Review: A Perfect Mess

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or business/entrepreneurship book of interest.

a perfect messOver the last several years, I’ve worked very hard to become more and more organized with my stuff. I used to have a very difficult time finding things that I needed when I needed them and I also had some degree of difficulty effectively managing my time. Thankfully, over the last few years, I’ve really managed to conquer both of these. I feel incredibly productive on an average day now and I rarely have trouble finding the things that I need.

Yet with all this organization, I find that there are simply some things where organization gets in the way. The best example I can think of is brainstorming. When I go to the library, I find lots of books and articles worth reading. I often photocopy interesting passages there. At home, I often jot down notes from things that I observe as well as tearing articles out of magazines as I read them.

This ends up being something of a pile of ideas. And what I’ve found is that this pile of ideas is much more effective if it’s chaotic. If I try to order it, I get fewer ideas out of that pile. On the other hand, if I just let it be, tossing new stuff on there in a haphazard fashion, it starts to click. Then I just set aside some time each week for brainstorming, where I grab articles from that pile at random, read what I’ve highlighted, flip through personal finance books, and so on. This chaos generates ideas – things that would not have normally associated themselves together sometimes become linked because of this mess.

Frankly, sometimes it’s better to have disorder. And that’s the idea behind A Perfect Mess by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. They argue that there is often a significant benefit in productivity, creativity, resilience, and profit in allowing a certain level of messiness and they offer a ton of advice in finding that balance.

1. The Cost of Neatness
Abrahamson and Freedman open the book by arguing that there is a significant cost to neatness, one that is often not repaid by the benefits of neatness. One particular example they use is that of an ordered pack of playing cards, used in essence to represent a filing system. If you need to retrieve four specific cards from a pack of playing cards, it will be much easier to find them from a pack that’s organized by suit and rank than from a pack that’s in random order. However, there’s a very large up front cost in actually organizing the cards into order. Plus, there’s also a time cost in refiling – when you have to return the four cards, you have to put them back in the right place in the ordered deck, whereas with the unordered deck, you can throw them in wherever (or perhaps right at the front, because you’re likely to need certain files more often than others). They argue that the time cost of the initial filing plus the time cost of refiling doesn’t add up to equal the net benefit of being able to pull out a particular card a bit more quickly.

2. A Mess Sampler
Here, several areas of messiness are surveyed: desks, lawns, corporate planning, and noisy phone calls are discussed in detail. They conclude from these surveys that there is an inherent cultural bias towards neatness, but that this cultural bias might not be beneficial at all in many situations. I particularly liked the argument about lawns – it struck a note with my green sensibilities. Imagine a suburban neighborhood where everyone keeps their lawn immaculate with regular mowing, fertilizers, and seeding that damages the soil over the long term but keeps a gorgeous lawn in the short term. Then, imagine one house that’s “green” and would rather that their lawn become natural prairie than the well-fertilized beasts around them. Guess who’s considered the outcast?

3. The History of Mess
Something of a history of organization follows, covering in detail many historical movements. In particular, Frederick Winslow Taylor is discussed – he was a business analyst in the late 19th and early 20th century who wrote the very influential book Principles of Scientific Management, which argued strongly on behalf of time organization and regimentation within the workplace. In short, they seem to conclude that the pro-organization and anti-mess philosophy of today largely comes from principles that work in narrow situations that came to be applied and accepted in a far broader sense than they were originally intended.

4. The Benefits of Mess
Abrahamson and Freedman offer tons of examples of how messiness is actually beneficial in various methods of life, piling together a ton of anecdotes that make a lot of sense. One example that particularly stood out to me was that of Harvey’s, a small-town hardware store that basically just crams stuff on the shelves and effectively relies on personal observations of customers and employees to know when to restock. The whole store comes off as chaotic and unorganized, but because of the arrangement, they save money on organization (there’s no real need for more organized stocking) and on sales per square feet (because there’s so much jammed in there, customers walk by more items on their way to and from their intended purchase, increasing impulse buying opportunities).

5. Messy People
The authors address the idea that people are messy in very different ways, some healthy and some not so healthy. The crux of their argument here seems to be that there’s a happy medium point that’s effective – one can easily be too messy, while people can also become completely obsessed with organization. Most of the examples show this conflict – people tend to be successful with some degree of disorganization in their life, but are distracted by too much messiness or too much obsession with neatness.

6. Messy Homes
My mother was a firm believer in the idea of “dirty floors and happy kids,” meaning that it was more important to build a strong relationship with your children than it was to keep a perfectly clean house. I tend to believe in the same thing – you’re better off playing out in the yard with your children than scrubbing in the corner with a toothbrush. The authors go even further here, suggesting that most disorganization in the home is merely a sign of being lived in – why have a spotless garage if your kids don’t have a place to put their baseball gloves?

