Why Clutter Can Actually Be Good for You. Slobs, Rejoice!


(Photo Credit:Jane Timm/Twitter)

Marie Kondo, the author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” is on a mission to save the world from clutter.

“I would like to tidy up everywhere on the planet,” the Japanese organizing guru told The Wall Street Journal.

But not everyone agrees. 

In fact, some professional organizers and experts who have studied the “science of messiness” are staunchly opposed to the kind of extreme de-cluttering that Kondo advocates in her bestselling book. They say there is evidence to suggest that many people thrive under conditions that would have the anti-clutter crowd run screaming in search of garbage bags and Goodwill donation forms.


If there is a backlash forming against the minimalist home philosophy, it is only just getting started, though. In many ways, it seems clutter has become the new smoking. 

Stuffed closets and untidy desks have been declared the enemy of productivity, mental health, marital bliss and the pursuit of happiness. Kondo’s book, which has sold two million copies worldwide, has spawned a global cult of neatniks who tweet pictures of efforts to “Kondo” their sock drawers or music collections. Publishers are riding the trend with other manifestos such as “Stuffocation: Living More with Less” and “Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight: The Six-Week Total-Life Slim Down.” 

What’s become lost in all this fervor to banish clutter is the recognition that a minimalist, orderly environment may not be suitable for everyone — or even desirable.

(Jane Timm gave her home the Kondo treatment and documented it on her Twitter feed. Credit:Jane Timm)

In their 2007 book, “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder — How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place,” authors Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman counter the conventional wisdom on clutter with numerous examples of “messy systems” that perform better than highly ordered ones.

They argue that an extreme bias toward neatness stifles creativity, hurts productivity and squashes moments of serendipity that have led to some of the most profound discoveries in human history. Were it not for the clutter that Alexander Fleming left in his laboratory while he went away on vacation, mold may never have contaminated one of his petri dishes. 

That mold turned out to be penicillin.


In an interview with Yahoo Makers, Abrahamson said one important consideration is the opportunity cost of constantly maintaining order. For example, it’s generally more efficient to let 10 things pile up on your desk before tidying up rather than cleaning 10 times a day.

“We found that people with orderly desks often wasted more time because they couldn’t remember where they put things away in their neatly organized world,” said Abrahamson, a management professor at Columbia Business School, who describes his office as “optimally messy.”

Being overly organized and orderly can also lead to rigidity, hurting your ability to adapt to new circumstances. In the business environment, for example, the most successful startups stay nimble and adopt new strategies when their original ideas don’t work out. Twitter famously pivoted from failure to success when it switched from helping people discover podcasts to developing the micro-blogging platform we know today. You need the same flexibility and adaptability in managing your own career.

“That’s not going to happen if you have an orderly five-year plan,” Abrahamson said. “That plan is going to be blinders to seeing new opportunities.”

(Credit: Thinkstock)

Rather than following someone else’s idea of the ideal work and home environment, it’s more important to figure out your own preferences, said Cena Block, a professional organizer-turned-business coach who runs SaneSpaces.com.

Related on Yahoo: Can Cutting Clutter Shed Pounds?

Block tests her clients to figure out their optimal organizing styles: How do they like to arrange their space (everything out or nothing out)? How do they assign value to things (save everything or keep it minimal)? How much disorder can they tolerate (straighten everything or make no rules)?

“Minimalism is a huge thing that is happening right now, and it works for some people,” Block said. “But if you’re someone who likes everything out, who likes to arrange their space with visual clues, then that particular style of organizing and decluttering will never work because you’ll always go back to what makes you feel comfortable and in control. It’s really about control.”


(Photo: Courtesy of John Lambert Pearson/Flickr)

She added: “My definition of organized is knowing what you have, having what you need and love, and then knowing where to find it when you need it. But each one of those levels is very subjective.” The anti-clutter phenomenon has had the effect of shaming people who prefer to be messy. When Abrahamson published his book, many of these people came out of hiding.

“They said, ‘Thank you for writing a book that gives me a little bit of license for not being so completely orderly,’” he said. “People are looking to escape this straightjacket of order.”

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