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

By David H. Freedman

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Ever since Einstein’s study of Brownian Motion, scientists have understood that a little disorder can actually make systems more effective. But most people still shun disorder-or suffer guilt over the mess they can’t avoid. No longer! With a spectacular array of true stories and case studies of the hidden benefits of mess, A Perfect Mess overturns the accepted wisdom that tight schedules, organization, neatness, and consistency are the keys to success.

Drawing on examples from business, parenting, cooking, the war on terrorism, retail, and even the meteoric career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, coauthors Abrahmson and Freedman demonstrate that moderately messy systems use resources more efficiently, yield better solutions, and are harder to break than neat ones.Applying this idea on scales both large (government, society) and small (desktops, garages), A Perfect Mess uncovers all the ways messiness can trump neatness, and will help you assess the right amount of disorder for any system.

Whether it’s your company’s management plan or your hallway closet that bedevils you, this book will show you why to say yes to mess.



Change Without Pain: How Managers Can Overcome

Initiative Overload, Organizational Chaos, and Employee Burnout


Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines

At Large: The Strange Case of the World's Biggest Internet Invasion,

coauthored with Charles C. Mann,

Brainmakers: How Scientists Are Moving Beyond Computers to

Create a Rival to the Human Brain

For my wife, Valerie, and my children,

Alex and Claire.—EA


For messmasters Laurie, Rachel,

Alex, and Jason.—DHF


There's a spot on Broadway in Manhattan where two magazine stores used to sit across the street from each other. One of the stores featured neat racks of impeccably arranged magazines, any copy of which could be tracked by computer. At the other store, magazines were sometimes scattered about randomly, with Cosmopolitan snuggled up against Fortune; Real Simple alongside Jet; and Smithsonian elbowing Psychotronic. No wonder: Essam, the owner and manager of the messy store, had no computer inventory system to tell him what he sold or which magazines needed restocking. He and his assistant, Zak, operated from memory and straightened up as best they could during quiet periods and at the end of the day.

Not surprisingly, the first store attracted more customers and did a brisker business, selling more magazines than Essam's. Equally unsurprising, only one store remains in business today, the other having been shuttered by losses. But there's a strange punch line: Essam's store is the one still flourishing. He didn't sell as many magazines as his former competitor, but he made more money. The simple reason is that he avoided some of the profit-devouring costs associated with the extra staff his competitor felt it needed to straighten up its racks, as well as the computerized inventory systems it needed to track magazines. Given that profit, not to mention survival, is a reasonable measuring stick of business effectiveness, it's fair to say that any benefits the other store might have accrued by being neater and more organized were outweighed by their associated costs. In other words, one reason Essam's store has been successful is because it's messy.

It's not all that hard to understand how Essam manages to profit, in a sense, from mess. Perhaps it doesn't even seem particularly remarkable once it's pointed out. But suppose that this comparison of the magazine stores isn't merely an interesting curiosity. What if the costs of being neat and well organized often outweigh the benefits? What if being somewhat messy, in a broad sense, is a better deal?

It sounds almost ridiculous to suggest that the world has been ignoring the fairly obvious concept that there's a cost to being neat and organized. You'd think that the first question people and organizations would ask themselves before embarking on an effort to straighten up and muster more order would be: will this be worth what it costs me in time and other resources? After all, the idea that organizing doesn't always pay off would have to come as stunning news to offices that have everything filed away neatly, schools with rigidly detailed curricula and standards, professionals who keep their days tightly scheduled, companies that obsessively spell out management and operational procedures, parents who are constantly fighting clutter, militaries that maintain rigid groupings, and city governments that generate volumes of codes.

In fact, neatness and organization can exact a high price, and it's widely unaccounted for. Or to put it another way, there are often significant cost savings to be had by tolerating a certain level of messiness and disorder. But this book is going to show that the disconnect is even more striking. It's not just that the advantages of being neat and organized are typically outweighed by the costs. As it turns out, the very advantages themselves are often illusory. Though it flies in the face of almost universally accepted wisdom, moderately disorganized people, institutions, and systems frequently turn out to be more efficient, more resilient, more creative, and in general more effective than highly organized ones. Just as the cost of neatness has been ignored, so have the potential benefits of achieving the right level and type of mess. While beneficial disorder may not be the rule, it isn't much of an exception, either.

That messiness and disorder can be so useful wouldn't seem such a counterintuitive notion if it weren't for the bias toward neatness programmed into most of us. Specifically, people tend to ignore the cost of neatness, discount the possibility that messiness can't always be excised no matter how hard it's fought, and distrust the idea that mess can work better than neatness. Neatness for most of us has become an end in and of itself. When people are anxious about their messy homes and offices or their disorganized schedules, it's often not because the messiness and disorder are causing problems, but because people simply assume they should be neater and more organized and feel bad that they aren't.

