First off, keeping a desk clutter-free requires filing everything, discarding it or dealing with it. That may sound efficient, but it takes time. And that’s time you could have spent making decisions or talking with customers.
Second, the randomness of seemingly unrelated papers can produce serendipity. Once in a while, you’ll stumble on something useful that would have stayed hidden in the files. Government scientist Leon Heppel once made such a connection while rummaging through his gloriously messy desk. It led to a Nobel Prize for his colleague.
Alexander Fleming is a good example of serendipity. Coming back to his lab from vacation, he found a ragged circle of mold around some petri dishes. He ran tests and discovered penicillin. Years later, in touring a spotless, organized new lab, he listened as a scientist raved about the discoveries Fleming could have made there. “Not penicillin,” he answered.
Third, to get things done, you simply have to make a mess. The more you accomplish, the bigger mess you make. Biologists have found “noise” in the brain; astronomers and engineers know how to apply disorder; and if you think about which political movements most value order, discipline and uniformity, that should be enough to scare you.
Lesson: Experiment. Be a little messier. If your work gets better, keep at it. If it gets worse, tidy up and let something else go. If nothing changes, keep the mess. It takes resources to maintain neatness and order.
—Adapted from “Go Ahead, Make a Mess,” David H. Freedman, Inc. magazine.