Summary of 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

Perfect Mess – mess is good for you

Perfect Mess – mess is good for you

A clutter-free environment can cost you
The inefficiency of tidiness. In praise of mess. Why keeping tidy can be bad feng shui. Tidiness and order are so ordinary. The new maximalism means messy home.

This book may not change people’s lives unless they tend towards being messy. Clutter, untidiness and hoarding, are not bad habits, the authors argue, but often more sensible than meticulous planning, storage and purging of possessions.

That is because being tidy is more costly
An improvised storage system (important papers close to the keyboard on your desk, the rest haphazardly distributed in loosely related piles on every flat surface possible) takes very little time to manage. Filing every bit of paper in precise colour-coded categories and a system of cross-referencing, will certainly take longer and will not save time.

The authors of this book search the furthest reaches of psychologymanagement studiesbiology, music and art (art depends on mess; remember Tracy Emin’s messy bed) and physics to show why a bit of disorder is good for you. Mainly, it creates much more room for coincidence and synchronicity or luck if you like. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin because he was notoriously untidy, and didn’t clean a petri dish, thus allowing fungal spores to get to work on bacteria.

Smart people are messy
It will be difficult to convince your mum, but research confirms that if you’re messy, it might mean that you’re smart. Researchers at the University of Minnesota conducted a study that explained that if you are not tidy, it simply means that your brain is occupied with more important matters. As if that was not enough, the conclusion of the scientists is that a somewhat messy environment inspires greater creativity.

Albert Einstein said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, what then is an empty desk?” 

And Einstein makes a good role model here not simply because he is so widely accepted as having been highly effective at his job, but also because he might be regarded as a sort of the godfather of the science of useful mess. When Robert Fogel, Nobel laureate found his desk becoming massively piled, he simply installed a second desk behind him that now competes in towering clutter with the first. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why it makes perfect sense to keep a messy desk. Thought and work are unpredictable, varying and ambiguous – they are messy. Why shouldn’t your desk be messy too?

America’s professional organisers, a thriving and lucrative cult of tidiness coaches, are merchants of guilt, not productivity boosters

Benjamin Franklin, an early advocate for the highly effective, advised, “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.” Franklin practised what he preached, assiduously avoiding, for example, the time-wasting habit of interacting with his wife and son for much of his life.

Considering how little evidence the pros layout to support the claim that being organised is worth the effort, the world seems to put a lot of energy into fretting about being messy

5 hidden benefits of disorder:
+ invention
+ flexibility
+ inclusiveness
+ robustness
+ efficiency

People tend to worry about cluttered homes too much and often for no good reason (unless they’re into feng shui rigid rules). A mess is often in the eye of the beholder. The key insight of the book is that disorganisation is a human condition. Also messiness according to the book can confer six key benefits: flexibility, completeness, resonance, invention, efficiency and robustness. To reap the benefits try being a little messier in some way, and see if there’s an improvement in the above qualities. If there is, try a little more.

Albert Einstein's cluttered desk

Albert Einstein’s cluttered desk

A messy home library is better than an organised one

I’ve learned that disorganised home library is better from Susan Norman, my colleague and co-developer of Spd Rdng System. Before I met Susan, my library was quite organised. Books on psychology were in one place/shelf, books on philosophy were in one place and books on NLP were in one place and so on – you get the picture. When I’ve met Susan I noticed that her home library was all over the place – thousands of books were everywhere without any specific order or grouping. Susan explained that it is on purpose so when she works on a project and is looking for a book, she’d find other books that might inspire her or give her a different point of view. The randomness of her book collection was to increase invention, flexibility, inclusiveness, robustness, efficiency (i-fire). We’ve had many librarians on our speed reading courses and they confirm that a messy, disorganised home library is better than organised one. I’m sure Albert Einstein would agree, as well as Steve Jobs below.

Steve Jobs messy library

Steve Jobs’ messy library

The book has two weaknesses

Firstly, it overstates the case for tidiness in some environments—surgery, a dinner table or income tax returns—is overwhelming. Secondly, the book is a bit repetitive and disorganised. Even readers who love mess in their own lives don’t necessarily like it in others.

The book doesn’t mention feng shui, but it reminded me of a story William Spear (feng shui teacher) once told me. He was looking for a best Chinese restaurant in a particular area and thought that if he could walk behind all the restaurants and look at the kitchens, this would help him to decide where to eat. After the careful inspection, he found one where the kitchen was very orderly, clean and everyone was focused and working in harmony – he went there to have dinner, and it was the worst Chinese he has ever had!

The most important organising tool for your home is a magnet!

One useful tip I picked up from the book. In seconds it will convert your fridge into a messy, invaluable repository of photographs, essential bills, shopping lists, stamps, business cards, paper cuttings, etc.

This book has the potential to free you, from the myth that clutter is bad feng shui and restore the yin and yang balance (where it’s all good) and common sense in the world of order. It is a must-read for every feng shui consultant, interior designer and anyone who is a perfectionist. 

Messy How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World by Tim Harford is another book that talks about the mess and comes with the warning: this book will mess up your life and in the process help you become more creative and resilient as the title suggests.

But if you want to declutter your home, workplace and your life find out about Danshari – The Ultimate Decluttering Discipline from Japan

Or if you want to know what clutter represents read this blog What Your Clutter Is Trying to Tell You: Uncover the Message in the Mess and Reclaim Your Life by Kerri Richardson

Get 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


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