Being Messy Has Its Perks

geist's office CBS

This story originally aired on Jan. 28, 2007.

In honor of January being "Get Organized Month," Sunday Morning correspondent Bill Geist takes a look at the value of a messy office, and discovers that, while neatness counts, sloppiness may count more.


As you may know, January is "Get Organized Month," a difficult time for millions of Americans like myself whose offices are less than tidy.

Now there is hope for the messy in a new book co-authored by science writer David Freedman, "A Perfect Mess." We found the perfect place at CBS to interview him.

"Mess is good for a lot of reasons. First of all, you save a lot of time. Another reason is there is efficiency in mess," he said. "People who are really messy know where there stuff is. Because it reflects the way they work and think and in addition it's expressive."

This is revolutionary! We've been taught all our lives that neatness is a virtue. The author contemplated my clutter.

"I'm seeing pileage as opposed to heapage," Freedman said. "Piles have a chronological meaning to them. And people know how many inches they have to go down on a pile to get so many weeks or months back in time, and that makes it very easy to find things."

At our office the forces of fastidiousness have been beaten back. Next door, Martha Teichner is embedded in her work.

"I think a messy office is in many ways basically an ecosystem, and in your case literally so," Freedman said of her workspace.

Charles Osgood has his office looking rather tidy. He shared a few of his housekeeping secrets.

"You have that little space down there — what I do, if they say somebody's downstairs to see you, I go take stuff and I put it like this until the desk is fairly clear," he said while he demonstrated his system.

Andy Rooney always has a lot of stuff in his office, but he has a system to deal with it.

"When something comes in my desk that I want to keep, I throw it in one of these boxes. Eventually I end up putting it under here," Rooney said, demonstrating his system. "That's the end of it."

He bristles at the suggestion he's pretty organized. But he would — he is Andy Rooney.

There's something offensive about anyone who's too well-organized, or even organized at all, because I just don't think they produce much of anything

The messy people I work with are producers.

I showed Freeman the office of a senior producer who's a big wig on the show. "She's developed some really useful mess," Freeman commented.

Now there's a concept for you: useful mess. This makes me smile and I think if I could see more executive offices that look this messy I bet we'd be a more productive nation. Wow! Makes you almost proud to be slovenly.

Mess has an established performance record. Had Sir Alexander Fleming not kept such a filthy laboratory, penicillin would not have been discovered. The authors found that employees with messy desks are 36 percent more efficient — and that's not all

The book has a survey that shows the bigger the salary, the bigger the mess.

Yet even David Freedman admits there are limits. Radio producer Phil Chin's cluttered office defies most ideas about messiness.

"Wow! Well, this is quite a mess. I'm not afraid to say it this is a very, very messy office," Freedman said. "Well, I try not to be judgmental about other people, but I am tempted to say that maybe this is getting a little out of control."

Well, some people are sort of engineers about the way they get their pilage together and actually keep it from falling over.

"There is some physical danger in here, yes," Freedman said about Chin's office.

Little wonder there is still dirty desk discrimination in our society. Messy desks don't inspire confidence. You won't see the president addressing the nation from a desk cluttered with old coffee cups and piles of unkempt papers anytime soon.

"I think a lot of people would be horrified, and I think that's something it's really time to change," Freedman said.

Albert Einstein said, "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?"
  • Caitlin Johnson

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