In Praise of Disorganization
A long-time friend recently came to visit. His wife is a professional organizer. After observing my wife and me opening hopelessly cluttered kitchen drawers and searching for misplaced stuff, she “volunteered” to help us organize them in a “more efficient manner.” Not wanting to be thought complete slobs, we reluctantly agreed.
Needless to say, after she left we were completely lost in our own kitchen. It took us a good two months to disorganize it again. Thank God she didn’t make it to our closets.
Speaking of closets, did you know that you wear only 20 percent of the clothes hanging there? If you’re an executive, did you know that you spend 180 hours every year looking for misplaced and misfiled information? Did you know that Americans spend nine million hours every year looking for misplaced stuff?
I’m the CEO of an organization, so naturally I’m expected to be organized. And I am, to a degree. Most mornings I manage to make myself presentable and drive into work, keep my appointments, make a list of things to do and follow through with them, and make sure everyone is following the organizational plan.
Actually, I’m not entirely sure what the plan is, but others are, and that works for me. I tend to just do stuff, see what happens, make some adjustments and do more stuff. When someone asks me what the plan is, I look at what we’ve done and make up a story to explain it. You wouldn’t want to fly an airplane or prepare for Swine Flu this way, but it works in environments where you have little control over the variables. Basically, you live forward and explain things backward.
Being organized has much to commend it, but so does being disorganized. Often it’s not the thing you’re looking for that turns out to be useful, but the thing you’re not looking for. I enjoy sitting down and sifting through old books, files, songs and writings, thinking at first that I’m going to throw most of it out and reduce the clutter, but then coming upon a particular item or passage that engages my imagination and takes me off in an entirely new direction.
It’s like searching for love and happiness. It’s when you’re not looking that you usually stumble upon it.
In science it’s often the accident, the non-specified variable, the mistake that can set the investigator off on a fruitful line of inquiry. Surprise is the thing. The chance of encountering surprise increases in less familiar environments. Put yourself in these environments – new collaborators, new places, new methods and ideas – and you may be surprised at what happens.
We’re all organized to a degree. Some of our methods are just more peculiar than others. For example, I’m currently preparing to do a report on the future of primary care. I have three large stacks of material – papers, books, reports, files, email messages, notes to myself – on the credenza behind my desk. I had a reason for starting three piles — and not one or two — but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was.
But no matter. In a little while I will get a cup of coffee, put on my favorite collection of classical choral music, and begin to flip through the stacks.
Based on this flip, I will sort the material into three different stacks: Really interesting and valuable, interesting but not so valuable, and interesting but useless.
Then comes the critical part: I let these three new stacks percolate on the credenza a little while longer where, like a complex soup, the flavors simmer and imbue each other with their essence. As I periodically taste this soup, I will dive into a stack to remind myself of why I put a particular item there, and occasionally move it to my “why didn’t I think of this before” stack.
In this way, I organize myself for the inevitable moment when I have to sit down and begin to write the report. There’s no outline, no recipe. There are just the flavors waiting to be pleasingly assembled.
This drives my more traditional research-oriented collaborators nuts. They send me all of these perfectly rational and elaborate outlines, complete with supporting information and conclusions. I would use them, but regrettably I tend to misplace them in a stack somewhere, and by the time I’ve located them I’m usually well down a promising thematic path.
But I’m changing my ways. I’m getting a life coach. They’re supposed to be even better than a professional organizer. Not only do they help you get organized, but you feel good about it in the process.
Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with being unorganized if I could learn to stay out of the kitchen.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.