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Messy? Authors say that isn't such a bad thing

"If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk?"

-- Albert Einstein

Every year, you make the same resolutions. You're going to lose weight and keep the house clean. No more backpacks, coats and shoes strewn across the living-room floor; no beds unmade or socks unmatched.

Not so fast, say Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of the new book "A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder (How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-The-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place)."

The authors claim that if you're the type of person who is moderately disorganized - that is, you tend to scatter things, mix things around, let things pile up, do things out of order, be inconsistent and wing it - you're probably more efficient, resilient, creative and in general more effective than someone who is highly organized.

"The fact of the matter is there are a lot of things to like about being messy that have been hugely ignored," Freedman says in a telephone interview from his home in Boston.

The authors pooh-pooh the notion that they're just slackers trying to justify their own bad habits.

Abrahamson is a professor of management at Columbia University's School of Business who has written an academic paper on the benefits of messiness, and Freedman is a business and science journalist who has written for publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and Newsweek. Freedman says their book is based on hundreds of sources, including surveys and numerous interviews with people - messy and neat.

The book's most compelling argument for the benefits of messiness and disorder is that they save people time and make them more efficient.

"There are people who spend all day keeping things in their places who really wish they had time to do other things," Freedman says. "But they feel obligated to do this."

As for the office, a survey done by the authors found that people who say they keep a "very neat" desk at work spend an average of 36 percent more time looking for things than people who say they keep a "fairly messy" desk.

"That's because it takes time to put every paper in its place in a filing cabinet or folder," Freedman says, whereas messy people tend to put things in "surprisingly sophisticated" piles that they can easily access.

The authors also found that a messy house is more nurturing to children, "who by their nature love a mess." Freedman says he interviewed many middle-aged people who grew up in antiseptic homes and who "still remembered being screamed at for running across the carpet or leaving a glass someplace."

Still, slobs have a bad image.

In one study conducted at the University of Texas, subjects who viewed a clean dorm room came away with positive feelings about its inhabitant; those who saw a messy room harbored negative feelings toward that person.

Freedman blames the media for nonstop messages that clean and organized places are good and messy homes or offices are bad. A major purveyor of that message is Martha Stewart, who offers instructions on organizing everything from spices to wrapping paper and ribbons. Stewart didn't respond to The Hartford Courant's request for a comment on the book; perhaps the message just got filed away.

Freedman - who acknowledges that he and his wife are "a bit on the messy side" - says he first became interested in the benefits of disorder while writing a magazine article about a physics professor who discovered that certain kinds of scientific systems worked better if you made them messier.

Freedman wondered if this theory might apply to the home and office as well, and he teamed up with Abrahamson to investigate the topic.

Freedman says they found that messiness hasn't always had a bad image. "They didn't even have a word for it until the 19th century," he says.

That changed in Victorian times, when people began to accumulate nice things and wanted to keep them perfectly clean, he says. Then, with the invention of appliances, he says, cleanliness "got really, really out of control."

That led to the growth of today's "professional organizers."

Freedman says these organizers operate on the premise that most people have a lot of "neatening" to do, "a job that requires a big commitment - expertise, a large block of time and an array of paraphernalia."

"Organizers reassure the clients that they'll ultimately be much happier having gotten rid of their stuff. But is it really true that people won't regret getting rid of some items that are cast out in the name of straightening up?

"In fact, all kinds of wonderful, valuable and useful things get thrown out in the name of organizing. Almost anyone over the age of 40 has had the experience of realizing with a pang that their childhood collections of baseball cards or comic books or Barbie dolls would be worth a fortune today, never mind their sentimental value."

Barry Izsak, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers and the author of "Organize Your Garage In No Time," disputes Freedman's contention that an organizer's main goal is to give things the heave-ho.

"Most organizers' mantra is that we don't throw anything away. The client needs to make that decision," says Izsak, owner of Arranging It All ... From Your Closets to Your Life, an Austin, Texas, company that guarantees clients will be able to find anything in their home or office within five seconds.

Freedman says he has nothing against neat people, but still he wonders, "What are you getting out of it really?"

He says clutter-free homes don't say much about the people who live in them. "While in a messy house things are lying around that you don't necessarily want visitors to see, they give a sense of the family that lives there."