Is Being Disorganised a Good Thing?

If you're thinking about tidying up, here's reason not to

Rhymer Rigby makes an argument for being disorganised. Picture / NZ Herald.

Last Thursday, I found myself surrounded by “my people”. This great gathering of the like-minded took place in the unlikely venue of a passport office, which is where you go if you need a passport in four hours. Chaos reigns. This disorder comes not, I should add, from the staff, who are impressively efficient, but from the applicants, who are disorganised to a man.

This wasn’t a one-off, either: my chaotic approach to daily life shames me in the eyes of others. I see it in the gentle tut-tutting of officials as they struggle to get me to fill out forms correctly; I hear it in the irked chatter of friends as I arrive late and dishevelled, having spent 30 minutes looking for my wallet and a further 30 minutes looking for my house keys. 

And yet there is currently a strong societal bias against the disorganised - particularly prevalent at this time of year as, along with the resolutions to lose weight, we pledge to tidy up and streamline our lives. Especially this year, it seems, when anyone who is anyone has got the tidying and folding bug, as inspired by the Japanese decluttering expert Marie Kondo.

READ: The Viva Team's New Year's Resolutions

But I won’t be joining the five million and counting followers who have bought her books, or any other books with titles such as Together We Can Get Your Sh*t Together. And I certainly won’t be aiming for “Inbox Zero” in 2016. In fact, I’m hoping to go from Inbox 30,000 to Inbox 40,000.

Because maybe we should start challenging the widespread belief that order is great. Andre Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business school, says: “At work, being organised and conscientious are seen as indicators of success. But if you look at the evidence, conscientious people don’t move up the ladder any faster.” The trouble, he explains, is that while being conscientious and organised are good traits when you start out, they’re not what gets you promoted. Rather, you move up by demonstrating that you can be persuasive and are motivated.
As for punctuality: “What use is it arriving at a meeting on time if all you contribute is a load of inane rubbish?” asks Prof Spicer.

I’d go one further and argue that not only is being organised overrated, but that there are real upsides to la vida disorder. For starters, if you’re used to chaos, you take it in your stride. I remember being on a work trip with a dozen people. Our flight was cancelled. Roughly two-thirds of the group started fretting over meetings and deadlines they’d miss. The other third, my people, shrugged. How were we going to kill 12 hours in an airport that had no obvious bar?

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Here, I suspect, being disorganised gives you a sort of fatalism. You expect unreliability: it’s like the opposite of being German. You see this a lot in Latin American airports. All the Northern Europeans and North Americans freak when flights are delayed because they’re worried about missing connections. The locals don’t because they know the connections will be delayed, too.

Cancelled flights hold no fear for the disorganised. We’ve missed so many that we know how bad missing a flight is, which is not really that bad at all. While all those organised people frantically shoot off emails and put angry lines through diary entries, we’re just happy that we’re going to be late and it’s not our fault.

You also know exactly what to do when chaos strikes. You’re used to coping with fluid, fast-changing situations, mainly because you create so many of them of yourself. Your entire life is one long, off-the-cuff contingency plan. This has real benefits for others. If someone has let you down, you want a disorganised person on the case. You need something done in two hours? No problem. We do everything at the last minute, anyway.

At work, order can also distract you from what is really important. “People who place a high emphasis on organisation often spend a lot of time maintaining the systems they have built,” says Prof Spicer. “When these systems break down, they become very upset and anxious and try to rebuild the system rather than deal with the crisis.” The visibly organised, he adds, can also find that dull admin work gets dumped on them because they appear to like it.

Of course, our chaos isn’t just temporal. It’s spatial, too. Our desks are so messy that being near them can often cause the tidy physical pain. But research suggests disordered environments can foster creativity. Eric Abrahamson, of Columbia Business School and co-author of A Perfect Mess, says that untidy desks create unexpected juxtapositions and bring different elements together in new and thought-provoking ways.

READ: How to Say No to People You Like

They’re also believed to be “archaeological” - that is, the important stuff floats to the top.

Thanks largely to Einstein’s famous quote - “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” - the chronically disordered have long claimed that by their messy desks you will know their genius. This strikes me as a little self-serving. But it does make me think a bit about my own cluttered mind.

For years, I’d happily imagined the contents of my head as an enormous child’s scribble in which nested various facts represented by the kind of items you find at a car boot sale. But now, I’m not so sure. Because I don’t have a contacts book, I know many people’s details off by heart. Because I don’t have a diary, I remember all my appointments and deadlines. Because I don’t have a filing system, I sort of know where everything is. In fact, I suspect that my unconscious has gone behind my back and developed a mental version of MS Outlook without telling me. Annoyingly, this means, at some deep level, I may be more organised than I think.

Even so, it’s not very organised: I remain a high-functioning mess. Standolyn Robertson, a US-based organisation expert I know, came up with the phrase, “just organised enough to stay out of jail”. This strikes me as a worthy goal for 2016.

— The Daily Telegraph

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