Saying Yes to Mess

Most adults with ADHD don’t realize how effective their dis-organization strategies really are.

Drawing of ADHD woman full of problems and thoughts
Drawing of ADHD woman full of problems and thoughts

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 ā€” 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, zoomed 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 ā€” whether it’s a family unit or a corporation ā€” can be completely free of disorder on a consistent basis,” says Jerrold Pollak, a neuropsychologist at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, NH, 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.”

[Take This Test: Is Your Clutter and Disorganization Out of Control?]

“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. “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 ā€” 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.

[Click to Read: Now That Iā€™m Organized, I Realize Iā€™m Happier in Chaos]

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.”

Freedman is the co-author, with Eric Abrahamson, of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. The book is a meandering, engaging tour of the benefits of mess, and the systems and individuals reaping those benefits. One of them is former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose mess-for-success tips include never making a daily schedule.

As a corollary, the book’s authors examine the high cost of neatness ā€” measured in shame, mostly, and family fights, as well as wasted dollars. They generally have a fine time tipping over orthodoxies and poking fun at clutter busters, and at the self-help tips they live or die by. They wonder: Why is it better to pack many activities into one day? By whose standards are procrastinators less effective than their well-scheduled peers? Why should children have to do chores to earn back their possessions if they leave them on the floor (a strategy that many professional organizers suggest to teach neatness)?

In their book, Freedman and Abrahamson describe the properties of mess in loving terms. Mess has resonance, they write, which means it can vibrate beyond its own confines and connect to the larger world. It was the scumminess of Alexander Fleming’s laboratory that led to his discovery of penicillin. It bloomed in a moldy petri dish he had forgotten on his desk.

Mess is robust and adaptable, like Schwarzenegger’s open calendar, as opposed to brittle, like a parent’s rigid schedule that doesn’t allow for a child’s wool-gathering or balkiness. Mess is complete, in that it embraces random elements. Mess tells a story. You can learn a lot about people from their detritus, whereas, neat ā€” well, neat is a closed book. Neat has no narrative and no personality (as any cover of Real Simple demonstrates). Mess is also natural, as Freedman and Abrahamson point out, and can be a time-saver. “It takes effort to neaten up a system,” they write. “Things don’t generally neaten themselves.”

Indeed, the most valuable dividend of living with mess may be time. Freedman, who has three children and a hard-working spouse, is studying Mandarin in his spare time. Perusing a four-door, stainless-steel shoe cabinet at The Container Store, and imagining gussying up a shoe collection, he shakes his head. He says, “I don’t get the appeal of this, which may be a huge defect on my part, in terms of enjoying higher forms of entertainment.”

A Never-Ending Obsession

The success of The Container Store notwithstanding, there is indeed something messy ā€” and not in a good way ā€” about so many organizing options. “When I think about the urge to organize, it reminds me of when Americans began to worry about their waistlines: They got fatter,” says Marian Salzman, chief marketing officer of advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, and co-author, with Ira Matathia, of Next Now: Trends for the Future. “I never put on the pounds until I tried to lose them,” she says, adding that she has a room in which she hides a treadmill and, now, two bags of organizing supplies.

“I got sick of looking at them, so I bought plastic tubs, stuffed the bags in the tubs, and put the tubs in the room.” Right now, she says, “we are emotionally overloaded, so this is about getting better and better at living superficially.”

“Superficial is the new intimate,” Salzman says, gaining steam, “and these boxes, these organizing supplies, are the containers for our superficial selves. ‘I will be a neater mom, a hipper mom, a mom who gets more done.’ Do I sound cynical?”


In the semiotics of mess, desks may be the richest texts. Messy-desk research borrows from cognitive ergonomics, a field of study dealing with the relationships between work environments and productivity. Consider that desks, our work landscapes, are stand-ins for our brains. The piles we array on them are “cognitive artifacts,” or data cues, of our thoughts as we work.

To a professional organizer, brandishing colored files and stackable trays, cluttered horizontal surfaces are a horror. To cognitive psychologists, like Jay Brand, who works in the Ideation Group of Haworth, an office furniture company, their peaks and valleys speak to intellectual intent and showcase a mind whirring away: sorting, linking, producing. (By extension, a clean desk can be seen as a dormant area, an indication that no thought or work is going on.)

His studies and others, like the 2005 survey conducted by Ajilon Professional Staffing, in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, linked messy desks to higher salaries (and neat ones to salaries under $35,000). Such findings echo Einstein’s oft-quoted remark, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”

Don Springer, 61, is an information technology project manager and the winner of the Type O-No! contest sponsored by Dymo, the labelmaker manufacturer. The contest offered $5,000 worth of clutter management ā€” for the tools (boxes, bins, and systems, including a labelmaker) and the services of a professional organizer ā€” for the best example of a “clutter nightmare,” as expressed by contestants in a photo and a 100-word essay. “Type O-Nos,” reads a definition on the Dymo website, are “outlaws on the tidy trail, clutter criminals twice over.”

The Junk Room

Precisely, and with great humor, Springer professes deep shame over the contents of what he calls his oh-by-the-way room ā€” a library/junk room that his wife would like to see cleaned out to turn into a nursery for a new grandchild. With a full-time job and membership in various clubs and organizations, and a desire to spend his free time seeing a movie with his wife instead of “expending the emotional energy it would take to sort through all the stuff,” Springer is unable to prune the piles to his wife’s satisfaction. “There are emotional treasures buried in there, and I don’t want to part with them,” he says.

So, why bother?

“Because I love my wife and I want to make her happy,” he says.

According to a small survey that Freedman and Abrahamson conducted for their book ā€” 160 adults representing a cross section of genders, races, and incomes ā€” of those who had split up with a partner, one in 12 had done so over a struggle involving one partner’s idea of mess. Happy partnerships are not necessarily those in which products from Staples figure largely. Freedman and his wife, for example, have been married for more than two decades, and live in an offhandedly messy house with a violently messy basement where their three children hang out.

The room’s chaos invokes one of Freedman and Abrahamson’s mess strategies, which is to create a mess-free DMZ (in this case, the basement stairs) and to acknowledge areas of complementary mess. Cherish your mess-management strategies, suggests Freedman. He speaks approvingly of the pile-builders and the under-the-bed-stuffers; of those who let their messes wax and wane-the cyclers, he calls them; and those who create satellite messes (in storage units off-site). “Most people don’t realize their own efficiency or effectiveness,” he says, with a grin. It’s also nice to remember, as Freedman points out, that almost anything looks neat if it’s shuffled into a pile.

[Read This Next: Perfect Is Pointless ā€” 16 Organization Rules You Can Follow]

Ā© 2006 The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.