Thursday, February 15, 2007

LNB #037: Messy, the New Neat (organization & productivity)

Neatness makes my head hurt. Really. Turn on the TV and you can see show after show wherein an "organizer" will show up and begin the military march towards organization. Too many nick knacks? They've gotta go? Old paintings that remind you of a former, more creative time? History. What I initially found so unnerving is how they would whisk the home or business owner out of the scene of the crime and then, when they returned, they would have a beautiful new space...and be left there to try to get something done based on what someone else thought was workable.

Jeremy Caplan, in Time magazine article "Messy is the New Neat" says is plainly: "neatness is overrated."

I once had an organizer attach herself to me at a gathering. She asked me about the piles and clutter which, according to her, must be busying-up my space. Didn't have any. Then she went to work, peppering me with questions about where I may be accumulating "stuff" I didn't need. Finally, after several interminable minutes, she pounced: "Icons! Your clutter is in your computer!"

Rather than asking me if what I was doing worked, she started with the assumption that it simply couldn't...and then began offering her services to me in earnest. I found myself blinking at her over my raised soda and lime, trying to remember the quickest way to get my coat and head to the door.

Truth is, I've been a neatness Nazi with my husband, Garland: I just didn't like how he worked. In an early fit of newlywed togetherness, I'd insisted that we share a home office. That lasted about 2 months before his piles of stuff began their blob-like trek towards my shrinking corner of the room. That stuff was alive, I swear it.

On the other hand, I'd been the training partner of another consultant, Rick. He was notorious for only working on one thing at a time and having only those things he needed immediately on his desk. We despised him. Fast forward and there I was, eyeing Garland's stuff like it was a disease.

Looking with an eye towards workability, Garland's way of working works for him, just as my desktop full of icons works for me and Rick's polished desk worked for him.

Where did we get it that there was one way to organize? Peering into Garland's office, there is a logic to the piles that take up every corner of his space. He's crammed in his electric train run, tools, a bookcase that's full, two desks, a file cabinet and then there's the closet. He seems to defy my every attempt to straighten it up, but talks about "getting it together" almost every day.

It's just how he works.

There was a time when organization was considered a sign of an organized, disciplined mind. Clutter on the desk: clutter in the mind. Not so. Moderate mess is an indicator of nothing important about a person's character. Note: I said moderate. I'd been asked to help a woman from my hometown with a criminally messy house (yes, the police were involved) -- it wasn't safe for her or her small children and was an unfortunate sign of a serious mental condition. We threw most of what she owned away (it was all irretrievably soiled). That's something altogether different...and frightening.

People don't think the same way and they don't organize the same way. Me? I think in parallel, keeping several projects going at one time. Others, like Garland or Rick, may keep several things out, but only work on one at a time.

Caplan talks about effectiveness and how well people perform. Banish, the article suggests, the two hours a day straightening up. Use that time, instead, to be with family or advance your business or career. Authors Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman point to an example of serendipitous dot-connecting through paper desk clutter that lead to a Nobel prize winning scientist seeing a connection between cells and hormones. Their 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 touts the benefits of relaxing schedules, foregoing compulsive filing, making friends with laptop clutter and, generally making peace with clutter.

I'm not a fan of one size clothing or solutions. If you love to straighten and it energizes you, allowing you time to think problems through in new ways -- have at it. If it becomes one more thing on your "to do" list, consider dropping it.

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