I’ve been recently reading Tim Harford’s book, “Messy – How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World”. It’s a fascinating little book full of interesting anecdotes – great for dipping into. The general theme is that, contrary to what you might think, a lot of the times mess and disorganisation is a boost to productivity.
One of the well-worn case studies he focuses on is the story of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards – a process to introduce randomness and disruption to the process of recording music, and force thinking outside the box.
But here’s one bit I just thought I’d share today, and it’s been condensed as an article on Harford’s website. Well worth a read if you have twenty minutes to spare, and some smug food for thought if, like me, you have a messy desk and messy email inbox at work. Maybe we’re in the right and it’s the over-tidiers and over-organisers who have it wrong….
A short excerpt if you don’t have time to read the whole thing:
“When it comes to actual paper, there’s always the following beautiful approach. Invented in the early 1990s by Yukio Noguchi, an emeritus professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo and author of books such as Super Organised Method, Noguchi doesn’t try to categorise anything. Instead, he places each incoming document in a large envelope. He writes the envelope’s contents neatly on its edge, and lines them up on a bookshelf, their contents visible like the spines of books. Now the moment of genius: each time he uses an envelope, Noguchi places it back on the left of the shelf. Over time, recently used documents will shuffle themselves towards the left, and never-used documents will accumulate on the right. Archiving is easy: every now and again, Noguchi removes the documents on the right. To find any document in this system, he simply asks himself how recently he has seen it. It is a filing system that all but organises itself.
But wait a moment. Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess, offer the following suggestion: “Turn the row of envelopes so that the envelopes are stacked vertically instead of horizontally, place the stack on your desktop, and get rid of the envelopes.” Those instructions transform the shelf described in Super Organised Method into an old-fashioned pile of papers on a messy desk. Every time a document arrives or is consulted, it goes back on the top of the pile. Unused documents gradually settle at the bottom. Less elegant, perhaps, but basically the same system.
If all this sounds to you like self-justifying blather from untidy colleagues, you might just be a “filer” rather than a “piler”. The distinction between the two was first made in the 1980s by Thomas Malone, a management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Filers like to establish a formal organisational structure for their paper documents. Pilers, by contrast, let pieces of paper build up around their desks or, as we have now learnt to say, implement an LRU (“Least Recently Used”) -cache.
Of course, sometimes we need a careful checklist (if, say, we’re building a house) or a sophisticated reference system (if we’re maintaining a library, for example). But most office workers are neither construction managers nor librarians. Yet we share Benjamin Franklin’s mistaken belief that if only we were more neatly organised, then we would live more productive and more admirable lives. Franklin was too busy inventing bifocals and catching lightning to get around to tidying up his life. If he had been working in a deli, you can bet he wouldn’t have been organising sandwich orders. He would have been making sandwiches.”