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The Perfect Mess

The Perfect Mess
The Perfect Mess

In an interview with Michael McLaughlin published in The New Writer’s Handbook (2007), Eric Abrahamson, co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, says

Your mess is perfect when it reaches the point at which, if you spent any more or any less time organizing, you would become inefficient.

When we see a perfectly clean, organized office, with it’s sleek glass-topped desk and a white MacBook centered perfectly atop the desk’s vast emptiness, we might find it cold, sterile, oppressive even. It’s not a coincidence that the Death Star’s halls are clean, white — and cold!

On the flip side, when we see an office with a desk buried under mountains of paperwork, with trash bins overflowing and computer cables snaking haphazardly across the room, we often find it overwhelming, disgusting even — and rarely think well of its owner!

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For most of us, there’s a “sweet spot”, somewhere between the Death Star and the garbage dump, where everything we need (and nothing we don’t) is close at hand, where the minimal amount of work yields the maximum gain. Where that sweet spot is will, naturally, be different for each of us — and finding it is often made difficult by confusing clutter with messy perfection, or by confusing laziness with efficiency.

The Oppression of Organization

Too much organization, especially for creative people, can be stifling. One reason is that organization often stems not from our particular workspace needs but from moral and social judgments imposed on us (and internalized) externally. That is, we feel the need to organize to meet social standards that may not have anything to do with our own needs.

Messiness in Western society is associated with a lot of negative things. Clutter, disorder, messiness is associated with dirt, disease, and filth. Messiness is considered inhuman, uncivilized — remember Mom telling you your room was a “pig sty”?

It’s also associated with laziness, the greatest of sins in a Western mindset guided by the Protestant work ethic. While we might feel that our work takes priority over cleaning up, there’s a part of us that will always feel that we should be doing it all — that not cleaning up is a sign of sloth, no matter how much other work we’re getting done in the meantime.

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Messiness is also a class issue. Middle-class reformers have always advocated lives of zen-like simplicity to their working-class charges. (In the 1910’s and ’20s, they would set up model homes in poor tenements showing workers and immigrants how a “proper” home should be kept — plain furniture, no curtains, open cupboards, hardwood floors, and bare walls were the norm, in contrast to the mish-mash of overstuffed furniture, cheap posters and wall calendars, heavy curtains, and multiple rugs the immigrants and workers preferred.) Wealthy people look down on the nouveau riche who stuff their homes with Baroque furniture, Persian rugs, and glod-trimmed everything. Non-clutter is the foundation of Apple’s success — among well-off, professional, upper-middle-class social elites (and their emulators).

But there’s a cost for this kind of neatness, a point of diminishing returns beyond which more time spent organizing and cleaning means less time spent getting work done. This is especially true when workers (and I’m including the work of family, home life, and hobbies here as well as the work we do for our jobs) “borrow” systems that are advocated by professionals as “gospel” but do not truly reflect the individual’s working life or personality. As it happens, a great many highly organized people are no more able — and even less able — to find the things they need, when they need them, than the chronically messy.

The Cluttered Mind

On the other hand, keeping up some kind of order is not without value. As every craftsperson knows, tools and supplies that are tossed around haphazardly become broken or damaged, which means they aren’t able to do their work even when they can find their equipment. Spending time looking for some item you need right now is no fun, and surely inefficient.

Messiness can also indicate underlying psychological blocks. People who refuse to clean up after themselves or to put things “in their place” might well be acting out retained resistances to an overbearing parent or schoolteacher whose daily involvement in their lives is long past. Or they may be using their mess as an excuse to not get things done — because they don’t know what to do with themselves if they finish. Or they may act out of the unconscious fear that if they got everything in order, they’d have to start dealing with more troubling aspects of their lives.

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And messiness can be anti-social. Having a messy office can keep you from working well with others, even if you have no trouble working in it. Having a messy home can prevent you from inviting others into it — or others from accepting such invitations. Our mess can become a barrier to — or, in some cases, insulation from — interacting with the rest of the world.

Making the Perfect Mess

The trick, then, is to find the balance point between too much organization and too little. Where, exactly, that balancing point is will differ for each person, depending on their personality, their career, their family life, who they interact with, and a variety of other factors. There are, though, a few questions you can ask yourself to figure out where that balance point is for you and what kind of work you might need to do to reach it. You might want to think them through a few times for different contexts (e.g. office, kitchen, living area, garage/toolshed, etc.)

  • What are your organizing strengths? What do you do extremely well? Are there areas where you’re very organized, maybe related to a hobby or other specific activity? For instance, I play guitar, and all my musical equipment is always in one of two places, everything gets put back when I’m done, everything is well-maintained.
  • What are your organizing weaknesses? In what part of your life are you always scrambling? What activities are the least efficient for you? In my case, I’m a bad filer — there’s something in me that says I can only file when I’m done with something, so if there’s a chance I might use it, it needs to stay out.
  • What do you like most about whatever space you’re thinking of?
  • What do you like least about that space?
  • How would you feel if the space was completely clean? How would you feel if it were in complete disarray
  • What three things do you regularly need that you can’t find?
  • What could you do to make those three things more findable?
  • What in your life do you have no problem finding? What is it that you always put back in an assigned place, or always know where it is even if it’s in a cluttered place? What is it about that thing or those things that make knowing its/their whereabouts important to you?
  • What are the first three things you would clean if you knew an employer or client would be visiting you tomorrow?
  • What piece of cleaning have you been putting off for a while? Why do you think you’ve resisted cleaning up just that one area?
  • What are the tools you always need to have within arm’s reach?
  • What else is within arm’s reach that you rarely or never use?
  • How would you describe your space to someone you’d hired to help you get organized?
  • How would you organize your space if you had been hired to organize it?

Like I said, there are no right or wrong answers, here. The idea is to help you find that comfortable medium, where the things you need are at hand and the things you don’t need are out of the way but still findable. I think most of us spend a lot of energy maintaining a “mental map” of our space, and I strongly believe in “off-loading” some of that work to well-designed systems — but there’s no use in doing that if you end up spending the same amount of mental energy maintaining your mental map of how the system works!

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Instead, if you can figure out the “sweet spot”, you can focus on “nudging” your system back towards it. This is far preferable to the kind of worry and anxiety the prospect of a “clean sweep” can create in us. Don’t, however, confuse comfort with effectiveness — we humans can get used to just about anything (there are people who mentally collapse when removed from prison, hostage situations, even concentration camps!) but that doesn’t mean that it’s the most effective way for us to live.

Take some time to ask — and answer — the hard questions to produce an organizational system that works most effectively for you. That means that it does the most it can do with the least amount of energy — both in physical labor and in mental anguish.

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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