We live in an age that shuns clutter. Cleanup guru Marie Kondo’s manifesto for ridding yourself of anything that doesn’t bring you joy, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, has spent almost 100 weeks on the New York Times how-to best-seller list. We hate clutter at the office, too. A 2012 survey by hiring firm Adecco found that 57 percent of workers judge colleagues by the state of their desk, and according to a 2011 CareerBuilder survey, almost a third of employers are less likely to promote people with a disorganized workspace.
I keep a messy desk. So when Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (Riverhead Books, $28), by Tim Harford, landed on top of my somewhat precarious book pyramid—next to my yoga towel, behind a disposable coffee cup—I hoped it would help justify my surroundings. And it does, kind of.
Harford, who wrote the 2005 best-seller The Undercover Economist, has an expansive definition of “mess.” He writes that “the success we admire is often built on messy foundations” and highlights the virtue of improvisation over a plan: Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t use prepared remarks for the “dream” portion of his “I Have a Dream” speech. Harford describes the power of lateral thinking—musician Brian Eno, for example, uses a card game called Oblique Strategies to help performers break creative blocks. And sometimes, he refers to those things that don’t bring us joy.
Whether your piles are good or bad isn’t the issue, Harford writes. His thesis is that there’s no intrinsic value in being neat. A pile of papers on a desk isn’t a random mess; it’s a logical one. The papers you touch the most end up on top. They’re “full of clues about recent patterns of working,” he says. If clean is de facto better than chaos, how do you explain that some of history’s greatest minds labored in their own disarray? Albert Einstein, Alexander Fleming, and Abraham Lincoln were slobs, and all they gave us was the theory of relativity, penicillin, and America. (The subtitle of Messy is too strong. Disorder in the service of preserving the union is one thing. Disorder so I can procrastinate among dried-out pens, books I’ll never read, and snack wrappers is another.)
What matters, Harford says, is that you get to choose how to surround yourself, because that’s what leads to the most happiness. He cites a study in which researchers at the University of Exeter created four office environments that varied in degrees of austerity and autonomy. Workers showed greater productivity in the space with more rather than less stuff, but the most productive environment was the one that gave employees control: They got 30 percent more done than those in the uncluttered space and 15 percent more than people in the office filled with plants and photos. People toiling away without any control over their surroundings not only hated their job, office, and company but also complained of physical discomfort, such as feeling too warm.
The appeal of Kondo’s decluttering method is that it provides an organizing principle. But it turns out the path to success doesn’t have to be so organized. For now, I’m going to leave my yoga towel where it is and assume my bosses are enlightened enough to promote me.