Careers & Education

What is organized clutter

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Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein embraced his piles
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Organized clutter has a method to its madness

Neatniks look at piles as a glaring reminder that there are things in the world that are out of place. To them, the concept of organized clutter is incomprehensible; to you it’s a way of life. Tired of defending your piles? Read on, you’re in good company.

Einstein said it himself, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” In recent years, for every advice piece that comes out for de-cluttering your space, which is a great thing for many people, there’s another piece referencing Einstein’s Brownian Motion study that shows a bit of disorder is not a bad thing.

What's the big deal?

The main problem many people have with disorder is that it looks messy. Sometimes the very sight of towering stacks of papers and books can make someone feel guilty for not cleaning it up right away, even if it’s not theirs. Hence the classic horror stories of clashing roommates or live-in couples.

In the book A Perfect Mess, authors Abrahmson and Freedman show how, in moderation, messy systems utilize the resources at hand more effectively than over-planned ones. Examples in the book range from business management, to home organization show how “unplanned influences lead to breakthroughs”. The purpose is to open people’s minds to the possibilities that come with loosening the grip a bit and seeing what happens.

One example of organized clutter is a supply closet. It may not be pretty to look at, but you know where everything is. While someone with an eye for design may order objects according to how they look next to one another, you do so by function for efficiency. 

Disorder at work 

The operative word here is “organized”. This implies that there’s a method to the madness. For instance, a desk piled high with papers of all sizes and colors may look disastrous. Perhaps your fingers start itching to control the paper mess, at least arrange them by color and size so it looks neater, but that wouldn’t make any sense to the person who created those piles not for appearances sake, but because of their content.

The beauty of disorder is that it keeps everything you may need when working on a project in sight. Nothing gets discarded for the sake of tidying up, and as a result fresh ideas bubble to the surface by connecting dots that you’d never put together if they didn’t just happen to be near each other on the desk.

Picture a workshop of a painter or sculptor. Paint splatters everywhere, torn images collaged on a wall, notes scribbled on every blank space – this is creativity in its most active state. It’s acceptable for artists to be messy. Why not creative professionals? Companies would benefit significantly from allowing moderate disorder from their creative departments.

At work, we’re often told to “think outside the box”, but we’re not granted the freedom to make a little mess first. The next time someone at work asks you to contain your clutter, rather than explain your somewhat unconventional approach, give them a sweet smile and advise them to trust you. Then hold up your end of the bargain by producing a work of pure genius.

Messiness is a pet peeve that can divide otherwise happy roommates and couples. Regardless of which side of the line you stand on, try to keep an open mind. There’s a world of difference between messiness and dirtiness. Disorder doesn’t attract bugs and shouldn’t embarrass you when company comes over because it’s easily hidden.

If neatniks can accept that organized clutter exists in the world, those of us who thrive on some disorder should be careful not to let it encroach on the neater-half’s clean, but empty shelves – however tempting. What matters is that you have a system that works for you, and can laugh when it drives others a little crazy.

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