FEATURE30 January 2017

Tim Harford in seven

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Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist and BBC broadcaster. His latest book – Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World – looks at why untidiness should be embraced. His many other books include The Undercover Economist

Tim haford

1. Can you explain, in a nutshell, why we should embrace mess?

Tim Harford: The argument in my book is that we have a tendency to take organisational systems – targets, scripts, structures – that work very well in some parts of life, then try to impose them where they are not appropriate. A simple example: the philosophy that everything should have a place works well in the kitchen, or a library, but disastrously for the desks of most knowledge workers. People who try to keep everything tidy by filing and labelling their email, digital documents and paperwork suffer from ‘premature filing’ (yes, it’s a thing). They have clean desks, but they don’t actually understand their own filing system. Messier ‘pilers’ have been shown to have a better grasp of where their stuff is.

2. Is messiness to be encouraged even in areas where success is traditionally associated with order, such as science?

TH: I recommend that you look up the famous photograph of ...