Don't be a neat freak: Why messiness is good for the soul

"Getting things done is messy. Being creative is messy...so relax about your desk," says writer Tim Harford.

Do you ever feel pressured to clean up your closet, your garage, or your life? It seems to be everywhere — the idea that once you clean up your surroundings, your life will magically fall into place. And not only will your home look nicer, the implicit message is that you may become a better person for it.

But in an interview with Tapestry host Mary Hynes, Tim Harford said we may be missing the point.

Harford is an economist and columnist for The Financial Times. He has examined the effects of both physical and metaphorical mess in his book "Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our lives," and he says the idea that order is always better than disorder is a message we've bought into as a society. 

Cleanliness is next to godliness

Tidiness can be useful, but it's not necessarily a virtue.

"The Victorians used to say cleanliness is next to godliness," Harford said. "They would equate being clean with being holy." 

Tim Harford says people hoping to find life-changing magic in tidying up are missing the point. (Fran Monks)

But Harford argues that association is misguided. Rather, he says, disorder can actually be good for our brains because when conditions around us aren't perfect, we are forced to use creativity to solve problems, and perhaps come up with solutions that are better than we could have imagined otherwise. 

To illustrate the point, Harford shared a story about pianist Keith Jarrett.

In 1975 Jarret was invited to Cologne (Köln), Germany, to perform an improvised piano concert. But when he arrived, there was a mix-up with the piano and he was faced with having to perform in front of 1,400 people on a very bad piano. It was out of tune, had sticky keys and the pedals that weren't working. He agreed to play, reluctantly, but he asked his producer to record the performance — only because he wanted to document what he expected to be a musical catastrophe.

Instead, the unplayable piano forced Jarrett to play differently than he ever had before. The result, Harford said, is one of the greatest pieces of music in his genre and The Köln Concert became the best-selling piano recording in history.

Marie Kondo​ and the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

So what does Harford think of the tidying craze, most recently made popular by Marie Kondo? 

"You know I'm actually a fan of Marie Kondo," he said. "She's right about a lot of things. One of the things she's right about is getting organized doesn't really help you.

"Anyone who has read it knows it's not about tidying up — it's about throwing out all your stuff. It's about having far fewer possessions."

Tim Harford is an economist, journalist and broadcaster, and host of BBC Radio 4's More or Less. He has spoken at TED, and is a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. To hear the full interview with Tim Harford, click Listen.

CONTEST CLOSED: Win a copy of Tim Harford's book

We're giving away a copy of Tim Harford's book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives.  If you'd like to be entered in the random draw, email us at tapestry@cbc.ca with "messy" in the subject line. Read the CBC's contest rules here.