David H. Freedman is a contributing editor and the technology columnist at Inc. magazine. He is an occasional contributor to Newsweek, and he has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, Atlantic Monthly, Science, and Wired. He is the author of Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines and Brainmakers: How Scientists Are Moving Beyond Computers to Create a Rival to the Human Brain. Erik Hansen talks to him about his current book, which he coauthored with Eric Abrahamson, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder—How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place.
tompeters.com asks ...
What is the book about, Dave?
DF: Well, the book addresses a longstanding and very strong bias in society—and this plays out in business, in politics, in daily life, and pretty much everywhere else—that the more ordered, more organized, and neater you are, the better. That this is simply a bias and not a law of nature is easily shown any number of ways, and it has a huge effect on us and on our organizations. It turns out that being at least moderately messy in most situations is at least as good as, and often better than, being very neat, ordered, and organized.
You write at one point that given their druthers most people would end up having a messy desk. And I think anyone I have ever talked to—and just looking at my own desk—it's fairly scattershot. But, we all feel guilty about our messes, right?
DF: That's nearly universal. Yes, it is programmed into us, and it's an interesting question as to whether there's a genetic component to that programming. Perhaps there was some advantage that neatness conferred on early man. There's some evidence that in archeological sites that very early man was, in fact, at least moderately organized. But, there's no question that there's a societal bias that's grown for historic reasons over the last two centuries and has really picked up steam in the last couple of decades. And it is essentially programmed into us from birth that being neater and more organized is better. No wonder we all feel guilty when we get a little messy or disorganized, as most of us do.
What got you and Mr. Abrahamson going on the path to writing this book?
DF: Well, about 13 years ago I did an article for a science magazine on a physicist who had stumbled on this new field in science called stochastic resonance—stochastic just being, as you probably know, a fancy word for disorder or noise. The basic idea of stochastic resonance is that if you add disorder to a physical system, like an electronic circuit, that, in many cases, instead of having this added noise drown out the signal, it actually amplifies the signal.
This physicist, Frank Moss, looked around to see where else this might apply in nature, and it turns out it applies everywhere in nature. Stochastic resonance appears everywhere you look. It's in biology. As I said, it's in electronic circuits. It's in astronomy. It's in population dynamics. It's everywhere. And now 10,000 papers a year are published on stochastic resonance. And this isn't some new age kind of thing. I mean, this is solid physics.
So I got interested in this, and I thought "Wow, this kind of sounds like a book. Except, I wonder where else it applies. I wonder if it goes beyond science. I wonder if it applies to people and organizations." And so I've been working on and off on this for 13 years. Then, about four years ago I actually ran into Eric Abrahamson socially and found out that he, in fact, was interested in useful disorganization. I interviewed him and he had some good ideas, so I asked him to be my coauthor and he gracefully accepted. And so we ended up working together.
Is it a stretch from stochastic resonance to mess? You cover a tremendous amount of ground under the heading of mess. Does it all belong under this heading?
DF: Well, let me establish the link for you, and you can be the judge. I would argue that it does. But, on the other hand, I don't take it personally when someone says, as many people have, that "Well, you're trying to stretch these points too far. That's a matter of personal opinion." But, here's the basic idea behind stochastic resonance.
When you invite in randomness, then some of the things that randomness confers will be bad for you. Whatever goodness is in the system, some of what randomness does will be bad—will work against your goals. Some of it will be neutral. And some of it will be good. It turns out that in many situations, it's easy to catch the bad stuff. In many cases the bad stuff will cancel out, or you can just filter it out, or you can just deal with it easily.
Once you do that, you can always safely ignore the neutral stuff. Then, what's left is the good stuff. And a messy desk is a great example, because when you have a messy desk you let stuff accumulate. What bad things occur as a result of that? There just aren't a lot of bad things that come out of a messy desk. You have to go excavating through piles to find things, that's true. But that turns out to actually be a good thing, because when you excavate through a pile to find something, you end up discovering a lot of things that you had forgotten about. And if you had filed them away, they would have remained forgotten.
