Chaos Theory

Thank goodness national Get Organized Month is half over. Scott McLemee takes a look at a new book on the uses of disorder.

January 17, 2007

With some dreams, you don't need to consult Freud to understand the element of wish-fulfilment. A case in point is one that my wife occasionally reports. It doesn't take much interpretation to know that, when she has it, I have been pushing my luck.

In it, she makes a pleasant discovery: Our apartment turns out to have an extra room. Somehow we have overlooked it, all these years. It is large, brightly lit, and completely empty.

In other words: No stacks of magazines and newspapers on any surface. No row of books on the windowsill in the living room, waiting to be shelved whenever I get around to it. No jewel cases for CDs accumulating near the stereo. The well-being of our cats is not menaced by towering piles of JSTOR printouts and photocopies that have been (momentarily!) relocated from my study to the kitchen table for sorting.

That empty room is a refuge. Then she wakes up.

And then it is time to ensure domestic tranquility, by any means necessary. I make a quick, decisive march through the long-deferred process of sorting, purging, filing, and reshelving. But there is always a certain residue of clutter that won't go away -- material that proves resistant to any order I can impose. Hence my technique of "throw it all in a box, then find a place for the box."

Freud might have had something to say about the situation, after all. It sure does feel like a symptom of something.                                       

In part, it's an effect of working at home, in a tiny study. Some of the contents tend to escape, from time to time. Then it's hard to round them back up.

But according to A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman ( just published by Little, Brown), there is more to it than that. A clean desk really does signify an empty mind. "Office messiness tends to increase sharply with increasing education, increasing salary, and increasing experience," they write, based on studies that I am inclined to accept without reservation.


Abrahamson is a professor of management at Columbia University's business school; his co-author is a business and science journalist. Their book belongs to a genre that has become popular in recent years: the pop social-science survey, intended for people who fly business class. Other examples include Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, and Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

In each case, the volume will boil down a few technical papers by economists and psychologists, mix in a bunch of anecdotes and real-life problems, then shape the result into new management wisdom for the business professional. These books are discussed at management retreats. The quality of them varies quite a bit -- but as a genre, they are by no means the worst titles competing for the executive niche market. Reading them is more educational than watching Tom Friedman brutalize an extended metaphor, anyway.

One surprising thing about A Perfect Mess is that it is, in part, a polemic. It takes aim at the working assumptions of a new breed of consultants: the folks who belong to the National Association of Professional Organizers, which had more than 3,000 members as of 2005. (At that point, its membership had doubled over the previous 18 months. Its Web site now claims "close to 4,000 members.")

Thanks to NAPO, January is now Get Organized Month. I am willing to bet that they are also behind the recent appearance of a new kind of reality TV program, in which a team of organizers and designers descend upon a messy home and transform it -- mostly by throwing mounds of stuff away. At least two such shows are now on cable. I have seen a few episodes, and find them terrifying, but that does not represent the opinion of our entire household.

"An entire industry of sorts has sprung up," write Abrahamson and Freedman, "picking up steam over the past decade, to nurture the notion that if only we were more organized with our possessions, time, and resources, we would be more content and successful, and our companies and institutions would be more effective."

A multi-billion dollar market has emerged for videos, seminars, and consultants who "all purvey some variation on the theme of straightening up, rearranging, acquiring highly effective habits, planning your day/week/life, restructuring organizations, and rigidly standardizing processes."

The default setting of this industry's rhetoric tends to be "transformative," as Abrahamson and Freedman put it, "if not miraculous." But it all comes to a set of variations on some fairly obvious points:

"Throw out and give away a bunch of stuff. Put the rest on shelves. Set up a tightly scheduled calender. Repeat.” Also, you should probably buy more wastebaskets."

What is missing from the propaganda of the declutterification movement, according to A Perfect Mess, is any consideration of the costs versus the benefits of organization. (I have attempted to make this argument many times, but never so cogently.)

Simply put, apparent disorder often contains an implicit structure. The traffic of pedestrians on a sidewalk looks like a chaotic swarm, but its flow is more lawful, more organized, than it might look. A degree of randomness in a system can actually have the effect of maximizing its efficiency. Neatness is not a typical feature of the creative process. Cognitive leaps tend to involve a certain amount of scruffy thinking.

"In particular," Abrahamson and Freedman write, "academia is an unrestrained haven of the messy workspace, so much so that faculty and colleges and universities often behave as if they've been told their reputation will grow in direct proportion to piles on and around their desks. One Columbia university professor's office has gradually become so densely packed with towers of papers and books that the school finally assigned him a second office so that students could meet with him in relative comfort and safety. When Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economics professor Robert Fogel found his desk becoming massively piled, he simply installed a second desk behind him that now competes in towering clutter with the first. His colleague at the school, chemist Stephen Berry, recipient of a MacArthur 'genius' grant award, works among a landscape of 18-inch-high piles which have harbored individual documents for as long as two decades."

What to the naked eye looks like a messy desk may, in fact, be "a surprisingly sophisticated informal filing system that offers far more efficiency and flexibility than a filing cabinet could possibly provide," write Abrahamson and Freedman. "Messy desk owners typically, for example, have separate piles for urgent, less-urgent, and non-urgent documents."

A good point, that. But trouble comes when there is no more room for separate piles. They bleed into one another, or start to fall down, or both. By that point, using the desktop to create a new document is kind of impractical.

"As the mess grows, the rate at which the advantages grow tends to slow and eventually trail off," the authors write. "Meanwhile the rate at which the disadvantages accumulate will eventually start to take off...."

Well, you don't say. It's a fine balance you have to keep, then. It's as if there's a "tipping point" to your "perfect mess," almost.

"A formal analysis of any system's multi-dimensionally optimized mess levels would be a formidable task," note Abrahamson and Freedman. "Suffice it to say you're better off just playing around with mess and seeing what happens."

Thanks, guys. Lots of us were doing that already, actually. But it's good to have a thoughtful account of why it is a good idea. That is why A Perfect Mess will be assigned reading for clients attending seminars on my "throw everything in a box" technique.


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