in praise of messiness

Undercover Economist Tim Harford explains why highly performing office workers tend to be messy pilers rather than neat filers.

Filers like to establish a formal organisational structure for their paper documents. Pilers, by contrast, let pieces of paper build up around their desks or, as we have now learnt to say, implement an LRU-cache.

To most of us, it may seem obvious that piling is dysfunctional while filing is the act of a serious professional. Yet when researchers from the office design company Herman Miller looked at high-performing office workers, they found that they tended to be pilers. They let documents accumulate on their desks, used their physical presence as a reminder to do work, and relied on subtle cues — physical alignment, dog-ears, or a stray Post-it note — to orient themselves. ….

[Benjamin] Franklin was a messy fellow his entire life, despite 60 years of trying to reform himself, and remained convinced that if only he could learn to tidy up, he would become a more successful and productive person. But any outsider can see that it is absurd to think such a rich life could have been yet further enriched by assiduous use of a filing cabinet. Franklin was deluding himself.

Tim Harford, “There’s magic in mess: why you should embrace a disorderly desk“, Financial Times Magazine, 8 October 2016 (metered paywall).

There is much more in the full article, which is based on Tim Harford’s latest book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (Riverhead/Little, Brown, 2016).

You can also hear Mr Harford discuss this topic with Cariff Garcia in an FT business and economics podcast:

Tim Harford joined me to discuss his latest book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. This was a deeply engaging and fun conversation. Messy is the best longform manifestation yet of Tim’s knack for revealing counterintuitive truths, using social science and original interviews to find the underlying sense in our lives that we often fail to see — and thus fail to appreciate. ….

[F]or the text-only crowd, click below to open a PDF transcript of our chat.

Cardiff Garcia, “Alphachat: Tim Harford on the unheralded virtue of messiness“, FT Alphaville, 8 October 2016 (unmetered access for all FT blogs and podcasts – free registration required).

Alphachat is also available on Acast, iTunes and Stitcher.


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