Monday, February 18, 2008

A Perfect Mess: Some Insights, Some Garbage

book cover, A Perfect Mess

When the book A Perfect Mess came out over a year ago now, it got lots of press coverage - and lots of comments from professional organizers. I didn't read the book at that time, so I could only comment on the reviews - specifically, the review in the New York Times.

But now that the book has come out in paperback, I decided to finally read it. I started out with a library copy - but I was taking so many notes I decided I needed to buy it.

Because the authors have a very wide concept of mess, much of what they write about has very little to do with what professional organizers deal with. For example, some kinds of "mess" they write about include:

- Messy yards done with natural landscaping rather than nicely-trimmed lawns.
- Messy cities (vs. planned development).
- The messy process of a trombone coming in on tune in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

So this book took me down many interesting paths - but let's focus on the ones related to organizing a home or office.

The main message I took from the book - and one I agree with - is that there is some optimal level of organization for each situation. Sometimes people try for perfect organization, and that often doesn't pay off.

And the book also explicitly recognizes that hoarding and other forms on chronic disorganization are serious issues, and the authors are respectful to Judith Kolberg, who they say has a "warm and ranging intelligence." (She's the only professional organizer mentioned who comes out looking good.)

Furthermore, the authors do nail some of the foibles of the organizing profession - especially the tendency to cute acronyms. They create their own: ACE
Aw, relax.
Carve out time.
Eject some stuff.
But I don't see myself in the stereotype of the organizer that the authors portray. For example, I don't push my clients to get rid of anything they are not ready to give up. (Rather, I'll ask questions to help them think more carefully about what they want to keep, and let them hear themselves as they say "I hate this" and then wonder if they should keep the item in question.)

And I don't see most of my clients in the book, either. They aren't trying for perfection or sterile-looking homes, and they aren't hoarders - they are simply people overwhelmed by clutter who could use a helping hand for a while. Pretty normal folks.

I also noticed that in some places the authors were sloppy with either their research or their summaries of what they read. Two examples:

1. The authors mention the Hawthorne effect twice - not seeming to know it has been largely discredited.

2. When talking about David Allen's personal productivity approach, they write "What's a little hard to understand is how someone who can be so strikingly uplifted by the creation of a to-do list never came to think of starting one before Allen suggested it."

What this totally ignores is that David Allen has a very different approach to creating that to-do list (or actually, a series of lists), and that someone who has used a to-do list in the past might be able to create a much more useful one after reading Allen's book. You might think a list is a list - but you'd be mistaken!

And once in a while I vehemently disagreed with the authors. For example, there's this:
The bedroom: You rarely use it during the day, you're asleep when you're in it at night, and unless you're heavily dating there isn't much call for bringing guests into it. All in all, the bedroom is a pretty good place to maintain a mess.
I suppose that could be true - if you don't care about sleeping well, having a satisfying love life, and being able to easily get dressed in clothes that make you look good!


Anonymous said...

Hi Jeri - being a professional organizer as well, I bought this book when it came out. I have to agree with you on your points - while there was some good information there, there was also a lot of bashing of professional organizers. It was as if they were making up assumptions as they went along, perhaps based on some anecdotal evidence. I found myself getting really aggravated with the book which made it difficult to keep reading. I'll have to go back and re-read it. Well, maybe not!

Jeri Dansky said...

Thanks for commenting - it got me over to your nice blog!

I saw more redeeming value in the book than I expected, based on what I had read and heard about it - but yes, it was sure aggravating along the way.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Hmmm. I've suddenly been inspired to create a new cute acronym:

Release - Let go of your attachment to clutter.

Unload - Throw out all the junk.

Donate - Give away the unnecessary stuff that still has some useful purpose.

Enjoy - Revel in your newfound empty space and simplified life.

Be R.U.D.E.!

Jeri Dansky said...

Cynthia, that is so perfect! I am in awe of your acronym-creating skills.