Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Organizing Industry Backlash

So, I'm finally responding to the organizing industry backlash that started on December 21st with the publishing of the article, Saying Yes to Mess, by Penelope Green, in the New York Times. I'll say upfront that I have not read the book A Perfect Mess by Freedman and Abrahamson. I rarely pay hardcover price, especially for something that would only frustrate instead of entertain. Well, maybe A Perfect Mess would entertain me with its apparent fictional components and bias.

I have excerpted parts of the article so you'll have enough context for my comments.
IT is a truism of American life that we’re too darn messy, or we think we are, and we feel really bad about it. Our desks and dining room tables are awash with paper; our closets are bursting with clothes and sports equipment and old files; our laundry areas boil; our basements and garages seethe. And so do our partners — or our parents, if we happen to be teenagers.

This is why sales of home-organizing products, like accordion files and labelmakers and plastic tubs, keep going up and up, from $5.9 billion last year to a projected $7.6 billion by 2009, as do the revenues of companies that make closet organizing systems, an industry that is pulling in $3 billion a year, according to Closets magazine.

This is why January is now Get Organized Month, thanks also to the efforts of the National Association of Professional Organizers, whose 4,000 clutter-busting members will be poised, clipboards and trash bags at the ready, to minister to the 10,000 clutter victims the association estimates will be calling for its members’ services just after the new year.
Well, any PR for my industry is good PR, even if our clients are being referred to as victims. And speaking of PR, the authors publicist is earning his/her fee, given the precision of the timing (during Get Organized Month, January, when people make their resolutions to get organized) and magnitude of all this.
But contrarian voices can be heard in the wilderness. An anti-anticlutter movement is afoot, one that says yes to mess and urges you to embrace your disorder. Studies are piling up that show that messy desks are the vivid signatures of people with creative, limber minds (who reap higher salaries than those with neat “office landscapes”) and that messy closet owners are probably better parents and nicer and cooler than their tidier counterparts. It’s a movement that confirms what you have known, deep down, all along: really neat people are not avatars of the good life; they are humorless and inflexible prigs, and have way too much time on their hands.
I'm not inflexible. I thrive on a combination of structure and flexibility. I get depressed with too much structure and don't get anything done with too much flexibility. And, if I was humorless, I wouldn't have any clients at all. Also, I've never met a person with too much time on their hands.
“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,” said Jerrold Pollak, a neuropsychologist at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, N.H., whose work involves helping people tolerate the inherent disorder in their lives. “And if it could, should it be? Total organization is a futile attempt to deny and control the unpredictability of life. I live in a world of total clutter, advising on cases where you’d think from all the paper it’s the F.B.I. files on the Unabomber,” when, in fact, he said, it’s only “a person with a stiff neck.”
I think I want my doctor to be organized enough that she can easily review my recent medical history in the 30 seconds she has before entering the examination room.
“My wife has threatened divorce over all the piles,” continued Dr. Pollack, who has an office at home, too. “If we had kids the health department would have to be alerted. But what can I do?”
You can hire an organizer to help you, and possibly help your marriage in the process. Although couples counseling is where you might want to start (I know my boundaries).
Stop feeling bad, say the mess apologists. There are more urgent things to worry about. Irwin Kula is a rabbi based in Manhattan and author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” which was published by Hyperion in September. “Order can be profane and life-diminishing,” he said the other day. “It’s a flippant remark, but if you’ve never had a messy kitchen, you’ve probably never had a home-cooked meal. Real life is very messy, but we need to have models about how that messiness works.”
Of course I don't want people to feel bad--but many people cannot simply accept their mess and have it not affect them negatively.

