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Keeping a Mess

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Keeping a Mess

What best practices befit a creative disposition, and are they at odds with the quiet assumptions we make about productivity? 

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Messy (2016) currently has a rating of 3.92/5 on goodreads (as of April 2019).

In an interview with Tim Harford, author of Messy, Jocelyn K. Glei pokes at these questions. In a time when Marie Kondo is a verb, it’s almost a provocation. However, according to Harford, it’s not about being messy per se, but rather, it is about autonomy over one’s workspace, and in this sense we can see that Kondo’s and Harford’s perspectives are parsimonious in the sense that both are about intentionality.

For example, let’s look at documents—they could be physical or digital. Harford discusses differing methods of dealing with files: piling and filing. One way is to spend time categorizing and organizing away. It feels comfortable, reassuring, logical, predictable. It also assumes we understand how documents will always be to us.

Other other kind is probably the type that you’ll find in your Gmail account, or sitting on your kitchen counter, or resting undisturbed in Notes.app on your phone—piling. Over time, the context and meaning—the actionable consequence—of those emails or bills or snippets of text reveal themselves in their urgency over time. 

The problem with filing is that the relevance of a document is usually not some static entity. We change, there are emergent demands of others upon you, and your ability to precisely respond to unpredictable, emergent needs is a large part of what you are valued for. It’s about your retrieval practice.

Harford goes on to cite studies that also correlate the need for productive friction and resistance to that predetermination inherent in filing systems, to the kind of productive friction that results in working with diverse groups of people. In other words, there is a humanist benefit as well as a productive benefit to taking a slow, rhizomic, critical approach to the work being done. In my own experience, most if not all of the work I have ever done in the humanities has involved an act of productive resistance to categorization because it too easily hews to prejudices structured on hegemonic systems of power. 

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We favour [the categorized] because it makes us feel comfortable, whether or not it’s appropriate.
— Tim Harford, Hurry Slowly podcast, Nov 20 2018

That’s not to equivocate the mundanity of filing mail into folders with, say, post-capitalist practices, but they oddly come from a similar place: deferring on assumptions, thinking about the placement and impact of your labour, valuing heterogeneity and occasional discomfort, and shifting the locus of definition as to what the work is

In other words, when we do that mundane work of filing, is there something else we ought to be doing? When we file something away, are we not merely giving ourselves license to forget it, robbing it of its fricative potential to impress upon us something of use?

You hereby have permission to make that beautiful mess, and in that controlled simmer of a soup of pixels and ink you can trust yourself that the most salient pieces will emerge. Make that mess—and keep it.

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Curtis Perry