- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007

A PERFECT MESS: THE HIDDEN BENEFITS OF DISORDER — HOW CRAMMED CLOSETS, CLUTTERED OFFICES, AND ON-THE-FLY PLANNING MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

By Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman

Little, Brown, $25.99, 328 pages

A few weeks ago, my wife and I purged our apartment. We donated extra furniture and clothes to Goodwill and threw out mountains of old files and bills — all with grand visions dancing in our heads. Maybe our modest one-bedroom apartment would start to feel like a two-bedroom. Maybe the absence of clutter would allow us to save some time — say, two weeks a year. That’s how long the average American looks for items like car keys, or so we had heard. Maybe, just maybe, we would lead more efficient, creative and productive lives.

Or maybe not. In a surprisingly entertaining book, Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman make a compelling case for why cluttered spaces and systems are not only tolerable but actually preferable to hyper-organized ones. “A Perfect Mess” subverts the conventional wisdom (it seems so logical, how could it not be true?) that clutter-free homes and offices are the gateway to success and happiness.

A multibillion-dollar industry has blossomed around this apparently misguided premise. Americans spend $2 billion a year just on closet renovations alone, according to the authoritative source for such statistics, Closets magazine. And membership in the National Association of Professional Organizers — yes, there is such a thing — doubled in an 18-month period ending in 2005. The association recently declared January “Get Organized Month.”

Perhaps there’s no better moment to emulate Benjamin Franklin, who exhorted his fellow colonists to “lose no time” and “be always employed in something useful” — one of the 13 virtues he adopted at the tender age of 20. Precocious, yes, but Franklin is no role model, write Mr. Abrahamson and Mr. Freedman: “Franklin practiced what he preached, assiduously avoiding, for example, the time-wasting habit of interacting with his wife and son for much of his life.”

Sometimes snide and always counterintuitive, “A Perfect Mess” pulls no punches in its takedown of the professional organizing industry. Mr. Abrahamson is a professor of management at Columbia University’s business school; Mr. Freedman is contributing editor at Inc. magazine. Together they have made a potentially dull subject not just engaging but a sheer delight.

They uncovered an array of engaging anecdotes that reveal how messiness, not cleanliness, is next to godliness. Take, for instance, Alexander Fleming. In August 1928, Fleming went on vacation and left behind, in a state of disarray, his bacteriological lab in London’s St. Mary’s Hospital.

When he returned, Fleming “was sorting through the clutter when he noticed that a small, ragged circle of mold had invaded one of the petri dish bacterial cultures,” write the authors. “The staphylococci in the culture seemed to steer clear of the mold, describing a sort of bacteria-free moat. Intrigued, Fleming dragged a dish under the microscope and discovered penicillin.”

Years later, a group of scientists took Fleming on a tour of their spotless lab and asked what sort of discoveries the esteemed scientist might have made in such a pristine workplace. “Not penicillin,” Fleming replied.

Fleming’s kindred soul, at least when it came to clutter, was Albert Einstein. (It was Einstein who famously said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk?”) In 1905, along with his papers about the theory of relativity and the equation E = mc2, Einstein published an explanation for a phenomenon that had vexed scientists for some time. When they observed tiny grains of pollen in a drop of water under a microscope, the grains moved around.

Einstein argued that matter is made of molecules, and that molecules bounce around randomly in water. So a piece of grain in water would occasionally be struck on one side by a disproportionate number of molecules. And so the grain would move. Brownian motion, as this phenomenon became known, has helped explain how financial markets and genes work, and even how the galaxies were formed.

As Einstein was busy exposing nature’s inherent disorder at the dawn of the 20th century, others were heralding the merits of organization. Melvil Dewey created a system to categorize books; Edwin Seibels invented the filing cabinet; Frederick Taylor studied steel workers at the Bethlehem Steel Company in Pittsburgh with the intention of eliminating the “awkward, inefficient, or ill-directed movements of men” and streamlining productivity.

One of Taylor’s acolytes, Frank Gilbreth, decided to raise his 12 children according to his mentor’s principles. For insight into the absurdities that ensued (all 12 were trained to assemble within six seconds after dad blew a whistle), watch the hit 1950 movie inspired by the true story, “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

“As managers, homemakers, and just about everyone else were becoming increasingly determined throughout much of the twentieth century to bring more order to every facet of their lives and environments, an enormous body of evidence was accumulating in the scientific community to support the claim that not only is disorder integral to the fabric of nature, but adding more of it can sometimes improve things,” write Mr. Abrahamson and Mr. Freedman.

Consider the mundane example of a messy desk. It takes time to file papers away and even more time to retrieve them from a filing cabinet, argue the authors. In searching for a particular document on a messy desk, they contend, it’s possible to find others that may help with a particular task or inspire a new idea. Indeed, a survey conducted by a professional staffing firm showed that “office messiness tends to increase sharply with increasing education, increasing salary, and increasing experience.” (No word yet if children with messy rooms are bound for the Ivy League.)

And what of that two weeks each year that Americans spend looking for things — a statistic that helped spur my wife and I to purge? The authors conducted a survey of 260 Americans for the book and found a much different number. Respondents reported searching for items about 18 minutes a day, or about four-and-a-half days a year. Significant, yes, but not quite as overwhelming as the reported two-week figure.

Consider also the attempts by larger organizations to impose order on their disparate parts. Bill Starbuck, a New York University professor, argues that the strategic planning companies do can, in fact, be harmful. Not only can it lock them into potentially negative strategies, but it also prevents them from taking advantage of opportunities the markets present along the way.

To be sure, Mr. Abrahamson and Mr. Freedman do not advocate unchecked messiness: “It’s obvious that a certain level of mess becomes dysfunctional … We’re not anarchists calling for the dissolution of national government, social order, and organizations. Burying oneself in extraneous clutter and operating without rhyme or reason quickly becomes paralyzing.”

To wit, New York City firefighters in December 2003 twice rescued residents trapped by clutter in their houses; one was pinned for days behind piles of magazines and books.

There is no harm, however, in relaxing a little and letting a few papers pile up on the dining room table, the authors say. And therein lies my one criticism of “A Perfect Mess.” Mr. Abrahamson and Mr. Freedman do make an argument for the aesthetics of clutter: James Joyce’s “Ulysses” derives its power from its dense and “convoluted” plot; Bach was an “irrepressible improviser” who embellished at length on the organ during church services.

But ever since my wife and I purged our apartment, it actually does look nicer. Seems bigger, too. The magazines and newspapers that used to crowd our coffee table generated some sort of discord within us, as if we internalized the external mess. That discord is now gone. Minimalism and organization do have aesthetic merit, I would argue.

My cubicle at work — now that’s a different story altogether.

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