Look at my stationery box, and weep. It has separate compartments not only for 80 & 90 gsm paper, but for different types of rough paper. So am I a filing supremo, successfully battling the twin evils of mess and disorder? Not quite.


I file and sort where necessary, but my natural state is slightly messy. Or creatively cluttered, as I like to call it. Fortunately, as Abrahamson and Freedman show in their wonderful book A Perfect Mess*, that is a good way to be.

moderately disorganized people, institutions, and systems frequently turn out to be more efficient, more resilient, more creative, and in general more effective than highly organized ones.

We imagine that organized is good and mess is bad, Abrahamson and Freedman say, but that’s only true in certain circumstances. Brain surgery or air-traffic control come to mind. Over time, most of us develop our own way of working and the degree of messiness that we’re comfortable with.

We compare ourselves to the super-tidy and think we’re failing, but unless our messiness qualifies us for a reality TV programme on secret hoarders, we’re probably OK. True, we may have a problem if we live with someone who has different views about mess. But at least we can see that our styles are personal preferences, not “Order = Good, Mess = Bad”.

A Perfect Mess has wonderful, self-explanatory titles for the ways people deal with mess, such as ‘the Tower of Power’ and ‘the Archaeologist! I love the descriptions of different types of messiness, which include:

  • The cosmetically neat messy pile things into drawers or cupboards when visitors come round.
  • The sloppily messy don’t stick to an established scheme of order
  • The structurally messy don’t even have an established scheme of order

I’m definitely cosmetically neat: when visitors or clients come round, I collect all loose items up in a laundry basket and stick it in another room. A strategy which fails if visitors get lost on the way to the bathroom. I arrange the heaps of papers on my desk into neat piles – and marvel all over again at what a nice colour my desk is.

Left to myself, my desk is semi-messy. I have a box which I sort out every … (coughs) two or three years. I blitz the paper piles every couple of weeks, filing only what I definitely need to keep. Leave it long enough and many things go out of date and can be thrown away.

The ‘expert declutterers’ point to the time wasted looking for those odd bits of paper, instead of being able to go straight to the file. But what of the time spent putting in the filing system and keeping it up to date? Yes, it takes a couple of minutes to go through piles of papers in search of something, but it’s not wasted time. It’s a visual To-do list, which tells us where each piece of paper is.

Abrahamson and Freedman’s suggest a simple, slightly tongue-in-cheek, strategy called ACE:

  • Aw, relax.
  • Carve out time. 
  • Eject some stuff.

I didn’t mind spending time sorting my stationery box, because it helps me lay my hands on the right kind of paper when I’m preparing training courses. For the rest, I’m going with moderate disorganization and a very large laundry basket.

*A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place by Eric Abrahamson and David H Freedman  Weidenfeld & Nicolson London 2006

Are you organized or messy?
What works for you?
Do you feel under pressure to be a certain way?


Anne Borrowdale is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk.

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