Ask yourself what am I doing that’s leading to levels of messiness that bother me or make me feel guilty. Understanding why you feel guilty is typically understanding that you or someone in your family greatly overemphasizes order. The mother-in-law with the white glove. Or those architecture magazines with those minimalist apartments.
Those decor magazines stand in for our ideal somehow.
Yes. These big, white beautiful planes with nothing on them. Once I read an article and the architect who had made this kind of apartment actually had two apartments. The one where he lived and the one in the picture. Of course.
What if two people are wildly different when it comes to mess?
You have a demilitarized zone. Your messy office. Your messy purse. My wife’s purse – she’s pretty orderly but I knock her by looking in her purse. There’s stuff growing there. It’s chaos. But she’ll root through and find pliers or a jackhammer. It works for her and everything’s in there.
Or agreeing that there’s one area in the house we’ll keep orderly because sometimes people judge you by how disorderly you are. So one room, where we entertain. Or the cooking area. It’s more like a militarized zone.
Even if it’s more onerous on the orderly person to keep it orderly, at least it’s understood if they want the nice living room the messy person will try, and what they can’t do, the orderly person – since it’s more important to them – will. Maybe it doesn’t need to be orderly all the time. Maybe it needs the capacity to be orderly when you’re having people over.
Some people are anxious when it’s messy. There’s something called “tolerance for ambiguity.” Some people have a low tolerance and messiness creates ambiguity. Aesthetically, what they see bothers them. We respect that but we don’t mandate it. It can become the messy person is the bad person and the orderly person is the godly person. It’s not your personality. It may be your work schedule. You drop things on the couch because you’re tired after working too much. So you’re messy because you work too much. Maybe you think, “When I retire I’ll line up the paper clips.”
Or not! There are so many more fun things in life to do than be orderly.
When we interviewed professional organizers the question of why is it good to be orderly, many of them said, “It is, it saves time.” And we said, “It takes time, so how do you know you’re saving time?” They had thought about it so little. They were just acting on this belief you can trace historically about why order is good.
You poke holes in the field of strategic planning. Can the Marines slogan “Plan early. Plan twice” inform regular folks at home?
A plan is sort of a blinder. You are so focused on what you’re going to do, you miss opportunities. Improvisation isn’t the absence of planning. It’s that the cycle between planning and action is very short. You plan, you act. If something pops up, you plan, you act. You don’t stick to your old plan.
You do add some order to the various kinds of mess. There’s spatial mess, which sounds familiar. What’s time mess?
My wife and I are similar on spatial messiness, but on time messiness.… When we had young kids and we went to Disney World, she’d want to hit the gate at such-and-such a time, then dash because a certain ride gets busy.… I was more like, “Let’s see when we wake up, we’ll meander there. We may find that It’s a Small World After all drives us crazy. Let’s not spend a lot of time there.” Neither system being very good because left to my devices we’d be waiting in line for three hours.
How did you compromise?
We have a good relationship and we poke fun at each other. We bring it out in the open. I said, “You’re right. If we follow my Disney plan, we will be waiting for hours because we didn’t get there early when the lines were short. But at a certain point we should go off-plan, I’m hitting a Disney forced march. Let’s just sit and see what doesn’t have a big line.” We’re able to adjust organically.
This interview has been condensed and edited.