It is a truism of American life that we’re too darn messy and disorganized, or we think we are, and we feel bad about it. Our desks and dining room tables are awash in paper. Our closets are bursting with clothes and sports equipment and old files. Our laundry areas boil. Our basements and garages seethe. And so do our partners — or our parents, if we happen to be teenagers.
This is why sales of home-organizing products, like accordion files and labelmakers and plastic tubs, will zoom from $5.9 billion in 2005 to a projected $7.6 billion by 2009. Companies that make closet organizing systems pull in $3 billion a year, according to Closets magazine.
But contrarian voices are heard in the wilderness. An anti-anticlutter movement is afoot, one that says yes to mess and urges you to embrace your attention deficit disorder (ADHD).
Studies show that messy desks are the vivid signatures of people with creative, limber minds (who reap higher salaries than those with neat “office landscapes”) and that messy closet owners are probably better parents, and nicer and cooler, than their tidier counterparts. This thinking confirms what you knew, deep down, all along: Really neat people are not avatars of the good life. They are humorless and inflexible prigs with way too much time on their hands.
The inevitability of disorder
“It’s chasing an illusion to think that any organization — whether it’s a family unit or a corporation — can be completely free of disorder on a consistent basis,” says Jerrold Pollak, a neuropsychologist at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, whose work involves helping people tolerate the inherent disorder in their lives. “Even if you could [control disorder], should you? Total organization is a futile attempt to deny and control the unpredictability of life. I live in a world of total clutter, advising on cases where you’d think, from all the paper, it’s the F.B.I. files on the Unabomber,” when, in fact, he says, it’s only “a person with a stiff neck.”
“My wife has threatened divorce over all the piles,” continues Dr. Pollak, who also has an office at home. “If we had kids, the health department would have to be alerted. But what can I do?” Stop feeling bad, say the mess apologists. There are more urgent things to worry about. Irwin Kula is a rabbi in New York City, and the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life (Hyperion). “Order can be profane and life-diminishing,” he says. “It’s a flippant remark, but, if you’ve never had a messy kitchen, you’ve probably never made a home-cooked meal. Life is very messy, but we need models to show us how that messiness works.”
His favorite example? His 15-year-old daughter Talia’s bedroom, which he calls a picture of utter disorder—and individuality.
“One day, I’m standing in front of her bedroom door,” he says, “and it’s out of control. My wife, Dana, is freaking out. Suddenly I see, amidst the piles, the dress she wore to her first dance and an earring she wore to her bat mitzvah. She’s so trusting, her journal is wide open on the floor, and there are photo-booth pictures of her friends strewn everywhere. I said, ‘Omigod, her cup overflows!’ And we started to laugh.” The room was an invitation, he says, to search for deeper meaning under the scurf.
Trying to buy neatness
Recently, David H. Freedman, another amiable mess analyst (and science journalist), stood bemused in front of a stack of collapsible storage boxes with clear panels at The Container Store in Natick, Massachusetts. He couldn’t help thinking, the main thing most people’s closets are brimming with is unused organizing equipment. “This is another wonderful trend,” Freedman says dryly, referring to the boxes’ clear panels. “We can’t hide clutter even after we put it away. Inside your storage box, you’d better look organized.”
This article comes from the April/May 2007 issue of ADDitude.