Also, I cook something from scratch almost every night. I couldn't do it well or at all if my kitchen wasn't orderly and clean. In fact, I think this is the most important room to have organized if being healthy is a priority (it also helps if your exercise room is free of obstacles, but not everyone has an exercise room). Of course you have to get it messy in the process, but you complete the process by putting the kitchen back how it started so you can cook again tomorrow without impediments.
His favorite example? His 15-year-old daughter Talia’s bedroom, a picture of utter disorder — and individuality, he said. “One day I’m standing in front of the door,” he said, “and it’s out of control and my wife, Dana, is freaking out, and suddenly I see in all the piles the dress she wore to her first dance and an earring she wore to her bat mitzvah. She’s so trusting her journal is wide open on the floor, and there are photo-booth pictures of her friends strewn everywhere. I said, ‘Omigod, her cup overflows!’ And we started to laugh.”
I think it's useful for kids to create their own system of organization by a combination of learning from their own mistakes (trial and error is part of the process) and through the teaching of organizing skills (which are part of the life skills package). I figured out part of how to be organized on my own when I moved away to college and my mom was no longer there to pick up after me. Both nature and nurture contribute to a person's ability to organize.
Last week David H. Freedman, another amiable mess analyst (and science journalist), stood bemused in front of the heathery tweed collapsible storage boxes with clear panels ($29.99) at the Container Store in Natick, Mass., and suggested that the main thing most people’s closets are brimming with is unused organizing equipment. “This is another wonderful trend,” Mr. Freedman said dryly, referring to the clear panels. “We’re going to lose the ability to put clutter away. Inside your storage box, you’d better be organized.”
It's true that the organizing product industry is trying to make money, just like the authors of the book. Organizing consultants often tell their clients that expensive organizing products are usually not a necessity. We can prevent people from spending a fortune on products that aren't right for them.
Mr. Freedman is co-author, with Eric Abrahamson, of “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder,” out in two weeks from Little, Brown & Company. The book is a meandering, engaging tour of beneficial mess and the systems and individuals reaping those benefits, like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose mess-for-success tips include never making a daily schedule.
Kinda scary, given his line of work.
As a corollary, the book’s authors examine the high cost of neatness — measured in shame, mostly, and family fights, as well as wasted dollars — and generally have a fine time tipping over orthodoxies and poking fun at clutter busters and their ilk, and at the self-help tips they live or die by. They wonder: Why is it better to pack more activities into one day? By whose standards are procrastinators less effective than their well-scheduled peers? Why should children have to do chores to earn back their possessions if they leave them on the floor, as many professional organizers suggest?
I don't live or die by any self-help tips. I am a procrastinator. I know that I am deadline-driven, am a recovering perfectionist and am more likely to accomplish something if I'm accountable to someone besides just myself. Knowing that I work best in this framework, I make things happen. I also assumed, when I got into this business, that other organizers would fit the profile described. But, once I got to know other organizers, I found out they are more like me than than not. I question whether he has ever actually consulted with or worked with a credible professional organizer. And, I can't comment on the children's chores comment, since I don't have any kids, but I'm pretty sure that a parent's job is parenting.
In their book Mr. Freedman and Mr. Abrahamson describe the properties of mess in loving terms. Mess has resonance, they write, which means it can vibrate beyond its own confines and connect to the larger world. It was the overall scumminess of Alexander Fleming’s laboratory that led to his discovery of penicillin, from a moldy bloom in a petri dish he had forgotten on his desk.
Obviously that worked for Fleming. There's nothing wrong with that unless he missed other opportunities in his lab that we'll never know about.
Mess is robust and adaptable, like Mr. Schwarzenegger’s open calendar, as opposed to brittle, like a parent’s rigid schedule that doesn’t allow for a small child’s wool-gathering or balkiness. Mess is complete, in that it embraces all sorts of random elements. Mess tells a story: you can learn a lot about people from their detritus, whereas neat — well, neat is a closed book. Neat has no narrative and no personality (as any cover of Real Simple magazine will demonstrate). Mess is also natural, as Mr. Freedman and Mr. Abrahamson point out, and a real time-saver. “It takes extra effort to neaten up a system,” they write. “Things don’t generally neaten themselves.”
The narrative of a person comes from their actions in life, not the landscape of their desk. Also, the authors clearly miss the point that neat does not equal organized and mess does not equal disorganized. It seems that the whole of his work is based on this fundamental misunderstanding. It does take effort to “neaten up” and create a system in the first place, but substantially less effort to keep it organized. He may not realize that all these years his attempts to “neaten up” were actually disrupting a system he unknowingly had in place, the system that someone else convinced him was a “mess”.
In the semiotics of mess, desks may be the richest texts. Messy-desk research borrows from cognitive ergonomics, a field of study dealing with how a work environment supports productivity. Consider that desks, our work landscapes, are stand-ins for our brains, and so the piles we array on them are “cognitive artifacts,” or data cues, of our thoughts as we work.
Yup. I can usually tell the difference between a disorganized desk and a working desk, even though, to the untrained eye, they may both look like a mess. Though, in my case and in the case of many people who call me for help, disorder on the desk is reflected onto our brains, distracting us and inhibiting us from thinking clearly, sometimes killing productivity entirely.
To a professional organizer brandishing colored files and stackable trays, cluttered horizontal surfaces are a horror;
Aha. The organizer he has worked with walked in with stackable trays. 99% of the time stackable trays are a no-no, in my book. And also considering that the professional organizer exhibited horror, it's clear the author hired the wrong one. There are organizers who don't know what they are doing, just like there are financial advisers who don't grow your money and lawn guys who scalp your grass.
According to a small survey that Mr. Freedman and Mr. Abrahamson conducted for their book — 160 adults representing a cross section of genders, races and incomes, Mr. Freedman said — of those who had split up with a partner, one in 12 had done so over a struggle involving one partner’s idea of mess.
A whopping 160 people and the method by which they were chosen goes suspiciously unquoted. I'm surprised that only 1 in 12 split-ups involved a mess. I see disorganization factoring into ½ to ¾ of my clients' relationship issues. Of course, my study is as unscientific as theirs and, again, disorganization and mess are not equivalent.