7. Mess and Organizations
If the last several years have taught us anything in the technology sector, it’s that large, traditional, top-down organizations don’t innovate nearly as well as seemingly chaotic little startups. Why is that? In smaller organizations, there’s more opportunity for people to interact from different parts of the organization – the CEO might have an office next door to most of the coding team and they interact several times daily. That type of interaction – and thus “messiness” of ideas – doesn’t happen in larger organizations. Again, there are some limits to this – this works well for a team of 20, but chaos in a team of 20,000 can be a huge problem.

8. Messy Leadership
The primary point of this chapter is that there is no standard pattern of leadership, nor is there any standard pattern for messiness. People lead effectively in different ways, and they show this through profiles of different leaders, from the strong questioning and anti-authoritarian leadership of Bert Rutan to the highly structured leadership of Steve Jobs at Apple. My take from this is that generic guides for how to be a leader don’t really work – there are lots of leadership styles and there’s no recipe to blindly follow to success.

9. The Politics of Mess
Our laws are a perfect example of the mix of order and chaos. Laws are often haphazard and seemingly contradictory, plus they’re being edited and rewritten all the time. Yet, out of the chaos of laws comes the order of society, where we have a ton of freedom and individual autonomy while so many of our needs (like roads, laws that protect our property and safety, etc.) are just simply met. Great success and order from chaos, indeed.

10. Optimizing Mess
A big theme of this book has been that a certain level of mess is good, but how do you deal with things if there’s too much mess – or not enough mess? The rule of thumb here seems to be to try new things, usually an increment at a time. My favorite example of this was “no luck poker,” which sought to greatly reduce the randomness in the amount of luck in poker. This would make poker less “messy” and more organized – and, obviously, it flopped. Why? Poker (at least in the no limit hold ’em variety) has a very nice balance of order and messiness, and disrupting that makes for a less compelling game.

11. Messy Thinking
I quite liked this chapter, as it summed up quite well why my method of having a pile of random ideas and notes seems to work so well for my writing. In a nutshell, messiness helps in situations where making connections that aren’t observed by others is valuable. Brainstorming is the perfect example of this – when you’re just pitching thoughts, messiness is a very good thing. On the other hand, when you’re fleshing out an idea, less messiness is good – you need a framework, not a bunch of ideas flopping around in the muck.

12. Pathological Mess
Excessive messiness (or excessive neatness) is often the sign of a psychological problem. For example, excessive hoarders (people who keep so much stuff that they have to wall off pieces of their homes, for instance) are exhibiting symptoms of pathological messiness, as are people who have a hard time concentrating on specific tasks for more than a moment or two. If messiness causes deep obstructions in your day to day life, seek some help. Some messiness is good – too much is a real problem.

13. The Aesthetics of Mess
Abrahamson and Freedman close the book with the astute point that messiness and disorganization plays a key role in art, both high art and popular art. Pulp Fiction, for example, is successful because of the messiness of the ordering of scenes; Donnie Darko is another example of how disorder in the plot makes the entire thing more compelling. The idea of a strict beginning, strict middle, and strict end of an organized book, film, show, or anything often limits what can be told – tossing out that structure and making it messy also makes things interesting.

Some Thoughts on A Perfect Mess
Here are three things I think I think about A Perfect Mess.

It’s really all about optimization. Organization is only useful if it winds up being a net gain after you subtract the invested time. That’s why most overarching organization schemes tend to fail – there’s too much work involved in maintaining the system.

This is also why GTD works for me. There’s almost no overhead for GTD, at least the way I do it. My method is a nice mix of messiness and order – I just jot down thoughts in my notebook as they come to mind and deal with that little mess later on. Instead of trying to keep stuff ordered, I find it more important to just get the ideas down and deal with that little mess later.

This book was long on ideas, but light on specific actionable points. Mostly, it just seems to be a very effective and thought-provoking argument against over-organization. It doesn’t offer specifics on finding that balance for yourself, other than to try new things incrementally instead of diving in to a huge, overarching organization plan.

Is A Perfect Mess Worth Reading?
A Perfect Mess is loaded with a lot of compelling thinking about the balance between organization and messiness and often concludes that messiness (to an extent) is a very good thing.

If this seems like a no-brainer to you, this book probably won’t light your fire. On the other hand, if you find yourself disagreeing with or intrigued by the premise, particularly if you have challenges with organization in your own life, A Perfect Mess is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

My only real complaint is that it doesn’t offer much specific direction on how to find the right messiness balance in your own life. You have to dig that out from in between the lines. It might have been powerful to have a final chapter that drags those points and principles out into the open.

Even given that, A Perfect Mess was a worthwhile, compelling read. Check it out from the library if it sounds intriguing at all to you.

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