This notion that mess and disorder might be harmless or even beneficial shouldn't seem such a strange one. But almost every practical exploration of how we can improve our lives, businesses, and societies suggests ways to be either more ordered or differently ordered. Being disordered—and not just less centrally or hierarchically ordered—rarely comes up for consideration. It's time that we take an open-minded look at messiness in all aspects of our lives and institutions, and consider where it might best be celebrated rather than avoided.

The pages ahead compose a representative tour of the underappreciated side of the world of mess and disorder. Among the stops: the messiest house ever; a preschool where toy-smashing is welcome; a hardware shop and a bookstore that thrive on making it hard to find goods; the utterly disorganized life of Arnold Schwarzenegger; a hospital where patients throw pizza parties; the Beethoven symphony that is often played out of tune; the desk mess that led to a Nobel Prize; a restaurant that serves courses out of order; and the U.S. city whose messiness makes it kin to historic Paris. The point of the tour isn't to be comprehensive on the subject of mess and disorder. Hardly; any facet of the subject could easily fill volumes. Rather, the goal is simply to explore and highlight some important truths about disorder that have mostly been overlooked.

You may find that the tour takes some unexpected turns. At least we hope you do.


The Cost of Neatness

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,

of what then, is an empty desk?

—Albert Einstein

Kathy Waddill is telling a standing-room-only house of several hundred rapt professionals, most of whom are taking notes on broad yellow lined pads sheathed in expensive- and complex-looking leather binders, about the deep client discomfort they should be prepared to confront when setting up a first visit over the phone. "'I'm the worst you've ever seen,'" Waddill imitates, her voice husky with emotion before it breaks to a mortified whisper. "'I'm overwhelmed. I'm so embarrassed.'"

After making the appointment, don't call the client later on to confirm it, she cautions her audience, her martial voice back, because he may weaken and cancel. Just show up. Pens flutter in the audience, and many grunt in recognition of past tactical errors. When you're with the client, she continues, you'll be tempted to turn up the lights to get a good look, but resist the urge. It's often more useful and politic to turn the lights down or even off, to get a sense of how things really stand by contemplating them in the dark.

To hear of the delicacy with which these clients must be approached, you might imagine they are cloistered sufferers of disfigurement, exotic neurological tics, or tawdry, addictive passions. But actually they're just messy or at least believe themselves so. Waddill is a professional organizer, here in San Diego to address the annual conference of the National Association of Professional Organizers, or NAPO.

An entire industry of sorts has sprung up, quickly 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 could be more content and successful, and our companies and institutions could be more effective. Take into account the hundreds of books, the vast array of home- and office-organizing aids, the classes and seminars, the software, the television shows, the magazines, and the organizational consultants that 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, and it's easy to see that neatness and order have become a multibillion-dollar business.

NAPO is the pointy tip of the organizing spear—these are people, after all, who do nothing but organize—and represents a high-growth business in its own right. Founded in 1985 with sixteen members, in 2005 NAPO boasted more than three thousand, up from fifteen hundred just eighteen months before. The conference has attracted 825 members, 275 of them for the first time. These figures and many more are effortlessly ticked off by NAPO president Barry Izsak, a pixieish fellow who blows into rooms at racewalking speeds and is given to dramatic rushes of speech sprinkled with sarcastic asides. Izsak is a studied role model for the highly organized. Eschewing the standard convention uniform of Hawaiian shirt and khakis in favor of a neat brown suit, when interviewed he takes notes on his own responses, offers a document containing precomposed answers to a range of anticipated questions, and, eyeing his interviewer's flimsy, narrow, reporter's notebook with a wince, urges a replacement from an array of more sophisticated writing tools he keeps on hand, including a laptop computer and the sort of handsomely encased broad yellow lined pad that apparently is to the professional organizer what a utility belt is to Batman. But Izsak, a former operator of a pet-sitting service, admits that like many professional organizers he must still constantly fight disorganized tendencies in himself—and almost immediately demonstrates this by discovering, after much shuffling through binders, that he has misplaced his notes for the keynote speech he is about to deliver.

