I just finished Messy—The Power Of Disorder To Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford. It was an ok book. The basic premise is that if things are too neat or too well organized, it can be easy to stop paying proper attention which can cause accidents or prevent creative problem solving. Etc. The book was well done and made that case pretty well across a lot of diverse fields.

However, I quickly started to feel some philosophical discomfort. To start with, the book is pretty well organized. I usually very much appreciate a book where the chapters are neatly organized into predictable numbers of pages. This book’s chapters had page counts whose population standard deviation was exactly 2.0 pages which is remarkably consistent. The copy editing was fastidious. The grammar correct and orthodox. The material was meticulously supported by 17 pages of extremely fine print end notes, all immaculately organized. The author says directly that he has worked on this book for five years and it is apparent that it was not dashed off thoughtlessly.

There were even times in the material where the truth started to sneak out. For example on page 198, he talks about mistaken identity causing people to get listed on the creepy unconstitutional no-fly list and he says, "…we should [listen to victims of unusual errors] and set up mechanisms to sort these errors out quickly." At this point I realized the problem—for someone, the no-fly list itself was a mechanism to sort out "errors". One man’s disorder is another’s order.

Even the book’s flagship example of a mildly famous musician’s technique to inspire creativity was questionable as an example of the premise. The idea is that the musician had these cards with some semi-random directives on them and when creativity was felt to be lacking, a card could be taken and the (messy) random directive pursued or contemplated. The problem with this example, is that this technique is a technique. This very structured system is extremely clearly defined and conceptually tidy. Contrast, for example, musicians who might have a whole lifestyle where they constantly go to random parties, meet random people, and do random drugs. Fans of Kieth Richards and Lemmy Kilmister know that works too. Fans of Bon Scott, and John Bonham however, know that this strategy can easily produce limited success (ending in choking to death on your own vomit in your early thirties).

I personally divide neatness into these three categories.

  • Engineering competence

  • Aesthetic

  • Cargo cult

Engineering neatness is neatness that is required to do something properly. Engineering neatness has an explanation, a good one, why it is beneficial. Like not using your fingers to clean a camera lens but using your fingers to clean a gauge block.

Aesthetic neatness is just that weird impulse some of us sometimes have to have for things to be organized, put away, etc. Think of this like those people who stack rocks or make sand mandalas. It’s just something some people like. Go for it! No justification needed!

Cargo cult neatness is mostly found in large corporate environments and recommendations from the AMA. If you don’t know what a cargo cult is, it is extremely interesting. In this type of neatness, though there is little understanding of the mechanism, if some other people had some sort of success with some kind of neatness in a similar situation, it is believed that it should be applied liberally and universally. To be fair, this book did try to focus on this kind of thing (for example, making people have clean/tidy cubicles for no real pragmatic reason turns out to be counter productive).

So what’s the right answer then? I’m well convinced that people with an overzealous compulsion for tidiness are not doing themselves any huge favors. But I still feel that if you have to get stranded partway up the climb to the global maximum, the neatness side of the slope beats the messy side. My advice is keep your eye on the ball. If having a messy desk is getting the job done faster, have a messy desk. If the job itself is cleaning the desk, then tidy the desk. This book was like a guide to help anorexics eat more. That is simply not the normal problem normal people have. But if you have that problem, finding that wholesome sensible balance is just as valid.