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Messiness Has Hidden Benefits

Aug 17, 2007
Mess. Clutter. Disorder. We've all learned that these are bad. We should avoid them at all costs. Children's rooms should not have toys all around them. Office desks need to be organized and not too personalized. Lawns need to be well groomed to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood.

Who decided this? Is it really better to be organized and structured than to have free flow and flexibility?

In "A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder", Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman describe a number of benefits of mess. Those people with stacked desks may actually have a better system of prioritizing than those with tickler files and folders. They've gotten used to where the higher priority items are located and easily locate them.

People who vary their easy-to-change habits can break out of habit webs that make it difficult for them to be creative. Going home a different route or getting ready for work in a different sequence are examples of habits that could be varied.

Noise can be a form of mess. Phone communication has always had the challenge of sounds on the line. With the improvement of cell phones, background noise was eliminated to the point that the quiet was actually a problem. They now add background noise to cell phones and call it comfort noise. It is a comfort to people to hear some background noise so that they know they are connected. It also disguises voice echoes that show up when there is no background noise. Frederic Bourget, Senior Product Manager of Octasic Corporation created the CN, comfort noise.

According to Abrahamson and Freedman, there are specifically six key benefits to messiness:

FLEXIBILITY:

With messy systems, change can occur more easily in a wider variety of ways than the more rigid neat systems. Neatness does not respond well to changing demands and unexpected events.

COMPLETENESS:

Messy systems tend to keep more of the diversity of elements. Neat systems often eliminate useful and even critical elements.

RESONANCE:

Mess contributes to having a system harmonize with its environment, receiving helpful information. Neatness can insulate a system from environmental cues.

INVENTION:

Mess allows system elements to more randomly move about, leading to new solutions. Neatness can limit novel and unexpected elements to be present. Chefs often prefer to work in the midst of a spread of ingredients and tools in order to come up with new food combinations and techniques.

EFFICIENCY:

Messy systems can accomplish goals using fewer resources and can often have the support of those in the outside world. Being neat keeps the burden of the work trapped in the system and requires constant use of resources.

ROBUSTNESS:

Because mess loosely weaves various elements, messy systems can be more resistant6 to destruction, failure, and imitation. Neat systems can have very definite strong and weak points, causing them to be brittle, easily disrupted, and copied.

Did you ever think there could be so many advantages to being messy?

Just as with so many things in life, there just isn't an easy answer to what is the best way to organize. You can see that productivity is not dependent on one method.
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