So that's just a simple example.
But, the bad side there is if you happen to have left your electricity bill in that pile.
DF: Exactly. That's a bad thing. That's not to say that if you were really careful about filing it away that you would necessarily pay your bills on time. And, in fact, I think many people in excavating through a pile and stumbling on the bill, would be more likely to pay the bill than if they had filed it away. But, yes, sometimes something is going to get buried and forgotten and it might not have been—
But you also raise the issue of time in all this, and the amount of time it would take me, for instance, to take everything on my desk and file it away as opposed to how much time I actually spend sorting through stacks to find something. I think you are really saying that you're probably spending less time sorting through what you think is a disorganized pile than you would spend organizing all of it into neat folders and in a file cabinet somewhere.
DF: You bet. And first of all, there are studies to back this up. We did a survey for the book that backed this up: People who keep messy desks actually spend less time looking for things than people with neat desks. And you know what? Common sense backs this up. If you're a busy person, and a lot of stuff is coming across your desk—how can you possibly keep a pristine, neat desk if you're not spending a significant amount of time processing paper that could otherwise have been safely ignored if you had a messy desk. You can't be extremely neat and organized unless you put a lot of resources into it. And you know what, it's the second law of thermodynamics: Entropy increases. Whatever you do, the more productive you are, the more mess you create. And the only way to deal with that is to spend a lot of energy to get rid of the mess.
Right. And the people who are unbelievably neat are usually the serial killers, right?
DF: Well, you know, part of the culture here, of course, is that a moral judgment is rendered by society on messy people. So I try not to return the favor and render that same kind of judgment against really neat people. But, I think most of us know—a lot of really neat people admit that they spend way too much time straightening up—we all kind of recognize this. So it's kind of funny that we hold up neatness as an ideal when we know that neat freaks waste a lot of time doing it.
Actually, I just recalled as you said that, my older brother who is a little tightly wound, I think, spending a Sunday afternoon—the better part of the day—with one of those desktop pad calendars and filling in every day very neatly what he was going to do, where, and color-coding it with different colored highlighters. And I just thought, "Whoa!"
DF: We see that kind of thing, and we do think "Whoa." We all kind of recognize it. At a certain point it becomes really dysfunctional, and yet we just still feel that we should be neater, we should be more organized. Even though we know that at a certain point it's clearly dysfunctional.
Where to begin? I don't know if this is the revenge of the hippies finally, or just a point in cultural history. But, you know, I recently read The Starfish and the Spider by Rod Beckström. It's about leaderless organizations. It's about letting go of control. There seem to be a lot of books now about how to manage without being in control, and you veer heavily in this direction in your book. You call it "messy." And that's not the issue, but it's about, is this happening, is it a time and place, is it we're just so far out from the 1950s and Eisenhower and clean desks that it's sort of a natural progression? Does this "internet thing" make this happen?
DF: Well, I think there are a lot of forces at work here, and they're going in a lot of different directions. I think in the business world it's true. It's generally believed now that the command and control organization is not such a great thing. And we look for less controlling forms of management. Obviously, Tom Peters was a leader in that movement and he still is, and I do happen to think it's a good thing. There is a lot of overlap between that notion and the notion of a messier organization, or messy leadership. However, they're not the same things.
One of the things I point out in the book is that it's easy to envision an organization that is highly distributed but extremely neat. They're not the same things. You can have a command and control organization that is extremely messy. In fact, I like to use the U.S. Marines as a good example of that. Every marine, in general, has three people under his or her command. It is a classic sort of pyramid organization. Listen, it's the Marines—it's command and control, right?
On the other hand, the Marines build a lot of messiness into the way they operate—a tremendous amount, more than any other military organization. They have to deal with urban combat, which is highly unpredictable. It's very complex. So any sort of rigid order, rigid schemes, tight chain of command falls apart in the fog of war, especially in urban combat. The marines are taught to improvise—to act when there's no one to get orders from, to jump anywhere they need to in the chain of command. It's a messy organization that's very command and control. So that's why I draw that distinction.
