High on many people's list of New Year's resolutions this week is a two-word goal: "Get organized."
Determined listmakers dream of pristine rooms, uncluttered desks, color-coded closets, even alphabetized spice racks. They vow that this year they'll vanquish the disorder that surrounds them. "A place for everything, and everything in its place" becomes a longing, a mantra, an enduring dream.
Down with messiness! Up with neatness! Or maybe not.
Today a fledgling pro-mess movement is gathering steam. Its advocates argue that the pursuit of perfect order can exact a huge cost in money and time, producing needless guilt and anxiety.
David Freedman, author, with Eric Abrahamson, of a just-published book, "A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder," sums up the new philosophy by saying, "A willingness to embrace mess can be a celebration of life."
To anyone who loves order, that premise can be hard to embrace. Who wants to step over clutter or search endlessly for keys?
Charting the rise of a "thriving industry of get-organized gurus," Mr. Freedman notes that home-organizing products constitute a $6 billion industry. Closet-organizing systems rake in another $3 billion. We tell ourselves that If we just read the right books and buy the proper storage bins, life will be blissfully under control. On the assumption that we can't do it ourselves, an army of professional organizers stands ready to invade our closets and reorder our files – for a hefty fee. The message is clear: Americans are sending up a giant SOS, which in this case could stand for Sort Our Stuff.
Sitting in the sunny kitchen of his family's gray colonial in Needham, Mass., surrounded by children's art on the walls and a friendly jumble of pictures and cards on the refrigerator, Freedman calls messiness "a huge source of tension" in relationships in America.
"If you have big differences, and you're not willing to compromise, it can become a real wedge in a relationship," he says. Although some people clearly fit into one category or the other, he finds that most are a "really interesting mixture." In general, women consider themselves neater than men, although men often disagree. In some cases, one spouse is neater in every way.
"My wife is messier than I am," he says. "But there are some things that drive her nuts. My computer on the kitchen table drives her nuts."
Like many couples, they go through mess cycles. "We used to have a lot of arguments about mess. Working on the book made me reconsider whether it was ever worth it to argue about straightening up."
Freedman describes Americans as "sort of medium on the mess/neatness spectrum." He ranks Italy high on the list, noting that people there are more comfortable with messiness. At the other extreme is Japan, a "very neat" society.
For Americans, the problem has gotten worse. "We're a very acquisition-oriented society. We have become terrific at getting things, and not so good at getting rid of things."
When I was growing up, I was aware of only one messy house on our street. Dirty dishes piled up in the sink. Folded laundry crowded the dining room table, waiting to be put away. And no wonder. The family had five children, and the wife worked part time in her husband's business. The rest of us took neatness for granted as our homemaker mothers straightened to shiny perfection.
Today, working parents find those exacting standards hard to duplicate. Defending children's messy rooms, Freedman says, "Kids have a lot more to do, and a lot more creative outlets. Creativity is very deeply entwined with messiness. Some parents recognize that it's more important for kids to be stimulated and nurtured and to be creative than it is to be really neat."
Children, Freedman continues, live in a "very busy, very messy environment" of massive backpacks, iPods, cellphones, and instant messages. "They thrive in it. Test scores have been rising for kids." At the same time, he finds plenty of young people who are "neat freaks."
Freedman is not saying that messier is always better. Nor is he making a case for being a slob. It's a matter of finding a balance. "In good ways," he adds, "we are destined to get more messy – less ordered, less structured. The world is fast changing. Change is the enemy of neatness. Mess embraces change."
He advises those with a modest amount of mess to appreciate it. "A modest amount is comfortable. It's expressive and highly personalized."
But to the relief of those who love order, even mess apologists have their standards. "It feels good to straighten up," Freedman says. "I appreciate neatness."