I also want to mention Freedman's comments on Marketplace on NPR the other day. He said:
For example, most peole would tend to think of Microsoft — and let's think about Bill Gates too — as sort of a rigid kind of company. In fact Microsoft is really a mess. Bill Gates is famous for letting his teams pretty much run on their own, and I think Microsoft in fact does a great job of taking advantage of mess. On the other hand, Steve Jobs at Apple, he's really famously a neat freak — he pushes his teams to finish right on time, he has very specific ideas of what he wants them to do. Of course, Apple has tremendous and very vocal fans, it really is very much the minority in the marketplace.
First of all, letting teams run on their own is a management style, not a style of mess. Second, which product, Microsoft or Apple, is actually better and more innovative in the minds of those creative people who are supposedly being persecuted in our neat-freak culture?

Read or listen to the rest of the Marketplace story. Also, listen to Kathy Waddill, a well-known professional organizer, try to simply explain that the authors' premise is faulty when she appeared on Talk of the Nation last week.

To conclude my thoughts, it's reassuring that my industry is actually well-known enough now that there can even be a backlash. There are still a lot of people who don't know that professional organizers exist. Hopefully all this buzz (paid for by the authors to their PR firm) will inform people who are tired of/from being disorganized that help is out there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


It was wise to wait a while to comment on this! It made a lot of people upset and reactive. I read the book (but did not buy it!) and what upset me about it was how he trashed so many of my industry friends personally. It was unnecessary to make comments about them personally to make the points he wanted to make. He ascribed sinister, calculating, and devious qualities to some of the most professional and serious practitioners in our field. Bottom line is, that my team and I only work with people who want our help-- we are not forcing anyone to be neat, and we often give advice that includes how it's okay to be "good enough" and not perfect! I think ultimately his book and the ensuing discussion was good for our industry because it raised awareness.

- Lorie Marrero,