NAPO is not only getting larger, it is also growing in influence and cachet. Professional organizers used to migrate to the field disproportionately from the ranks of teachers, secretaries, and other relatively low-paying careers, notes Izsak. Now, he says, former lawyers and MBA-packing executives are as likely to be jumping in, with incomes for successful organizers climbing into six figures. But even if the average annual income for a NAPO member were only, say, $35,000, then NAPO organizers alone (not all organizers join) would be bringing in a combined $100 million a year. Their clients, of course, are spending much more than that to get organized, since a typical get-organized treatment involves purchasing a number of ancillary organizational products and sometimes requires a complete makeover of a room or section of a home or office, in some cases all the way through heavy construction. The magnitude of these sorts of outlays has not been lost on office- and home-product vendors such as Pendaflex, Smead, Rubbermaid, and Lillian Vernon, all of which are paying sponsors of the NAPO conference. NAPO has also been able to gain significant attention for Get Organized Month (January), a recent upgrade of its successful Get Organized Week.

The NAPO conference is not what an outsider might expect. Most of the lectures, panels, and shoptalk aren't about organizing per se but, rather, about the marketing of organizing skills. The problem, it seems, is not that there aren't enough people in need of organizing. Quite the contrary. As one conference panelist puts it, "Way more people need our help than there are organizers on the planet to help them." Still, there are real challenges, including getting on potential clients' radar screens and convincing them to fork over anywhere from $200 for a bare-bones "assessment" up to thousands of dollars for a thorough organizational working over. But perhaps the biggest obstacle to signing clients—one that comes up prominently in almost all the conference speakers' spiels—is the deep shame that people feel over what they regard as their messy, disorganized homes, offices, and lives. That is, people are too ashamed to even let professional organizers know how big their disorganization problems are.

Fortunately, there's plenty of advice at the conference for getting the messy to suck it up and summon the professional help they desperately need. One panelist advises organizers to point out that not only is the potential client's future happiness and success on the line, but so are those of her children, who after all will take their parents' organizational habits, or lack thereof, as a model. Another warns organizers against turning up their noses at seemingly limited cries for help, such as the ever-popular "I want to reclaim my dining room table." When the organizer gets to the house and surveys the mess on the table, he will easily be able to link it to systemic problems that will require a larger organizing effort, inevitably including the coveted assignment of straightening out the garage.

The names that organizers give to their companies, speeches, and services—"Chaos to Calm," "Oh, So Organized!," "Realizing Dreams through Organization and Productivity," and so forth—suggest the transformative, if not the miraculous. "We change people's lives," says Izsak. "You can write that down." But when it comes to the question of how organizers are actually supposed to go about effecting these changes, the drill tends to be surprisingly simplistic. Successful organizers all seem to operate on catchy variations of what boils down to this very basic advice: Throw out and give away a bunch of stuff. Put the rest on shelves. Set up a tightly scheduled calendar. Repeat. Many organizers freely admit there isn't much more to organizing than that. Waddill, a big draw at the conference with her brash, intimate stage presence, featuring sarcastic mimicry of hapless clients, makes a sort of comedy routine of it. "The client has boxes piled up against the wall," she tells the audience, "and I say, 'A shelving unit gives you the same pile, but you can pull any box out when you need it.' They say, 'Oh, wow!' I say, 'Maybe there's so much paper on the floor because you don't have a wastepaper basket in here.' They think I'm the smartest person in the world. Sometimes it feels like shooting fish in a barrel. But that's why we get the big bucks." The audience laughs and nods enthusiastically, and the last two lines, delivered as a sly, conspiratorial stage whisper, leave Waddill awash in seismic ovation.

Clients seem to eat it up, too—enough to support some forty specialties within professional organizing. There are organizers at the conference who focus on organizing homes, others on offices, and some on organizing relationships. (As one organizer puts it, "People can be clutter, too.") There are Christian organizers here, organizers of the "chronically disorganized" (more on this later, but don't worry—you probably don't qualify), and a few who bill themselves as organizing "all aspects of life." One organizer presents a long talk on the ins and outs of disposing of old documents. (Don't flush them down a toilet where city workers might identify them; don't use them as lining for pet cages; and don't burn them in the sink—though an outdoor bonfire can be cathartic, as long as you poke through the ashes to make sure there are no big pieces left.) Linda Rothschild, an organizer to the rich and famous, is said to be routinely summoned to the estates of the likes of Julia Roberts. Rothschild looks the part, bringing a dash of hipness and glamour to a conference where they are in short supply. She was born to organize, she explains. By the time she was eight, she had cross-indexed her collection of 45 RPM records. "I get more done between 5:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. than most people get done in the whole day," she says, conceding that not having children helps in that regard. "We organizers are a group of recovering perfectionists," she adds.

