Book Review: Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford

  |   Books Print Friendly and PDF

I love Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford for three reasons. The first is that the worst boss I ever had was an absolute clean desk freak.

He insisted that your desk should be completely clean of everything except what you were working on right then. At night, he expected the top of your desk to be clean, with everything properly put away. He would come to check on you and he would say, “A messy desk is a sign of a messy mind.”

One day after he left, my officemate, Charlie, looked at me and said, “I wonder if he’s ever considered what an empty desk is a sign of?”

The second reason I love this book is that I come from a generation that learned and believed that you could plan the error out of things. We believed that with enough attention, and enough equations, and enough planning, we could create action plans that never had to be modified. I got over that pretty early, but I find that I still must fight the concept in my head.

I also love this book because I learned a whole lot about a whole lot of things from reading it.

The book is not simply about tidy desks versus messy desks, or tidy plans versus messy plans. It’s about the way our attempt to impose order on a naturally chaotic world has bad outcomes. Early in the book, Harford states his idea of what the book is about.

“The argument of this book is that we often succumb to the temptation of a tidy-minded approach, when we would be better served by embracing a degree of mess.”

That brief quote contains a key concept. Harford is not suggesting that things should be messy instead of tidy. He suggests a degree of tidiness and a degree of messiness in the proportion that best serves you at the time.

Here’s what’s in the book. Chapter one is about creativity. You’ll learn why breaking your normal work pattern sometimes leads to your best work. In Chapter two, Collaboration, you learn how teams can mix messy and tidy to be both creative and effective.

Chapter three is about workplaces. In most of the places I worked before I started my own company, there were rules about how you would do things, including, keep your desk and files. The most important point in the chapter is that people crave control of their own environment and when we force them to be tidy in our way we often gain tidy at the expense of engagement.

Chapter four is titled “Improvisation.” I made my living as a professional speaker for a decade or so. I learned that one of the most important things I could do was prepare to a certain point but to be engaged with the audience while I was speaking. The best improvisation is the improvisation that lets you take your abilities and preparation and apply them exactly the way your experience tells you at the time. I’m a jazz fan, so getting the story of Miles Davis’ classic album, “Kind of Blue” was a plus.

Chapter five, “Winning,” brings together the study of an improbable triumvirate, Jeff Bezos, Erwin Rommel, and Donald Trump. This chapter is about what is sometimes called “maneuver warfare,” specifically John Boyd’s OODA loop, to move more quickly than the competition and, thereby seize advantage. You can think of it as the way you adapt to changing circumstances and set the pace of the action.

Chapter six is about incentives. You’ll learn that sometimes our desire to impose order on a situation creates problems that we cannot foresee. You’ll learn how it’s easy to game any system where performance measurement is reduced to a single number. And you’ll learn why so many of the things we think should be incentives turn out not to be.

Chapter seven is titled “Automation.” The key story is the tale of Air France Flight 447, which began in Brazil and ended in the Atlantic Ocean. The subject of the chapter is how automated systems that aid decision-making can weaken our decision muscles. Toward the end of the chapter, Harford asks the following powerful question: “Why then do we ask people to monitor the machines and not the other way around?” Think about it.

Chapter nine is titled “Life.” One of the motivational books I read early in my career implanted the idea to “do it now.” Given my training and background, that was a powerful insight. Instead of planning every little action, things would work better if I just did them as they came up. That’s the key point of this chapter. Often, we say that we’re too busy to get organized, but if we just concentrate on practical action we might not need all that organizing effort.

Bottom Line

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. It’s not about simply being messy versus being tidy. It’s about how mixing messy and tidy, ordered and disordered, planned and spontaneous, can make for a richer, more meaningful, and more effective life. That’s the reason you should read Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford.


What’s the fastest way to learn the big ideas from a great business book? Book summaries. Check out summaries from The Business Source, where you can watch, read, or listen to the big ideas from a great book in under 20 minutes.

The 347 tips in my ebook can help you Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time.

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying

There are no comments yet, why not be the first to leave a comment?