There's something in the book about not planning too far ahead. What's it called?
DF: Oh, the Marines. Yeah, I learned that one from the Marines: "Plan early, plan twice." I went to some of their exercises where they went through all the mission planning. It was a live fire exercise. And they do their planning at the last minute. I mean, they put it off until late at night before the dawn raid. That's when they sit down and figure out what they're going to do.
Right, because there are so many variables that would have changed before that, and will continue to change, actually.
DF: Yeah. And that's why procrastination is an issue as well. You know, very neat, organized people hate procrastination, and so they try to deal with something right away. Meanwhile, the world changes, and much of what they do turns out to be irrelevant. There's a failure to prioritize when you don't procrastinate.
Good point. I'm a great procrastinator. And finally—I'm in my 50s now—I've finally gotten comfortable with the idea. You just realize, well, you know what, you're not going to get zeroed in on this until there's a certain amount of pressure.
DF: It's funny you should say that, because surveys back this up. As people get older they tend to get messier. And it also increases with increasing responsibility and increasing salary. That includes procrastination and other forms of messiness. Now, if that doesn't tell you something about the value of disorder, I don't know what does.
But you do say at one point, "We argue that there's an optimal level of mess for every aspect of every system." What does that really mean?
DF: That means that messier isn't always better. Some people have taken the point of the book to be that you should be a mess and that messiness is great. That's not the point of the book. The point of the book is that it's wrong to be blindly biased toward neatness and order. And, in fact, you must consider the fact that there's a spectrum, and it's not obvious where on the neatness and order spectrum you belong in any particular situation. Now, you can be messy in many different dimensions in terms of space, in terms of time, in terms of mode of thought, management style, corporate structure, and so forth and so on. For each one of these dimensions in any organization at any one time will probably have a level on the spectrum—a point on the spectrum where things will work the best—where you're bringing in enough randomness to really take advantage of good randomness, but you're not being buried in some of the disadvantages of excessive mess.
But maybe that's the point, as I look around my messy office, with stacks of books, and books I'm never going to read. At some point I'll give some of them away. But when you're neat, you know when you've achieved maximum neatness, right? When everything is off the desk and theoretically filed away. The fact is it's more easily defined, and therefore easier to achieve in a way.
DF: Yes, it's more easily defined. I like to say—with apologies to Tolstoy—that "All neat people are alike, and messy people are messy in their own way." So you're right, it's easier to define, and it's easier to recognize when you've achieved it. That doesn't mean it's easier to achieve. Achieving maximum neatness is sort of like achieving the speed of light; it gets tougher and tougher the closer you get.
I just meant that as a way of explaining why we feel so guilty about not being neat, because I can look around my office, and I know what neat would look like. Correct?
Now this mess could get to the point where, you know, some old guy living down the street finally dies, and then the police go in and they can barely find a path through all the piles of newspapers and magazines to find him.
DF: That's right, an extreme mess can be a problem; it is a problem for probably at least a few million Americans. And typically, it's older people, or people with an underlying disorder of some sort, such as ADD, or OCD, but especially older people. So it does become dysfunctional at a certain point. And most of us have built in alarm systems to recognize when a mess is becoming dysfunctional. Most of us do at least the minimal amount of straightening up we need to do to avoid a truly dysfunctional mess.
One of the big surprises for me in this book was your story about Arnold Schwarzenegger. What's the story with how he operates?
DF: The fact is that until he ran for governor he didn't have an appointment calendar. You couldn't make an appointment with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now, this is a busy guy. First of all, what was he? An athlete, a movie star, a politician. Here's a guy who has mixed and matched every kind of endeavor and attitude and philosophy that you can imagine, and kept no calendar. So in every way the guy was incredibly disorganized. And, in fact, there's this myth about Schwarzenegger—that from the time he was a child he planned to conquer the world of bodybuilding, come to America, become a movie star and marry a Kennedy, become governor and then president. It's a total myth.
