Years ago, I hired a professional organizer to assess my home (and life). At the time, my husband, son, and I were crammed in a one-bedroom apartment. I also worked out of a corner of the bedroom designated as the “office.” This meant I basically spent 24 hours a day surrounded by a mash-up of book galleys, bouncy seats, and dirty dishes. At the same time, I kept reading that mess implies disorganization, and disorganization meant being unproductive.
It makes sense. In the usual narrative, clutter is a metaphor for life. Messy kitchen cupboards mean your life is a mess too. One survey from the National Association of Professional Organizers found that 96% of respondents felt they could save time each day if they were more organized at home, and 91% thought that better organization would make them more efficient at work.
But after studying my apartment, the organizer was clear on this: I was not disorganized. I knew what was piled on my desk. My mugs didn’t match, but I never missed deadlines. Quite simply, if my messiness bothered me, I would have done something about it. But I preferred to spend my time in other ways.
I’ve long since made peace with my lack of color-coded files, but this distinction between actual disorganization and mess is often lost in articles about how and why to de-clutter. They often have ominous headlines like “The Real Consequences of Office Clutter” and “Is Office Clutter Costing You a Promotion?”
To be sure, there is some evidence linking clutter and a loss of productivity. Research from the Princeton Neuroscience Institute found that too much visual stimuli affects the brain’s processing capacity. True disorganization is also a time suck. If you can’t find your shoes and keys each morning, you won’t make it out the door in time.
But “neat does not equal organized,” says Lorie Marrero, owner of the Clutter Diet organizing service and author of The Clutter Diet: The Skinny on Organizing Your Home and Taking Control of Your Life. You may have stacks of stuff lying around, “but if [you] know exactly what is in each stack and can find it in five seconds, that’s organized,” says Marrero. Putting all your papers in matching magazine files from the Container Store is a matter of what Marrero calls “aesthetic preference,” like preferring contemporary furniture over traditional furniture.
In my case, my aesthetics tend more toward “relaxed” than anything else. I don’t make my children line up their shoes in the mudroom as long as their shoes are always in the mudroom. I don’t have a neat little box in a drawer for stamps, but as long as my stamps are always on the same corner of my desk, I’m good. Indeed, I like having things visible, because that reminds me they exist.
Because of my personal preference, I’m actually a little suspicious of too-neat types. Sure, their offices look great in photos, but how long did it take to create and maintain that filing system? What are people not doing because they’re organizing their mugs and filing all their emails in quixotic pursuit of inbox zero?
Marrero has seen plenty of clients who use the organizing-as-procrastinating tactic. With one client, “Every time I visited, we’d spend three to four hours re-engineering his systems that were already over-engineered,” she says. “We’d sit there and micromanage the thing to death. I finally had to confront him after several sessions of this. I told him ‘This is a really clever way to avoid work.’”
That’s the crux of it: Productive people get their work done. If being neat helps, great, but the key for any organizing venture is to look at the ROI. “You’ve got to be able to get more time back on the other side than the time you’ve invested in the project,” Marrero says. “If you only reap a few more seconds a day, it’s probably not going to be worth it,” even if those labels look snazzy and your desktop is sparkling clean.