The Pros and Cons of Being Organized (Yes, There are Cons)
Some research says organized people are healthier. But other studies disagree.
Posted Oct 16, 2020
I was on a Zoom call with a group of colleagues recently, when a question about a particular psychological concept came up for discussion. One colleague turned away from her computer and pulled out a tabbed, annotated notebook from her beautifully organized bookshelf. Within seconds, she had the answer to the question we were asking.
On another Zoom call, having a glass of wine with my friend Helen, I listened to her description of how she had been cleaning out all of her closets during the pandemic. “My closets are so organized now!” she told me, beaming with pleasure.
Each of these conversations left me impressed. And admiring. And envious.
I decided to use these feelings to motivate myself to do something I’ve been thinking about since the beginning of the pandemic: I was going to organize my bookshelves—at least a little. Pre-pandemic, the internet was filled with suggestions about how to get organized, but during COVID, these suggestions have multiplied exponentially. So I started pulling up sites that tell you how to organize for your brain type, how to organize against your will, and, basically, how being better organized can do almost anything for you, from increasing your health to making you happier.
There were, however, several problems with my plan to get organized. My bookshelves are already alphabetized by author, and they are also separated roughly by subject. So I had to ask myself if I really wanted to organize them differently. The answer was no—since I can find almost any book I want right now, unless I’ve taken it out and left it somewhere else.
And that, I realized, was the real problem. I am a sort-of-organized person. I usually know where things are, at least in a broad, general way. But I am also disorganized. I take things off shelves and don’t always put them back. And then I have to search for them. I have a place for all of my headsets, but sometimes I don’t put them there. And then I have to search for them. The same is true of my glasses, my keys... you get the picture.
I don’t like the searching. But I also don’t like everything neatly organized. Don’t get me wrong. I like things neat. And I like things to be clean. (Several sites make it clear that disorganization doesn't mean dirty.) It’s just that I also like seeing my things out on the coffee table or the kitchen counter. I like being reminded that I just discussed that book with my book group, or that I had a phone conversation with my good friend sitting in my comfy chair by the window. Clutter makes me feel alive.
But I would still prefer to be able to find a blouse in my closet when I go to look for it. And I’d like it even better if that blouse wasn’t wrinkled when I took it out. Was there, I wondered, a way to think about organizing that would work for me?
In my search, I learned that organizing your finances can be good not just for your financial well-being, but also for your peace of mind; and that clutter can create stress, while finding order and neatness can bring you even more peace of mind. I also read one study that found that an orderly space can lead to healthier food choices—and can also lead to greater generosity toward others.
However, according to that same study, led by Dr. Kathleen D. Vohs at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, participants who were placed in a disorderly room were more creative than participants who were placed in an orderly room. In fact, when it comes to the question of whether it’s better to be organized or disorganized, Dr. Vohs and her colleagues take issue with prior research showing that orderly settings encourage better behavior than disorderly ones. They found a more “nuanced story of how different environments suit different outcomes.”
In A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, authors Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman take this finding a step (or two) further. As the subtitle says, they explore “how crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place.” In the book, they tell of two competing magazine stores—one beautifully organized and always busy, the other disorganized and often less busy—and they explain why the disorganized store survived and was profitable, because of the disorganization, while the beautifully organized store went out of business at least in part because of its beautiful organization.
Abrahamson and Freedman write that the time and money spent keeping the organized store organized took away from the profit. So, as they put it, the disorganized store survived because it was messy.
Now, there are a number of reasons that I like that argument, but prime among them is that although I’d love to have an organized closet, I’d rather spend my time seeing clients, reading one of the books on my shelves, being with friends, or writing than I would organizing that closet and keeping it organized. I’ve often had a thought along those lines, but I never realized that it’s a reasonable choice. It hadn't quite occurred to me that the truth is that I only have limited time, and if I’d rather spend that time being connected or creative, it’s a choice—not a failing.
However, as Kohs and her colleagues point out, the pros and cons of being organized cannot really be boiled down to an either/or question. They are highly nuanced.
For instance, I live with a wonderful husband who is both organized and neat. My clutter tends to drive him crazy. So I try to keep it relatively under control, and when it gets out of hand, I enlist him to help me find proper places for some things and get rid of some others. There are benefits to both of us here. I like having things a bit neater than they would be if I were left to my own devices, and we do get some together time when we’re cleaning up—if we can manage not to fight about it.
We’ve also learned that it’s important not to take these things personally. I don’t clutter because I’m a bad person, and he doesn’t tidy up because he’s good. We are just different in this very specific way.
And then there’s the fact that most of us aren’t totally one way or the other, but are often some combination of both. For example, I don’t like “on-the-fly planning” at all. I love to anticipate trips, visits, and activities, which means that I love to plan for them. I also like to know ahead of time what to expect of my family and friends, so I’m not big on having someone just drop in for a visit. Which doesn’t mean I am not on board with last-minute, impulsive get-togethers or trips. It’s just that my preference for disorganization and clutter doesn’t bleed into every part of my life or my psyche.
On the downside of disorder, there are studies that show that disorderliness breeds not only more disorderliness but also a tendency to ignore some social norms. For example, one group of researchers found that there is something about observing others break social rules that encourages us to break them ourselves, which they suggest explains “the broken windows theory.” This is a hypothesis which “suggests that signs of disorderly and petty criminal behavior trigger more disorderly and petty criminal behavior, thus causing the behavior to spread. This may cause neighborhoods to decay and the quality of life of its inhabitants to deteriorate.”
And certainly, on a smaller, more personal note, my disorganization can sometimes be extremely frustrating and time-consuming—like when I can’t find my keys, my glasses, my shoes, or my earpods yet again! Or when I spend forty minutes searching for a document on my computer and in the cloud, because I forgot to save it and oh yeah, forgot to turn on Autosave as well.
But the research I found most helpful was a study that showed that neither organized nor disorganized behavior was consistently good for us. Instead, according to this study, occasional “unusual and unexpected experiences” can enhance cognitive flexibility and creativity. In other words, sometimes it’s good to be organized, and sometimes it’s good to be disorganized; but neither is good all of the time.
A perfect mess: The hidden benefits of disorder
E Abrahamson, DH Freedman - 2013 - Hachette UK