The Brink of Chaos

A Perfect Mess – Part 2

A Perfect Mess – Part 2

I finished reading A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. I was hoping that this book would provide a mechanism for thinking through and assessing the cost of ‘neatness’ vs. the benefits of order. Instead, this turned out to be more of a book discussing mess and it’s benefits in an anecdotal manner. In addition, the book was a mess (not written with a lot of direction) more of a random shmattering of ideas on the subject.

Nevertheless, it was an interesting book (sort of a “Tipping Point” on the benefits of some disorder, but without Malcolm Gladwell) . Here are some of the points that I think are interesting to consider:

  1. The abuse of ordering systems
    Because you can create systems that supposedly help preserve time in the future, you simultaneously can miss on the things that are most important to be done. In other words, you spend time on things that aren’t important rather than being able to focus on the things that are important to make sure they get done. For instance, if you have a process each document only once type ordering policy, you end up ordering documents or spending time with documents that are not important. Alternately, people can abuse these systems by putting documents that they want reviewed into the hands of someone that they know will force themselves to look at it. Anyway, the clear flipside to this is that you end up letting important things slip through the cracks (this is where I thought they didn’t do a good job – by presenting the cost of disorder). The best system is one which can make sure that important things don’t slip through the cracks. Anyway, the basic point here is that busy and effective are two different things. Busy organizing does not mean you are effective.
  2. Benefits of mess are underplayed
    By ordering things in various ways, you obfuscate other useful information. For instance, if I organize my CD’s by Artist, I no longer have them ordered by topic.
  3. Society overemphasizes orderliness
    They had an example where during the Michael Jackson trial they showed video tape of how messy his home was as a sign that something foul must have taken place (even though there was much more damning evidence). Most people feel bad for having something that looks disorderly and people look down on those who appear messy. Much of the motivation for getting ordered is an emotional reason. There is a freedom for feeling ordered (in control of your environment). Though I wonder if in some ways, this is only an illusion. Sure the small stuff doesn’t get past you, but you also don’t get as much of the big stuff needed. Unfortunately, the book does not address a mechanism for making the tradeoff between these two though it clearly suggests that either extreme is not the most optimal.

    Ultimately, this book paints the direction for how messiness (something which appears disordered) is beneficial, it does not at all help draw the deliniation between how to make the balance between orderliness and messiness appropriate. I thought this book talked around the subject rather than really get at helping people making the appropriate tradeoffs. Mostly it railed against the push toward complete “order” and in that regard it was successful.

    I picked up another book “Everything is Miscellaneous” that takes another perspective on this subject that is great. I’ll be posting more on this soon.

    2 thoughts on “A Perfect Mess – Part 2

    1. prairieon


      Your second point does not provide any example of the benefits of mess. Ordering by artist versus ordering by topic are choices between ways to order things for most effective use. The mess is having your CDs everywhere, under things, on top of things, in various players. I’m trying to see the value of the mess.

      To show how disordered my mind really is I’ll now address your first point. Ordering systems can be abused. True. Ordering may become obsolete in some contexts (electronic where you have desktop search), but ordering makes a lot of sense in some contexts. This is especially true outside of personal productivity. For example, would you hire the lawyer who cannot keep track of the court documents from your last murder trial? Ordering should not be done for its own sake, but with specific goals in mind. I know, for example, when I give Page an action item that the puppy will be tracked to closure. When I give it to you, I say my prayers. *smile*


    2. matthew

      On the second point, this was one of the main points of the book. One person’s order is another person’s mess. One need only watch Monk when he meets another OCD person and they go back and forth creating order. If one person can’t discern another persons order, they would consider it messy.

      For the first point, it’s absolutely true that order is required to comprehend and deal with life. No one, including the book, suggests that order is inherently bad, they simply point out that order has a cost that is not often consider.

      Again, consider the amount of time that Monk spends ordering his home rather than the many other productive things that could be done with his time. Most are not Monk, but still try to impose ordering systems that waste time.

      Finally, consider people that decide to measure metrics, but they have no idea what to do when the metric reading goes high or low. Or imagine a process whose cost of following exceeds the things that might be missed if it wasn’t.

      The better book on this topic is “Everything is Miscellaneous” which will show up on this blog soon.

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