I'll tell you how Arnold Schwarzenegger came to America. A friend called him from an airport in Germany and said, "I'm going to America." And Schwarzenegger said, "Wait for me." He showed up at the airport with a gym bag and his sweat clothes and no visa. That's how he came to America. It's very typical of his life. The man has run out of gas more times than probably any human being in the world.
So if somebody wanted to get to him they just called and if he was available he might say yes and—
DF: Exactly. He lived what he himself called—I mean, less so as a governor—he called it "an improvisational lifestyle." And, in fact, that's true of the way he did bodybuilding as well. Obviously, he is a very disciplined guy. But if you actually read his early bodybuilding books, he's a very early advocate and pioneer of the idea of mixing up your routines. At that time when he started coming into prominence in the 1960s in bodybuilding, it was accepted that you had a rigid routine and you did the same thing every day. And Schwarzenegger said, "No. Mix it up—that's how you get over the hump that most bodybuilders reach."
Another oft-repeated tale that you throw some light on in here is this notion ... Well, there's a story about managers and trying to get them to understand they don't have to be so rigid in how they manage, and that they can understand that, but then getting out of their very engrained habits is difficult. So somebody says, "Well, do other little things differently." Every creativity book I've ever read at some point always states, "Drive a different way to work." I've always wondered, what the hell does that do? In that story the guy explains this thing about webs. I just thought that was very interesting. The whole idea is just changing one little behavior in hopes that it will sort of crack the wall to larger behaviors, right?
DF: Yes. This guy, Ben Fletcher, is an Oxford-trained psychologist and educator. He came up with this metaphor for why these sorts of seemingly random and irrelevant changes allow you to make specific desirable changes. He uses the metaphor of a web and says that basically the important behaviors you want to change or improve in some way are caught in the middle of this web, and you have no more luck pulling on them than would a fly caught in a web.
However, if you change little things that are easy to change, like the way you drive to work or, you know, the order in which you shave and wash up, and that sort of thing, that you're snipping little pieces of the web. And if you snip enough of those, you start to loosen the web up so that you can make more important changes. That's his metaphor.
I'd like to think of it in terms of stochastic resonance, which again has been proven many times to be in effect in the human brain. And I think what's going on is that when you start inviting in randomness, no matter where it is, your brain works better. I think you operate more effectively, and you're able to do things that you need to do.
Right, which raises the specter of the 13-year-old kid at home. We hear this example all the time. And I think you refer to it as well. She's IM-ing with eight of her girlfriends and doing her homework. Maybe she's got music blasting in the room. She's got different music blasting from her iPod directly into her ears. The television is on. And any of us who were born before 1970 think. "Oh my God, she can't function." It seems there's the beginning of understanding—well, actually, they can study and remember. Is there some sort of a mapping thing that goes with that?
DF: Well, yes. There's a lot of conjecture that what happens is that our brains essentially become hardwired when we're young and around whatever conditions we grew up in. And so, as you say, for those of us who grew up in households typically where we had a stay-at-home mom who kept the place relatively neat, and where everyone believed you needed a quiet, isolated environment to work in—we didn't have all this electronic stimulation—we became hardwired around that sort of work and peace and quiet. And that's fine for us. That's not the way kids are brought up now. The evidence is very strong that kids really thrive in this multitasking, highly multi-stimulated environment.
In fact, test scores are rising. Just look at how the United States performs by almost any measure. And it's really hard to argue that people need some sort of quiet, focused way of studying. It just doesn't seem to be true anymore.
There's one study being done, and I think I've mentioned this in the book, at Cornell, where they allow students to use the Web as much as they want on their laptops in class. And they've found out that the more Web sites a student goes to during class, the higher that student's grades. So, there's a correlation between visiting many Web sites and getting good grades during class.
