New Year's Resolution: Make a Big Mess


Jeremy Zawodny of Yahoo! wants to reduce his mental distraction in 2007 using these rules:

  1. I will unsubscribe from every email list that I don’t consider essential to my work or hobbies. It’s so easy to get occasionally interesting information when I need it (via search) that I shouldn’t be spending mental energy reading a large stream of incoming hay on the off chance that a needle shows up.
  2. I will end every day (both at work and at home) with no open tabs in my browser. I’ve been using tabs as a sort of ad-hoc todo list that has no obvious order or priority and often spirals out of control. No more of that.
  3. While the echo chamber is fun, entertaining, seductive and often frustrating, I will check the various blog amplifiers and aggregators only once a day (barring unusual circumstances).
  4. I will try harder to say no.

It’s hard to argue with taking those sort of steps–the idea of reducing mental clutter must resonate with many Web Worker Daily readers.

But there’s a backlash developing against the idea that the right way to get more done and be more successful is by eliminating clutter of the tangible and intangible sort.

A new book out this week called A Perfect Mess argues that a slavish devotion to orderliness may decrease our productivity and reduce our chances of achieving creative breakthroughs. The authors use a variety of examples to show how “moderately messy systems use resources more efficiently, yield better solutions, and are harder to break than neat ones.

Psychologist Jerrold Polak, quoted in a New York Times article on the “anti-anticlutter movement” says, “It’s chasing an illusion to think that any organization — be it a family unit or a corporation — can be completely rid of disorder on any consistent basis.”

Should we even want to be rid of clutter? The Times article says studies suggest that people with some messiness in their lives may be more creative and earn more money than those who are perpetually organized.

Another recent book, The Joys of Much Too Much by Bonnie Fuller (out in paperback this month), proclaims the benefits of imbalance and chaos and overcommittedness:

After years of trying to make a living at something I love while raising a family, I’ve come to the conclusion that a jam-packed, maxed-out, full-to-the-very-top existence is the secret to an insanely happy life, no matter what those odes to “simplicity” say to the contrary.

I’ve pretty much written off the possibility of ever having peace and quiet in my life.

I guess that somewhere along the line I made the decision that I’d rather lead a life that’s a blur than one that’s a bore.

Fuller would probably reject Zawodny’s approach to simplifying by reducing mental distraction. She says:

Simplifying down to the most precious objects and actions will result in sterility, which is the road to spiritual ruin and mental rigor mortis! I believe in cutting out negative things and people, but why would you want to cut down on stimuli?

Sometimes achieving our goals requires accepting (or making) what seems like a big mess, juggling tons of incoming emails and RSS feeds and personal favors and professional projects. But sometimes too much is just too much, not joyful in any way, just distracting and exhausting.

What do you think about mess versus disorder, about reducing clutter and demands versus taking on as many projects and as many stimuli as you can? Do you aim to simplify or messify in 2007?



To me, simplifying my life doesn’t mean making it more boring or accomplishing less. In fact, I hope to accomplish more by simplifying and organizing my priorities. For example, one of my most important goals is to write more music, but I haven’t spent much time on it lately because my time has been divided among other interests. While these “other interests” are enjoyable, they distract me from doing more in the areas that are most important to me.

It seems like these days we tend to get involved in so many diverse activities and enjoy so many stimuli that we aren’t actually accomplishing as much as we could be. I don’t want to look back at my life when I’m old and wonder what could have been if only I had done more with my talents.


Contemplating your navel is a waste of time. Instead of your introverted thinking and displacement activity just get on with your life — and where you have spare time, achieve something rather than looking inwards. You’ll be happier.

Anne Zelenka

True, it’s not necessarily an either/or. Lifehacker asked “what do you think of mess?” in response to the Times article and many commenters said they are messy in certain areas of their lives and neat otherwise.

And it’s also partly a matter of temperament.

This debate is helpful for the person who always feels they need to be more organized but can’t seem to be and is productive even in their disorder. There has been an increasing emphasis on getting your life organized and reducing clutter–that might not be right for everyone and it’s useful to hear that it’s not always the right thing to do.

Logical Extremes

I often see the order vs. chaos “debate” framed as almost a black-and-white thing. But I really think people are different across a wide spectrum, and different modes of operation suit different people (and different tasks). I don’t see any real benefit in trying to change a max-stimuli person into a neat-freak or vice versa. It’s almost like religion, everyone should feel free to live the way they want, but be considerate of alternative views (and don’t impose your mode on my workspace). I tend toward the orderly, and because I’m also observant, I often also know where other people’s things are better than they do. I’m all for making a big mess early in a project to generate ideas and get all of the needed information together, but as the project proceeds and needs to complete, I think it’s important to get organized, reduce distractions and clutter, and distill whatever it is down to a clear, concise, and intuitively-understood deliverable.

Anne Zelenka

I don’t get too crazy with my browser tabs… I try to deal with each page as I need it (unless it’s an app like gmail, then I keep it open) and not leave stuff hanging.

I recently switched my RSS reading to Google Reader from Bloglines and it’s a lot faster. I think I’m skipping more posts based just on the headlines. The “show all” in list view makes me think twice about actually looking at a post because there are so many to read. But I worry that I might be missing something.

As for simplifying vs. messifying: I intend 2007 to have tons of action. I think that means it will be pretty messy, which is fine with me. Organization is good, but excitement and forward progress is better. They’re not totally opposed but I can see that thinking too much about simplicity can mean closing yourself off to good but messy stuff.

Sal Cangeloso

Those are all admirable and worthy goals, once I have attempted as well (unsuccessfully). I am addicted to tabs as well as multiple browsers windows despite how the olders tabs (sometimes stacked 20 deep) might as well not even be there.

As far as RSS is concerned, I recently moved all my news/reading in RSS and have been saving loads of time each day but keeping my site visits to a bare minimum. I try to check it only a few times a day, but set the update time at every 60 minutes, so even if I do check back in, I know I will have some time before I start reading again. May have to change it to 2 hrs though…

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