Disorderly habits can be a boon to productivity

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Were you planning to read this column right now? Did you budget extra minutes in your schedule for it? Or have you made a spontaneous decision that's now distracting you from more important chores while adding extra stress and disorganization to your life?

In my personal universe, chaos and order wage an ongoing battle that is often fiercely fought among the scribbled notations, newspaper clips, and other snippets of information scattered around my work space. So I can sympathize with Karen Jackson, a Texas schoolteacher who recently nabbed first place in a contest to find America's messiest desk.

The competition was sponsored by Little, Brown and Company as part of their promotion for a new book titled, "A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder – How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place," by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman. The authors claim that neatness has a wide range of negative consequences and can actually make workers less effective.

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I'm not proud of the clutter that accumulates next to my pens and pencils. I know it would be more efficient to keep a larger volume of data stored electronically. However, I often get ideas without warning and write them down immediately on the nearest envelope or scrap of junk mail, and I like having physical contact with my notes whenever I get around to sorting through them.

I'm in awe of people who have embraced the use of cellphones, BlackBerrys, and wireless networks. But cyberculture is a high velocity environment. It prides itself on speed and efficiency. I was raised in a household that emphasized "haste makes waste" and "slowly but surely." Instant responses to important questions were not encouraged. More common was the parental phrase, "Let's think about it."

"Think about it" is, of course, a euphemism for "I don't want to get caught giving an answer I'll regret later." In other words, you're stalling, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Stalling is one of the great traditions of all bureaucratic organizations. Having worked as a mid-level employee, I've done it, and I have no regrets. My moderately messy work space pegged me as someone who could handle any task, given enough time. And if something in my area of responsibility went haywire, extra time was crucial for (A) fixing the problem before anybody noticed or (B) figuring out how much blame could reasonably fall somewhere else besides squarely on my head.

My hard-copy habits may seem disorderly and outdated, but all fans of the paperless office should keep one fact in mind: If the sun ever ejects a ball of plasma like the one that blew across this planet in 1859, our power grids, microwave towers, and fiber-optic lines could be turned into fried spaghetti.

Fortunately, no mass of electrons can disrupt the paper trails in my office. If a solar storm strikes, I'm ready to lead the recovery effort. Just give me a place to sit, a stack of Post-its, and a desktop big enough, and I will organize Earth.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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