Mess is more


Review: The new book by popular economist Tim Harford challenges the clean desk industrial complex and offers a humane ode to untidiness

2nd December 2016
By Stian Westlake
Iconic Bestiary/Shutterstock

An important lesson of history is that while unprincipled and amoral people can cause all sorts of grief, the really dangerous bastards are the ones who are convinced they're doing the right thing. Greed and incompetence have killed millions, but zealotry and idealism have killed tens of millions.

What is true of history is true in its own small way of office life. While offices are for the most part mercifully free of Maos, Stalins and Hitlers, they have their fair share of zealots: zealots to the cult of neatness. In the name of neatness, our working lives are controlled and ordered. Documents must be filed in hierarchies. Desks must be kept clear. Uniformity and tidiness are badges of professionalism.

If this squared-away vision of perfection makes you nervous, Tim Harford's Messy is the book for you. It's a light-hearted but at heart deeply serious read about the virtues of mess, and the perverse effects of trying too hard to constrain it.

Harford shows us how leaving stuff in piles is actually a pretty good way of organising things, how creating a careful filing system on your laptop will mean you spend more time finding your files than if you dump everything in My Documents, and how targets and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) generally lead to gaming the system.

Mess can be functional – we should cut ourselves some slack

There's a virtuoso chapter on office layouts, in which all the tedious fads of modern office design are exploded, from hot-desking to clean-desk policies. Hot-desking, far from encouraging collaboration and openness, makes workers suspicious and means they can't find each other to collaborate. Clean-desk policies may seem organised and neat, but actually make it harder for people to remember where things are. All of this is supported with research, and recounted with the keen sense of delight that Harford shows in overturning conventional wisdom. He concludes that allowing people control and ownership over their working environment makes people not just happier, but also more productive. As someone about to move into a new office with hot-desking and clean-desk policies, this gave me a lot to think about.

Readers of the Financial Times will know Tim Harford as the paper's genial economics correspondent. His specialty is the Freakonomics genre of readable, narrative-driven pieces that explain everyday puzzles in economic terms, but with somewhat less free-market ideology than Freakonomics itself sometimes displays.

What I think of as 'airport non-fiction' is becoming a genre in its own right, with its own traditions. Conceptual chapters must always begin with a nice story about a person. (I'm not sure if these folksy narrative intros have a name; perhaps we could call them Malcolms, after the master of the genre.) Rather than citing research papers, the author will tell you about how the researchers came up with the idea. (Am I the only person who feels I've read enough cute snippets about Kahneman and Tversky's lives to make up a full biography?) Conceptual points will be backed up with more anecdotes, ideally from the lives of cool people the readers will identify with. Fortunately, although Harford respects all these traditions, he writes so well that you can overlook the tiredness of the genre. No one minds hearing another waltz if it's by Strauss; no one minds another sonnet if it's by Donne.

But perhaps even better than Harford's stylish writing and wide-ranging erudition is his fundamental faith in human nature. Both in Messy and in his previous book, Adapt: Why Success Always Comes from Failure, he takes a human trait that we tend to beat ourselves up about, and explains why it's not as bad as it seems, and actually has all sorts of benefits. In the modern world, self-help often starts with self-denunciation, and sometimes gets stuck there (something that Stalin and Mao knew well). By contrast, Harford's message – that mess can be functional, and that we should cut ourselves some slack – is deeply humane, and very welcome.

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives is published by Little, Brown, and out now


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