Embrace the mess: New book argues chaos and clutter have hidden benefits

Tim Harford, author of 'Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives'

WASHINGTON — Have a messy desk your boss is always bugging you to tidy up?

Put down the file organizer. The piles of clutter may actually lead to that breakthrough you’ve been waiting for.

At least that’s according to British economist and journalist Tim Harford, whose new book “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives,” argues that chaos makes us more creative and that unexpected disruptions can help fuel new ideas.

The book draws on examples from history and popular culture to everyday life. For example, Harford cites a study that examined how commuters coped after a worker strike shut down London’s subway system.

“What economists found after examining the aftereffects of the strike is that many of the commuters who had been forced to find new routes to work, stuck with their new routes,” Harford told WTOP. “They actually liked the routes that they’d discovered.”

Everyday “shocks” like these “can actually help us find different solutions,” he said.

It’s very easy to get stuck in our everyday routines and habits, which can stunt our creativity. For the book, Harford interviewed music producer and composer Brian Eno, who has worked with U2, Coldplay and David Bowie among many others.

“What Eno told me was that he would systematically try to disrupt the working patterns of the musicians he was working with,” Harford said. At the time, the musicians hated the break in their routine. But they would later acknowledge it made the music better.

Still, there is a place for order and organization, Harford said.

“If you’re a librarian, you need to know where your books are,” he said. “If you’re a surgeon, you need to know where your scalpels are, where your instruments are. So, it’s about finding the appropriate time and place. But the argument of messy is that we often don’t judge that very well. We often value the superficial appearance of organization, where actually we’re not really coping with the situation at all.”

Take email, for example.

Some people insist on intricate systems of organization and files and no stray unread messages cluttering up their inboxes.

But the research suggests you’d probably be better off just going with the flow, Harford said.

“We have great data on this — studies of people trying to find emails — and it turns out, if you’re trying to find your email, you shouldn’t bother with a complex folder structure; you should just use the search bar,” he said. “The structure of the email is inherently messy, and your organizational attempts won’t get on top of it. You just shrug your shoulders and use the search facility instead. It works much better.”

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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