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(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Good news: Living with messiness has its benefits Add to ...

There’s a chance that buried in that cluttered family room is a shiny silver lining: What if you could benefit from letting it go for while?

As Eric Abrahamson and his co-author David H. Freedman outline in their book A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, many of us spend so much time trying to control mess, we’re using our time inefficiently, making bad decisions and even threatening our relationships.

DIRTY WORK: A SIX-PART SERIES

They found that 80 per cent of people who were living with someone said the differences over mess and disorganization were a source of tension, and one in 12 people cited strife over mess as a factor in their separation, breakup or divorce. So instead of genuflecting at the altar of cleanliness, maybe more of us could pause and appreciate our messes as symbols of time well-spent.

We spoke to Eric Abrahamson in New York.

So, do you have an out for us messy types?

There’s an optimal level of mess and disorder. Since people think order is good they tend to overinvest in it. If you spend 20 hours cleaning up your desk, are you going to get 20 hours back of greater efficiency? If you don’t, maybe you only spend five hours and you get it to a decent state and that’s when you’re going to get a return. In one study we found that people with more orderly desks actually spend more time looking for things.

That seems counterintuitive. Yet comforting.

They file everything, then their files are more complex than their mental structures so they can’t find things because which of the files did I put that in? Even if they’re indexed, you can only index on one dimension – subject, timing, author, for instance. Most objects we file have 5, 10, 100 dimensions. In a mess you can find things you weren’t expecting to find.

Is it often a battle between a messy person and a neat person?

I trailed a personal organizer on a call to a messy woman’s home. For me the place was messy, but it was not Collyer-brothers-level messy. We went and looked at her husband’s closet. She was maybe at a 6 in terms of order; I expected him to be at a 10. We opened his closet and I would say he was at a 7. I realized that the strife is relative, not absolute. You can have a slob arguing with a super-slob. Or you can have an absolutely anally-compulsive person arguing with an obsessive-compulsive person. The argument will be the same. The more profound question is how orderly do you need to be?

What’s the solution?

A lot of attempts to get organized fail because they’re given by orderly people. There’s a benefit to letting a mess pile up and dealing with it all at once. You might pile a bunch of stuff in your garage. Once in a while, when the garage gets full, you spend an intense period putting things away. You get what’s called returns-to-scale. Cleaning up a big mess once is more efficient than avoiding a big mess by taking little steps repeatedly.

Do any messy people have any good advice?

I’ve found techniques to get more organized. Certain types of books I just knock off my desk and they fall on the floor in one spot. So I know that if I put a shelf there, they’ll fall off and fall on the shelf. That’s advice for a messy person.

So a garage full of stuff, a desk filled with papers – we shouldn’t feel so bad?

We’re all assaulted with too much of everything. We get too many ideas, bits of information, too much e-mail. Messes on our computer. Too many possessions, too many options. And we have limited capacity and time to absorb that stuff. If we spent all our time organizing it we would get nothing done.

Sometimes it’s better to take everything that’s in your garage and light it on fire because of the actual time you’re going to take and the money you’re going to save.

How can people decide which things to let go? It has to be clean.

We’re not advocating being a complete slob – like letting things grow in your living room because old food has mutated. It’s realizing that if one is busy, one is not going to have infinite time to create order. Maybe you want one room where you can entertain people: “We don’t have to line up the paper clips. We understand why the living room gets messy – I happen to work there or we’re really tired when we come in so we drop stuff there.” Maybe there’s a dropping receptacle you can have. Something you can actually do in the long run.

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.

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.

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