Not easily found at the conference, though, is an answer to the basic question: what's the evidence that being neat and organized is worth the trouble? Not once, in dozens of conversations, speeches, and panel appearances, does an organizer broach the subject of costs versus benefits.

A few scattered comments vaguely address the benefits side. One organizer, for example, shares with her audience the goal she dangles in front of potential clients who are considering reorganizing their kitchen. "You should be able to cook a meal from one spot, without having to move around the kitchen a lot," she says. (Just think of the calories you'll avoid burning.) Several organizers pronounce that the average person spends an hour a day looking for things. But no one seems to know where this figure came from. The claim does, however, appear in many variations in organizers' brochures and Web sites—executives spend an hour a day looking for papers in their office; parents spend an hour a day looking for items in the home; and so on. One organizer specializing in time management promises to reduce time-wasting problems like perfectionism—all you have to do is take his four-week course on time management.

Something a little more substantive comes from the ebullient Sharon Mann, who is not a professional organizer but rather a sort of spokesperson for Pendaflex, here at the conference to captain the filing-system company's exhibit booth. Sharon has achieved minor celebrity in the world of office organization by fronting the hundred-thousand-member "I Hate Filing Club" on the company's Web site. The site claims that eight minutes of organizing activity per day returns eight hours of time savings per month. Once you get past the somewhat transparent device of mixing per-day and per-month time frames, you end up with the less-impressive-sounding claim that you need to spend three hours per month to get back eight hours per month. Here are some of the ways the Web site advises investing those three hours:

1. Use colored labels on your files, and cut filing time in half.

2. Given that there are thirty-seven hours of unfinished work on the average desk at any one time, buy "filing solution" products and get the work off your desk.

3. Buy a quality label maker like Dymo's LabelWriter 330 Turbo to print your file labels, because 72 percent of people who print file labels end up wasting time wrestling with jammed or stuck labels in printers.

Let's take these in order:

1. Because whatever information a colored label might convey could also be conveyed with a word, the most time that a colored label could save you is whatever time you save by glancing at a color rather than reading a word, perhaps a half second for very slow readers. If you spend three hours a day filing, then saving a half second per label examined will save you one and a half hours, or half your time, only if you examine the labels of 10,800 files in those three hours—in other words, if you spend just about all your time examining file labels. One could imagine unusual situations where a color scheme might save several minutes at a shot, as, for example, if there were a need to find the only green-coded file in a vast sea of red-coded files, or if the entire population of yellow-coded files had to be pulled. But since most filing work involves not just looking at file labels but examining the contents of files, doing things with the contents of files, walking to and from filing cabinets, and creating new files, the time saved with colored labels will be just a tiny portion of the total filing work. This will come as a relief to the roughly 8 percent of people who are color blind.

2. This advice seems meant to imply that you have saved yourself thirty-seven hours of work by clearing your desk. But if you have thirty-seven hours of unfinished work, and the work then gets filed, don't you end up with thirty-seven hours of unfinished work that is now hidden away in files instead of at hand on your desk? Plus, you've spent a chunk of time filing it, not to mention the time spent purchasing filing-solution products.

3. Other research indicates that 0 percent of people who don't bother printing labels for their files spend a single minute wrestling with jammed or stuck file labels.

Izsak says he can prove organizing pays off with a little demonstration he likes to throw into his presentations. In this demonstration he takes two decks of cards, one shuffled and one ordered by suit and rank, and gives each to a different person. He then calls out the names of four cards and has the two decK-holders race to find the cards. Naturally, the person with the ordered deck always wins handily.

But who puts the neat deck in order? A little experimenting with people of modest card dexterity shows that on average it takes 140 seconds to order a deck, plus another 16 seconds to find four cards in the ordered deck for a total of 156 seconds; it takes about 35 seconds to find four cards in an unsorted deck. One could argue that you only have to order the deck once, and then you can find cards more quickly many times. But in that case, you also need to account for the time it takes to replace the four cards in an ordered deck, about 16 seconds—with cards, as with most things in life, it requires repeated effort to maintain order—compared to the fraction of a second it takes to stick four cards anywhere in an unordered deck. Thus, with a preordered deck, it takes 32 seconds to find and replace four cards, versus 36 seconds with a shuffled deck, giving the preordered deck a 4-second advantage. But since it requires 140 seconds to order the deck, taking that trouble wouldn't pay off unless you need to repeat the task at least thirty-five times, and you're meticulous about maintaining the deck's order between each attempt. In real life, decks tend to get shuffled sooner or later, requiring 140 seconds each time to restore order.

