Out of Sight – Out of Mind (Part 2)

So yesterday I told you all about my huge problems of messiness and procrastination. I live in a world of piles but whenever I get all super organized and start to file and tidy up my work space – putting urgent items out of sight but clearly marked urgent – I get in a worse mess of not tending to important matters.

A Perfect MessBut I didn’t really understand what was happening until I picked up this book, A Perfect Mess – The Hidden Benefits of Disorder by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman.

I was kind of excited by the title. Will this book allow me to live my messy life free of guilt?

But I was also skeptical. I love the feeling of being organized. And I can definitely see the benefits of it.

So I delved in and how interesting it proved to be.

Now you may have heard of “A Perfect Mess.” I have read numerous attacks on it actually. And I can see some of the points behind the criticism. But really, this book has a lot to offer society.

First I’d like to highlight a passage that clarifies the authors’ stance;

“Let’s be clear on a few important points. First of all, it’s obvious that at a certain point mess becomes dysfunctional. We’re now saying that messier is always better. We’re not anarchists calling for the dissolution of national government, social order and organizations. Burying oneself in extraneous clutter and operating without rhyme or reason quickly becomes paralyzing – those are examples of what we call “pathological mess,” about which we’ll have something to say later on. Some situations leave little room for mess; nobody would want to go to a messy eye surgeon. Rather, we argue that there is an optimal less of mess for every aspect of every system. That is in any situation there is a type and level of mess at which effectiveness is maximized, and our assertion is that people and organizations frequently err on the side of over-organization. In many cases they can improve by increasing mess, if it’s done in the right way. At a minimum, recognizing the benefits of mess can be a major stress-reducer – many of us are already operating at a more-or-less appropriate level of mess, but labor under the mistaken belief we’re failing in some way because of it….Also, we are in no way saying that people should be slobs; a certain amount of cosmetic neatening…can go a long way. Indeed, as you’ll see, we encourage it in many situations.” (emphasis mine)

In essence, in this book, the authors are trying to help people to discover what is the most cost effective and efficient amount of organization needed for your situation. What works best for you, your family or your company?

And it is with this point that I think the book could help many individuals and organizations. Often people and companies are consumed with organization to the level that they cost themselves or their companies valuable time and resources in the pursuit and the appearance of organization. Sometimes a certain level of disorder would be more profitable.

I am not sure if you have experienced the problem, (but I imagine many of you have,) of an over-managing at work. Excess meetings, over-planning and additional levels of management, sometimes reduce the amount of work getting done without increasing the quality of the work or the vision of the company.

Abrahamson and Freedman go to great lengths to get this point across, giving examples of how the cost of this over-organization is actually hurting some people.

And while one can definitely argue the case for organization and structure, (but please remember that neither I nor the authors are calling for sloppy companies and unguided work forces,) I appreciated many of the points the authors made.

But perhaps the most useful thing I learned from the book was about why my messy desk works for me.

Yes for many people whose instincts are to be organized and disciplined, their systems work for them. Great! That is what we are going for – systems that work.

But my system, although it could definitely use some primping, also seems to work for me. And when I read Abrahamson and Freedman’s explanation, I understood why:

“A messy desk can be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system. People with messy desks enlist any number of different strategies, often unconsciously, for keeping the work they need at hand. In general, a messy desk tends to end up so that the more important, more urgent work stays close by and near the top of the clutter, while the safely ignorable stuff tends to get buried near the back – which makes perfect sense.”

It was in this that I discovered why my system of leaving papers in front of me works for me. They are in my way! And eventually if I want peace from them I will have to deal with them. If I neatly stack them out of sight or put them in a folder, they will no longer bug me. And in my ridiculously busy world – the squeaky wheel gets the oil. I am actually using a filing system that works for me!

Now does this mean that I throw myself over to my messy urges and give into my procrastination, letting my piles multiply until I can no longer find my computer?

NO – not at all. I just have to recognize what level of organization works best for me. What amount of time can I afford to devote to tidying? What are the costs of organization?

I believe those answers are different for everyone. And when we recognize our cost-benefit analysis (such as is having the carpet vacuumed daily more important than sitting down and reading with your child or going to see his afternoon game?) than we can relieve ourselves of this incredible pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect.

A perfectly tidy house comes at a cost. Are you willing to take that cost? Or are you going to find a happy medium (please find a healthy balance – the carpets DO need to be vacuumed eventually!) and then release yourself from the guilt of a not-perfect life.

If you have the resources and can afford to have perfection – great! If that is what makes you happy – wonderful! (If I had the money to have someone constantly tidying my house, perfecting the organization in my life, than sure I would love it. But that is not my financial reality!)

I think most of us crazy busy moms are just trying to survive and provide a healthy, balanced home for our children. We don’t have the option of perfection, but we constantly live under the guilt of not achieving it.

Does this mean I am giving up Tackle it Tuesday? Good grief NO!

Tackle it Tuesday fits perfectly into my plan. You see my biggest battle is against procrastination and that is why I do Tackle it Tuesday – because it forces me to have accountability and to not give in to an unhealthy amount of chaos.

Like I said – the floors must be vacuumed – the fridge eventually must be washed and sorted out – the piles on the desk must be tended to and the tasks actually accomplished.

I still believe my son is better off with an organized system for his toys, so that he can enjoy them more. If all his toys are thrown into a big box, he will be too overwhelmed or unable to find the items he is looking for.

But I do think that I need to pull out some toys, or encourage him to, so that he can get engaged and excited to play with them. Too often I leave toys neatly packed up and they never get touched because he has forgotten they even exist. (I am all for the rotating toys system.)

