Online exclusive

A messy desk can breed success

New book offers vindication for workers who flourish in disorderly settings

  • Share
For all those office workers who've been chided or mocked for your messy desks, you can finally claim victory.

A new book, "A Perfect Mess," argues messiness and disorder have benefits, contrary to conventional wisdom that an orderly anything -- from clean desks to an organized closet to a tidy living room -- is a key to success and efficiency.

Authors Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman use examples from business, retail, music and even the war on terror to demonstrate that moderately messy systems can breed creativity and productivity.

"Really, the argument is not to be a slob," says Abrahamson, a professor of management at Columbia Business School, Columbia University. "The basic argument is people tend to overvalue order because they rarely look at the cost of generating that order."

For instance, Abrahamson argues people who spend thousands of dollars hiring professional organizers to create order often relapse.

And consider this example from my own office life: I have a fairly organized and neat desk, yet I still spend considerable time looking for files.

In fact, the authors found that people who claim to have clean desks still spend time looking for things.

"What it highlights is not only that messy people look for things, but it's orderly people finding things in their well-organized systems," Abrahamson says.

All of this is vindication for Joyce Muller, associate vice president for communications and marketing at McDaniel College.

Visitors to Muller's office can barely see her behind stacks of books, files, papers and other stuff.

Her disorder is not a challenge but rather a stimulus for her creativity. She says she works on multiple projects at a time and needs all things related to the work on her desk.

"I'm a multi-tasker. If you put it away, you have to pull it out again," Muller says. "There's been times when I've cleaned my desk, but it doesn't stay that way."

On most days, Ellie Geiman's desk is completely covered by stacks of files, too. Geiman is McDaniel College's associate director of financial aid.

What may look like chaos to outsiders is complete order for Geiman.

"Right now, I have four, five or six stacks on my desk," she says. "One is important papers; one is a project that needs to be done first thing Monday morning; and another one is a stack [of files where] I'm expecting families to call me; and one is a stack of new files that need my attention."

At times, colleagues or others wonder out loud about how she can find anything, but "I know exactly where everything is," Geiman says.

"My mind is organized," she says.

Send your stories, tips and questions to working@baltsun.com. Please include your first name and your city.

Subscribe to Hanah Cho's podcast
  • Share
Baltimore's top properties for August [Pictures]

Baltimore's top properties for August

Find out where Baltimore's most expensive homes on the market are and how much they are worth. Here's a list of most pricey new properties...

Pictures: Ins and outs of the new iPhones and Apple Watch

Ins and outs of the new iPhones and Apple Watch

Everything you need to know about Apple's new products and gadgets.

Which stores have recently opened or closed in the Baltimore region?

Which stores have recently opened or closed in Baltimore?

Keep up with the latest news about store openings and closings in the Baltimore area.

Baltimore's 100 Top Workplaces

Baltimore's 100 Top Workplaces

The Baltimore Sun proudly presents Baltimore's Top Workplaces, listing the region's top companies based on confidential surveys of their...

PHOTO GALLERIES