Indeed, organizers freely admit that ongoing maintenance is critical to being organized, and many concede that most clients they organize fail to stick with the program and lapse back into disorder. But that's okay—you just need to have the organizer come back every so often to get back on track. Rothschild tells of one client who had her come to her home twice a month for six years before Rothschild finally suggested that the relationship wasn't working out.

When asked how they determine whether a potential client is likely to get more out of organizing than she puts into it, professional organizers at the conference respond that they don't make that determination; they just provide clients with whatever help they're looking for. Aside from the fact that this answer leaves unexplained the need for all those deft marketing techniques aimed at hesitant clients, it seems surprising that professional organizers have no more rules about when it's appropriate to provide their services than do tattoo artists. Fewer rules, actually, since organizers happily work with children—some even specialize in it.

Perhaps this is why so many panelists and speakers at the conference address the apparently widespread problem of professional organizers harboring doubts about their value. "You yourself have to believe you're worth the price," one organizer says to a crowd, winning loud and grateful applause.

Mess Stress

Considering how little evidence the pros lay out to support the claim that being organized is worth the effort, the world seems to put a lot of energy into fretting about being messy. The determination to get more organized routinely shows up in lists of popular New Year's resolutions—NAPO didn't randomly pick January as Get Organized Month—suggesting that for many people, being more orderly feels nearly as important as getting healthy, having a satisfying career, being financially sound, and maintaining rewarding relationships.

There's plenty of anecdotal information to suggest that most people worry about neatness and organization. They feel they are too disorganized and messy, or seem so to significant others, or that their workplaces are dysfunctional with excessive messiness or disorderliness. Many of the people interviewed for this book have powerful childhood memories related to neatness or messiness. Among the most common: fear related to a parent's anger at the disturbing of a museum-like living room; contentment in being surrounded by a sea of toys; enchantment at the jammed, disorganized, mysterious trove in an attic or basement. (And that's not even going into the thicket of associations with toilet training and table manners.) You might think there's a clue there as to how to create a child-friendly home, but the holders of these memories, now parents themselves, confess to struggling to keep their homes pristine and their children's toys sorted and shelved, and are frustrated and anxious when they inevitably fall short. Meanwhile, coming home from workplaces closely defined by rules, processes, and hierarchies at which they bristle, they are annoyed at their children's failure to behave predictably.

The unpleasant feeling that each of us should be more organized, better organized, or differently organized seems nearly ubiquitous. And when people brush up against someone else's style of neatness and organization, they become irritated at even small mismatches, casting themselves as Oscar Madisons and Felix Ungers. Or even as Charles Mansons: A man in Neenah, Wisconsin, was so upset over his fourteen-year-old son's failure to keep the house neat that he shot the boy, paralyzing him from the neck down. And a twelve-year-old girl in New York City fatally stabbed her mother during an argument over the girl's messy bedroom.

But this is all anecdotal observation. There isn't much research out there to show whether concerns about mess and disorganization are really running roughshod over our psyches. So a survey of 260 people was conducted for this book. (It wasn't formally randomized but included a fairly broad cross section of Americans.) According to the results, fully two-thirds of the respondents feel guilt or shame about their messiness or disorderliness. And no wonder: 59 percent say they think "somewhat less" or "the worst" of someone who is messy and disorganized, while 70 percent think more of someone who is neat and organized. Seventy-nine percent say they would be more satisfied with their lives outside work if they were neater and more organized, and 60 percent say they feel pressure to keep their space at work neat. Two-thirds believe they would be more successful if they were neater and more organized. Eighty-eight percent think their employers would benefit from being more organized or differently organized. Could their organizations benefit even just a little from being less organized? Ninety-three percent didn't see it. Interestingly, though, few appear to be losing the infamous hour a day, at work or at home, locating items. Respondents reported spending an average of just under nine minutes at work and just over nine minutes at home looking for things.

Following is a sampling of comments from the survey and from interviews:


On Sale
Jan 3, 2007
Page Count
336 pages

Eric Abrahamson

About the Author

Eric Abrahamson is a professor of management at Columbia University’s School of Business, and author of Change Without Pain.

David H. Freedman is the author of three books, and is a business and science journalist who has written for The Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, and Wired, among others. Abrahamson lives in New York, and Freedman in Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author

David H. Freedman

About the Author

David H. Freedman (www.freedman.com) is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine. His articles on science, business and technology have appeared in theAtlantic, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Science, Wired, and many other publications.

His previous book (coauthored) is A Perfect Mess, about the useful role of disorder in daily life, business and science. He is also the author of books about the U.S. Marines, computer crime, and artificial intelligence. Freedman casts a critical eye on headline health news at his blog, Making Sense of Medicine.

Learn more about this author