I'm wondering if there's some connection. They're hearing a professor lecture at them—I guess this model still holds—and then they're seeing a visual thing. Is there some connection? Is that information then recalled in memory more easily because there's a visual that goes with it?
DF: Yes. I know what you're referring to. It's called memory stamping. There's a memory stamping effect. And this is well known among cognitive psychologists, where if something is associated with the thing you want to remember, you remember it more easily. And it can be almost any kind of stimulation.
That may very well be in effect here. But that's the way the human memory works. Unlike a computer memory, we remember things in a web of associations. So sometimes memory actually works better if you have distractions and other things on which to tie a memory.
Have you read Dan Pink's book, A Whole New Mind?
DF: No, I haven't.
One of the points in it is that we're sort of moving from left brained to right brained, and we're becoming more visual——we're learning visually. Obviously, we've grown up on TV—the hottest thing at the moment is YouTube—and we're just addicted to moving images. But it seems that there's a reason why many of us learn more readily that way. It's a stronger learning mechanism.
DF: Yeah, I think it's been known forever that at least some people have a strong visual component to learning. I think now we see that it's probably most of us that have at least some ability to improve what we learn with visual stimulation.
We're getting close to the end of the interview. Let's talk about lists, because you take a few of our favorite consultants to task. What's your take on lists, since we're all making them.
DF: That's right. And I make lists, too. But what I somewhat object to or point out potential problems with, is the idea of thinking that if you do a great job at lists, you're going to be a more effective person. This idea of becoming very, very reliant on lists is something that's central, for example, to David Allen's organizational philosophy. The problem with that idea is that when you rely very heavily on a list and its order, then you lose some types of improvisational ability. You're becoming more rigid in what it is you focus on, and you become focused in a detrimental way more often. I think there are a lot of advantages to not thinking in terms of what's the next thing on my list, and I must focus on that. I think it's often much better to be constantly reassessing what it is you might be best doing at the moment, and to sort of take it as it comes.
The problem with a list is, what's at the top of it? Now, organized gurus like David Allen and others don't agree on what should be on the top of your list. They take different approaches to it. And each has its benefits and drawbacks. But, the very idea that there's one thing that you should be focused on, I think, is a non-starter. I think you're losing right from the first step.
As soon as you start thinking in terms of "The thing I should be working on right now," it's a mistake, because things change. Your frame of mind is going to change. New information is going to come in. You're going to find yourself in constantly changing situations. What you should be working on at any one moment is probably going to change from one second to the next. I think it's critical these days to be a multi-tasker. Although it's true that multi-tasking can sometimes degrade our performance in individual tasks, I think overall it makes us much more effective as a person.
When people get very list oriented, they start to think in a very serial and linear way in terms of how they move through the day. I think we should be thinking much more in terms of parallel activities, multi-tasking, and non-linear activity.
Or make a list that looks like one of those mind map things where it's actually not number one, two, three, four, but just a bunch of ideas on a piece of paper.
DF: Yeah, I think that's one way to do it. I mean, I write down a list. At all times I have a list of things that I'm working on, and I just bounce all over the list. I read it over. Most of the time I don't bother to look at it, and then when I do look at it, I try to look at a big chunk of it and just bounce around it. What's at the top of the list is not necessarily what I'm going to be thinking about.
This is a book that you can give to anyone and they'll love you for it. There is probably a slight difference between how men and women perceive this, however.
DF: There is a difference between how men and women perceive it; you're absolutely right. Although it turns out that there isn't a bit of difference between how messy women and men are. It's not true that men tend to be messier, and women tend to be neater. It's pretty much 50/50 on that one. However, women tend to be harsher judges about what a mess is and what it isn't. They tend to feel guiltier about their own messiness than men do, and they are harsher judges of their partners' messiness.
Right, because guys will leave their socks around a lot.
DF: Well, women do that too, as it turns out. It's just that women feel worse and get angrier about it.
We'll leave that for everyone to think about. I want to thank you for your time, thank you for the book.
DF: Thank you for your interest.
Email: dhfreedman (at) - gmail.com