The psychological benefits of giving up on cleaning and embracing the mess

Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
Image: Unsplash/CC 0
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

We keep trying to tidy up. We declutter our closets, organize our schedules, carefully file our email, and meticulously plan our vacations.

As an economist, I think this is a mistake. I appreciate a tidy kitchen as much as the next person—that magazine-shoot minimalism, with clean lines of spruce and steel, looks terrific. But what works in the kitchen may not work in your email inbox. Sometimes, we place too much faith in the idea that if something looks well-organized, then we’ve got our lives under control.

It’s all too easy to fall into this trap. Many of us feel embarrassed about our cluttered desks, for example, assuming that they are an externalization of our internal chaos. Yet emptying your desk may, ironically, clutter your mind more than ever. All those tasks—read that book, reply to that letter, pay that bill—still exist. But lacking physical reminders that you trust, you may be forced to rely on your subconscious to remind you of all these incomplete tasks. Your subconscious will do a pretty good job of that: it will remind you every few minutes. An empty desk can mean an anxious mind.

Nor are empty-deskers necessarily better organized in their work lives. In 2001, Steve Whittaker and Julia Hirschberg, then researchers at AT&T Labs, studied the behavior (pdf) of “filers”, who scrupulously file away their paperwork, and “pilers” who let it accumulate on their desk and any other convenient horizontal surface.

To their surprise, the researchers discovered that the “filers” accumulated bloated archives full of useless chaff. Whittaker has a term for this: “premature filing.” That’s what happens when we take a new document and promptly file it in a fit of tidy-mindedness before we really understand what it means, how it fits into our ongoing commitments, and whether we need to keep it at all. The result: duplicate folders, folders within folders, folders holding just a single document, and filing cabinets that serve as highly-structured trash cans.

Then an office move tormented the filers that Whittaker and Hirschberg were studying. Obliged to discard some of their precious paperwork, the filers found they had become attached to it. One of them compared the process of choosing paperwork to shred to “casting off your first-born.” Remember that these were coffee-stained corporate memos of no particular value—sentimental or otherwise. People valued them although they were useless, because they’d spent such a lot of time getting them organized.

Meanwhile, the “pilers” flourished. They were much more likely to throw paperwork away—after all, it was in plain sight on their desks—and when they did file something, they were more likely to understand it. Paradoxically, the messy workers had lean, practical and well-used archives. Their organizational system was messy, but it worked.

It’s possible to over-structure your life in other ways, too. As the psychologist Marc Wittman told Quartz in August, a partly or wholly unplanned holiday tends to feel longer and fuller than a holiday in which every decision has been made in advance. Critical decisions have to be made in the moment, which means you pay more attention to what’s happening and have richer memories after the fact. But to carry out Wittman’s advice, of course, means letting go and taking a risk. Switching off autopilot always carries an element of danger. That’s why it works.

The musician, composer and producer Brian Eno embraces randomness in the recording studio for a similar reason. “The enemy of creative work is boredom, actually,” he told me. “And the friend is alertness. Now I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds.”

This messy approach to living has delivered more than a few memorable holidays for Eno—he’s had celebrated collaborations with everyone from U2 and Coldplay to David Bowie.

But perhaps you’re not on holiday, and you’re not working on “Heroes.” Isn’t a bit more structure helpful while working through the regularities of everyday life?

Well, yes, it can be. But even then, you can have too much of a good thing. One fascinating study conducted in the early 1980s examined the well-worn question (well-worn amongst productivity geeks that is) of how structured one should make a calendar. Some people think that if you want to get something done, you should block out a time to do it on the calendar. Others think that the calendar should be reserved only for fixed appointments, and that everything else should be a movable feast.

The study, run by the psychologists, Daniel Kirschenbaum, Laura Humphrey and Sheldon Malett explored this question, asked undergraduates to participate in a study-skills course. Some were advised to set out monthly goals and study activities; others were told to plan activities and goals in much more detail, day by day.

The researchers assumed (paywall) that the well-structured daily plans would work better than the rather amorphous monthly plans. But the researchers were wrong: the daily plans were catastrophically demotivating, while the monthly plans worked very nicely. The effect was still in evidence a year later. The likely explanation is that the daily plans simply became derailed by unexpected events. A rigid structure is inherently fragile. Better for both your peace of mind and your productivity to improvise a little more often.

We all need to find our own paths in life, whether it’s a tidy or a messy one. And what works for one situation—or even for one room of the house—may not work everywhere. What is important is that we learn to stop berating ourselves when the mess takes over.

Consider Benjamin Franklin, the publisher, inventor, author and of course, US founding father. Franklin was famously on a self-improvement drive his whole life. But he never managed to conquer the challenge of organizing his office or his diary, and wrote that he was frustrated at his “failure.” But it’s hard to imagine a richer, more successful life than the one he led—with or without the diligent use of a few manila folders.

Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist. His new book is Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (Riverhead).