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?”
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.