A certain level of mess may very well be beneficial – for the busy mom and for the overloaded executive. A Perfect Mess is opening the subject up for discussion, helping us to discover the most effective level of organization for each situation and to accept this level without guilt.

Extremes are hardly ever healthy and I believe this book gives some balance to the rarely argued side of disorder.

And as for me and my piles – well I just need to keep tackling so that those urgent tasks sitting next to my computer actually get done!


  1. says

    My husband was just telling me a similar thing the other day, after I burst into tears, just not sure how I was going to cope with #3 due in about six weeks and my other two only three years and younger. He said “Listen, you’re doing really well. To achieve some higher level of tidiness/cleanliness would require an amount of energy that you simply don’t have to give right now. And that’s okay.” I suppose being given permission by the most important person in my life was the ‘release’ that I needed to really give myself freedom to enjoy the kids and not alienate them in an effort to achieve perfection at home.

  2. says

    You’ve explained to me why when I need to pay the bills I insist on putting my whole bill pile on the front kitchen counter, and refuse to let anyone put it away!

    Mary, mom to many

  3. says

    I was in the middle of reading your post when I heard the very same words coming from the television. ‘The Perfect Mess’ and concepts from the book were featured on The Today Show! I stopped reading and listened and came back to finish reading. I’ll tell you that I got a lot more info on the book from your post, but it was great to see another perspective on it, too.
    I’ve always been told that creative people are messier. I must be REALLY creative. I do strive to keep my clutter under control, but I confess that I can forget important things if they are filed away. I’d like to think that my house is relatively clean and peaceful, but it is definitely ‘lived in’! I don’t want anyone to come in and feel like they can’t relax because of one extreme or another- being too clean or too messy. I’m all for the happy medium!

  4. says

    This book ties in great with an upcoming MOPS meeting we are having in my church about de-cluttering your life (and your house lol). Thanks for a great read to add to my to-do list :)

  5. says

    I try to stay somewhat organized. This usually means I got through piles of mail maybe once a week or so! LOL! But I always keep the urgent stuff out and in plain view so that I can see it. You’re not the only one where out-of-sight-out-of-mind comes into play. I put away the stuff I can deal with later, but always leave the urgent out to be seen and dealt with.

  6. says

    So my neat and tidy piles are normal? No matter how often I clean off the kitchen counter or the table, the piles pop back up. I try to stay organized, but it may not look that way to the untrained eye. Every pile has it’s purpose and is organized in it’s own way. I should probably get that book:)

  7. says

    Interesting. I know that for me, when I get super-organized and put everything away — that’s when I start to lose things (paperwork, etc.). I can’t remember where in my “organized system” I put things. Maybe I’m just not a good organizer! Or maybe I need some level of mess to be at my personal most efficient. Good food for thought.

  8. says

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, Janice! I am with you (and the authors of the book). I never recommend to my clients that they put papers away that they need to act on, I call folders and baskets “the black hole”. If it’s put away, that is an indication to your mind that you have completed the project. In fact, right here: http://www.its-not-about-your-stuff.com/2006/12/the_new_york_ti.html, I discuss an article that reviews the book from the New York Times and actually show pictures of my own ‘messy’ desk that I am perfectly ok with.

    My only concern about this book is that people will see it as an excuse to continue dysfunctional patterns. I don’t see what you are saying that way at all, in fact, you have inspired me to read the book and see what all the flap is about!

    all the best,

    Ask the Organizer,

    Jessica Duquette

  9. says

    I agree its more important to spend time with your kids than having a perfect house. I think it goes back to the Martha and Mary lesson. Its more important to spend time with people than cleaning. Its taken me years to get to the point where I dont mind too much what my house looks like. I came from a home where my mother was a perfectionist and she would care way too much what people thought of her. It effected me badly. I use to bust my gut cleaning up the house if I knew company was coming now if there are toys lieing around I dont mind so much. It means my children have been free to play (and learn though that play).

    “I am all for the rotating toys system.” so am I. In fact I already do this with Daniel

    Thanks for these posts Janice Im going to go and check out the Tackle it Tuesday site now and hang out a load of washing :)

  10. says

    I really took a lot away from this article. I come from a family where all the women resemble the virtuous mother. As such, I have strived to constantly “hold it all together”- be a perfect mom, a perfect wife, a clean house, a successful business while at the same time spending lots of time with my son. In a word, it has left me- exhausted.

    Surely other’s can never see that I cannot “do it all”. Somewhere along the line, with all of the judging us mom’s do back and forth (admit it, some of you do it!), we think we need to be perfect at everything.

    Thanks for opening my eyes that if it works for me, it is okay to function guilt-free with the messy desk and the not-so-perfect house.

  11. says

    My husband is a perfectionist where I am not. And with two small children and ministry going on at the same time mess happens . . . It is a constant touching point that I express to him that I can only hold to so high of a standard to mother well. I think I would agree with a lot in this book, but it’s my hubby who might need to read it. 😉

  12. says

    i totally hear you.
    i can relate it to when i became a mama. EVERYONE around me was very scheduled etc with their babies and so i tried to do it the same way.
    the extremely scheduled way does not work for me. i wish it did but it does not. and things were much happier once i figured that out.

    shalom sister!

  13. says

    Now THIS looks like a terrific book. I’m off to amazon.com to add it to my “wishlist.” I tend to live in some level of chaos, and then go into whirlwinds of cleanup. Works for me!

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