Messy is as messy does

DAVID H. FREEDMAN is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine and the coauthor, with Eric Abrahamson, of "A Perfect Mess -- The Hidden Benefits of Disorder" (Little, Brown).

NEWS ACCOUNTS suggest that Riverside County Superior Court Judge Robert G. Spitzer long ago joined the ranks of the dysfunctional messy -- people whose failure to straighten up even minimally has kept them from getting routine and important things done.

Spitzer apparently let his orders sit unprocessed for months at a time in massive clutter, making him not essentially different from people we see all the time on “Oprah” and the morning news shows -- suffocating, sometimes literally, in a sea of colorful detritus, their phones mewing distantly under a mound of old phone books and pizza boxes, until a professional organizer comes in and saves their lives.

In watching these disturbing cases of mess gone wild, you probably see at least a bit of yourself. Chances are you struggle with mess and disorganization, and you suspect that you too are missing opportunities, being ineffective, wasting time and shortchanging others. You may well be told as much by the neater people around you, and you’re certainly told so by a thriving industry of get-organized experts.

Welcome to the human race. About two out three people in the U.S. feel shame or guilt over their messiness, and almost all of us think poorly of messy people and highly of the neat and organized. No wonder. Starting with “The Cat in the Hat,” which tells the tale of two children threatened by a messy home that could cost them their mother’s love, we endlessly hear about the evils of messiness and the wonders of being neat and organized.

But it turns out that Spitzer’s having run into genuine trouble with messiness places him in a tiny minority. Sure, most of us are messy, but only moderately so, and we do just fine with it -- other than feeling bad about it or getting grief from others. Once people start thinking about it, they realize there’s often a good side to their messiness. Moderately messy people don’t spend two or more hours a day straightening up, the way some of their neatnik friends and colleagues do. Their houses and cubicles feel friendlier, lived in and personalized. They’ve got the stuff they like at hand. They make serendipitous discoveries when they excavate through their piles.


And, surprisingly, they usually know where everything is. Messy people let things spread out and stack up in ways that naturally suit the way they work and think. There’s evidence that messy people are more improvisational, maintain more impressive workloads than their neatnik colleagues and reap other benefits from their relaxed sense of organization.

Even in the highly unlikely case that you’ve slipped into the spectacularly dysfunctional messy, it’s rarely because of laziness or a lack of resolve. More often it’s a symptom of a treatable underlying condition, such as ADD or, as Spitzer’s attorney has suggested is the case with him, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Serious, and possibly warranted, questions have been raised about Spitzer’s judicial performance. But it wouldn’t be unusual if his critics were confusing extreme messiness with incompetence or even malevolence.

When video of a sheriff’s raid of Michael Jackson’s ranch was shown in court, many news accounts focused on how messy the place was. What we’ve seen building over the last few decades is, in a sense, the near-criminalization of messiness. But come on now. If you’re a surgeon, pilot or, yes, a judge, you might need to adhere to certain standards of neatness. Otherwise, whatever level of messiness you’re operating at, chances are it’s working well for you -- probably better than extreme neatness and organization would.

Don’t let our society’s increasing glorification of tsk-tsking neat freaks, or the occasional mess disaster, make you doubt it.