Messy by Tim Harford

4 out of 5 stars

My desk is a mess. I have a laptop, a second screen, keyboard, a task light and a lava lamp, a stationary rack and pencil holder, scrap paper and a pad to write on, as well as 18 books and various other items of detritus. To be honest, it could do with a bit of a tidy up. One day I will…

Most people want a tidy place to work in. Some businesses are really strict on this, enforcing numerous draconian rules as to what you can or can’t have on your desk, the number of personal photos allowed and so on. These businesses make look slick and have the impression of performing well, but they are soulless places and they are missing that extra spark that disorganization, improvisation and confusion can bring to the creative process.

In this highly entertaining book, Tim Harford argues that clean pristine working areas, rather we need a little mess and disorder in our work and home lives to get that creativity back that is ultimately enriching. He uses lots of examples of how people have not had the exact equipment that they wanted or had the usual preparation time for a particular thing, and it turned out to be one of the best performance or speeches of their life.

Being organised does get things done, but that spark of creativity that happens when things are not quite so is where the magic lies. I really liked this book, partly because I am not so tidy, and tend to have lots of things on the go at any one time, but also because I think on a fundamental level he is right. I particularly liked the story of a lab in America that managed to create all manner of things and the reason was because of the layout of the building and people with a variety of different interests and skills would pass each other, get talking and spark new ideas off. If you are a person who likes all their pencils lined up, then this might not be the book for you, but perhaps you should read it, you never know what might happen…

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  1. n@ncy

    Hated my employer’s “clean desk policy”….missed a personal workplace with special items that said “I work here”.
    At home…I love messy…life is too short to be constantly cleaning.
    I keep house…when the spirit moves me.
    Books, IPad, laptop, pens, high-lighters…rulers all need to be around me.
    I’d love this book!

    • Paul

      Life is messy and complicated and through that, we can create and solve things. The saying goes that a messy desk is the sign of an untidy mind; so what does that make an empty desk?

  2. Liz Dexter

    I yearn for a tidy desk but no! However I do feel better when I deal with the encroaching piles of “to be shelved” books that sit at one end …

    • Paul

      There is something cathartic about tidying up and shelving books. As long as I have room to work, I do like having things on my desk

  3. Annabel Gaskell

    I’m pathologically untidy, although I have my moments. I enjoyed this book very much. I loved the messy building at MIT (I think) which was all mixed up being both higgledy-piggledy, space-wise and people-wise, but that very messiness brought more success! Sounded a fun place to work.

    • Paul

      Those half overheard conversations and chance meetings are those that spark ideas and collaborations that a tight team will not get

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