By: Tim Harford



Often in life, we try our best to figure out how to tame our inbox, we spend hours filling in questionnaires on dating websites hoping to find our perfect match, or take our kids to the local playground instead of letting them run loose in the neighborhood.

We operate our daily life in a way to create a world that is well ordered, systemised, quantified and neatly structured. We surrender to the temptation of a tidy-minded approach in the belief that it will make our life better.

But did you know that the way you’ve been operating on a daily basis all but ensures that you are not ready to deal with the challenges that life throws at you in creative and novel ways?

We’ve grown up in a world that is transitioning from the Industrial Revolution. Most of what we do on a day-to-day basis - work rigid hours at our workplace, keeping our workspace neat and tidy, and doing things as efficiently as possible - was designed for an era that has long since left us.

When you are optimising for efficiency, this makes sense. But when you are optimising for effectiveness, where we are called upon to deliver creative solutions to whatever problem shows up today, keeping everything in your life in order actually hinders your performance because you are less likely to adapt and improvise.

The virtues of the messy—the untidy, unquantified, uncoordinated, improvised, imperfect, incoherent, crude, cluttered, random, ambiguous, vague, difficult, diverse, or even dirty - are what we need in order to become masters of creative solutions.

There is a time and place for both efficiency and effectiveness, but you should recognise the difference and engineer your environment (which includes everything in your life) so that you are getting the results you need, when you need them. Author Tim Harford believes that the foundation for success is often messiness.

Get Messy

When you explore the same old approaches, you get the same results. But when you’re forced to do something different, that’s when the magic happens.

Often, messiness comes in the form of distractions. Many people believe that they can only do their best work in a controlled setting – a neat desk, no background music, no clutter, no mess. However, messiness is often the setting in which the best ideas are formed.

There have been multiple studies done by psychologists around distractions in relation to creativity. In one, pairs of people were shown slides that were a combination of blue and green.

They were asked to identify if the slide was the main color – blue or green. However, one member of each pair was actually part of the experiment, and they would sometimes call out green when the slide was clearly blue. This was confusing for the participant and distracted them from their focus.

Then, the subjects were asked to free-associate words connected with “blue” and “green.” Those that had been confused by the partner mislabeling the color gave more original word associations than those that didn’t, suggesting that confusion leads to creativity.

In the Workplace

Steve Jobs understood the importance of collaboration. That’s why he wanted to design Pixar’s headquarters with only one restroom off the main lobby. Because of this, he believed, people would be serendipitously meet fueled by the human need to urinate.

However, Jobs was making one simple mistake. He was right in thinking that the building design affects the way people work – but it wasn’t necessarily how he thought.

In 2010, two psychologists at the University of Exeter set up an experiment in simple office spaces. Some were in a psychology lab and some were in a commercial office. Experimental subjects spent an hour on administrative tasks in four different layouts and were examined based on how efficiently they worked and how satisfied they were with the work they did.

The first layout was clean with a bare desk, swivel chair, pencil and paper. It was neat and tidy.

The second layout was similar to the first with the addition of some decorations. There were large print photographs of plants having on the wall and some potted plants as well. The workers in this office got more work done, completed it more accurately, and felt better about their experience.

The last two office layouts were similar to the second layout, but differed in who got to decide its appearance. In one layout, participants were invited to spend some time arranging the decorations however they pleased. This office space remained the way the participants wished.

For the final layout, scientists asked the participants how they wanted to decorate the room, and then rearranged the furniture back until it matched the initial setting.

In the office that the participants chose their decorations – and kept them – people got 30% more done than in the first office, and almost 15% more than in the decorated office. The final disempowered layout produced low productivity and low morale.

Afterwards, the psychologists asked the participants about the office they had worked in. If they disliked the office space, they also disliked the company that was hosting it and disliked the task they were doing. The best option for both productivity and happiness was to let workers design their own space.

Recently, it has been quite popular to install playground equipment and other quirky decorations around the office. A well-known example is Googleplex, the Google headquarters in California.

Many people believe this is the secret for their success. However, Google didn’t derive its success from the creatively planned headquarters. It built the toy-filled Googleplex after it was already successful. The first few offices that Google had were straightforward.

