Neatness counts? Not terribly, authors say

Every year, you make the same resolutions. You're going to lose weight and keep the house clean. No more backpacks, coats and shoes strewn across the living-room floor; no beds unmade or socks unmatched.

Not so fast, say Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of the new book A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder (How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-The-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place) (Little, Brown and Co., $25.99).


The authors claim that if you're the type of person who is moderately disorganized -- that is, you tend to scatter things, mix things around, let things pile up, do things out of order, be inconsistent and wing it -- you're probably more efficient, resilient, creative and, in general, more effective than someone who is highly organized.

"The fact of the matter is there are a lot of things to like about being messy that have been hugely ignored," Freedman says in a telephone interview from his home in Boston.


The authors pooh-pooh the notion that they're just slackers trying to justify their own bad habits.

Abrahamson is a professor of management at Columbia University's School of Business who has written an academic paper on the benefits of messiness, and Freedman is a business and science journalist who has written for publications such as The Atlantic and Newsweek. Freedman says their book is based on hundreds of sources, including surveys and numerous interviews with people -- messy and neat.

The book's most compelling argument for the benefits of messiness and disorder is that the conditions save people time and make them more efficient.

"There are people who spend all day keeping things in their places who really wish they had time to do other things," Freedman says. "But they feel obligated to do this."

Freedman blames the media for nonstop messages that clean and organized places are good and messy homes or offices are bad. A major purveyor of that message is Martha Stewart, who offers instructions on organizing everything from spices to wrapping paper.

Freedman says he and Abrahamson found that messiness hasn't always had a bad image. "They didn't even have a word for it until the 19th century," he says.

That changed in Victorian times, when people began to accumulate nice things and wanted to keep them perfectly clean, he says. Then, with the invention of appliances, he says, cleanliness "got really, really out of control."

That led to the growth of today's "professional organizers."


Freedman says these organizers operate on the premise that most people have a lot of "neatening" to do, "a job that requires a big commitment -- expertise, a large block of time and an array of paraphernalia."

"Organizers reassure the clients that they'll ultimately be much happier having gotten rid of their stuff. But is it really true that people won't regret getting rid of some items that are cast out in the name of straightening up?"

Valerie Finholm writes for the Hartford Courant.