got bigger problems than being neat. 🙂

  14. posted by Becca on

    Thank you for this post… it helps to know that I’m a Scruffy, not just a defective Neat. I usually have a lot of projects going on at once, which is pretty obvious by the state of my desk. Hopefully now I’ll be better at minimizing clutter, instead of eliminating it completely (because I just don’t work that way).

  15. posted by Clean Desk = Sick Mind « Lizr128’s Blog on

    […] He seems to have just Neat and Scruffy.) Trying to change behavior doesn’t help. The website Unclutterer says, “Worst of all, trying to make Scruffies into Neats won’t work, and will just make them […]

Comments are closed.