It turns out, it doesn’t really matter how the place looks. People will flourish if they can control their own space. Some people warn that an over-decorated desk area will be distracting.

However, people love having control over the space in which they work, and often that control leads to mess. If someone is forced to keep their workspace a way they don’t like, they will be less productive and less satisfied with the work they do.

Steve Jobs was right in believing that more run-ins led to more collaboration, but he didn’t realise how important autonomy was. So when his staff argued about having only one bathroom, he backed down. He compromised and added three more around the building, which still created many opportunities for meet-ups.

Mess isn’t always bad, especially when it is in the form of autonomous decoration. Encourage your employees to decorate their work spaces in whatever style they wish – even if it’s messy.

Life is Messy

We are tidy-minded people who instinctively admire order. However, order isn’t always what is best.

Keeping things in their places will help you keep track of them. But it will not be helpful in dealing with them, because the volume of things to keep track of will distract you from doing what you need to do.

If we focus on practical action, we don’t need to get organised. Organising tasks takes valuable time away from doing tasks.

Think about a messy desk. The unused documents gradually settle at the bottom. The important things find their way to the top. There’s a natural tendency of organisation based on the fact that the useful things will keep getting picked up and left on top of the pile.

One study examined two different types of people: filers and pilers. Filers establish a formal organisational structure for their documents, and pilers let their paperwork accumulate on and around their desk.

They found that filers wasted time filing prematurely in efforts to keep their desk clear, and they would often file documents that didn’t actually have any long-term value. On top of that, they had so many documents filed that they didn’t know where everything was. And because they were devoting so much time to their filing system, they had a harder time throwing things away because it had perceived value.

In contrast, the pilers kept their documents on their desk for a while until they realised they were useless and threw them away. The archives they did have were small and practical and frequently used.

Digital mess can be beneficial too. One study found that people create a new e-mail folder every five days. These deep tree structures can create their own problems, because it takes time to file emails and clicking through folders can often take more time than simply searching your entire inbox.

Real creativity, excitement and humanity lie in the messy parts of life, not the tidy ones. And an appreciation for mess is part of fulfilling our human potential.

A good job, a good building, or a good relationship is open and adaptable. But in the world we live in today, many of those things are not. They are monotonous and controlling. They sacrifice messy possibility for tidy predictability. And often, we let that happen because we think it is safer and better. Tidy is neither safer nor better.

Openness and adaptability are inherently messy. Messy situations are better than we think.


This desire for tidiness has been rooted so deeply in our instinct that we forget to appreciate the virtues of the messy which are actually what we need to become masters of creative solutions for such challenges that life throws at us.

In fact, the worker with the messy inbox ultimately gets more done; we find a soul mate when we ignore these dating websites; the kids running loose in the wasteland not only have more fun and learn more skills, but— counterintuitively— have fewer accidents.

Messy situations tend to provide fertile creative soil. The combination of gradual improvements and random shocks turns out to be a very effective way to approach a host of difficult problems.

Messy disruptions will be most powerful when combined with creative skill. The disruption puts an artist, scientist, or engineer in unpromising territory— a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop. But then expertise kicks in and finds ways to move upward again: the climb finishes at a new peak, perhaps lower than the old one, but perhaps unexpectedly higher.

Flexibility and improvisation is a clear gain. The belief that we are in control is misleading, so the sooner we accept that and adhere to it, the better things we will produce.

Speed, economy and flexibility are advantages of messy that prove that improvisation has its advantages over tidy. Tidy squanders creativity and all the beautiful creations that come of that. We need to embrace the messy, and embrace improvisation, and what will come out of it will be amazing.

We need to appreciate the virtues of the messy – the untidy, unquantified, uncoordinated, improvised, imperfect, incoherent, crude, cluttered, random, ambiguous, vague, difficult, diverse, or even dirty to get fresh insights and frequent success.

In times when the right answer isn’t immediately obvious, your creativity takes over by making connections that other people don’t see, ultimately leading to your success. It’s the only way to make giant leaps forward in your business and life. Dare to get messy, and your life will change.