Tim Harford, Messy: How to be creative and resilient in a tidy-minded world

I enjoyed this book.  Harford writes in an engaging way, and it’s full of interesting stories about how shaking things up a bit has helped people to think differently and be creative.  Harford’s argument 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’.  I am not at all sure, though, that most of what Harford writes about belongs under the heading ‘messy’.  Mess, to me, and indeed to a higher authority than me, the Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, means ‘disorder’ or ‘confusion’. Martin Luther King’s decision to abandon his script and speak ex tempore on 28th August 1963 can scarcely even be classified as improvisation since he had spoken the lines about his ‘dream’ before.  That he had not intended to use those lines in his speech that day hardly constitutes an example of mess.  Equally, Harford quotes studies which show that workers are 30% more productive when they have been allowed some say in designing their office space but there is a  lot of difference between being able to put pictures and pot plants where you want them and making a mess.  I am equally sceptical about the idea that it is messy to have several projects on the go at once in your professional life.  I would rather say that that is diversifying.  Harford says: ‘The most brilliant people have multiple projects on the go at the same time or switch projects frequently’.  He cites Alexander Fleming, Louis Pasteur and Nobel laureates Linus Pauling and John Bardeen as examples.  Harford suggests that switching projects kept these men fresh and was part of the reason for their brilliance, but I was left wondering about how far it was their exceptional abilities that allowed them to roam across academic territory in a way not open to those of lesser ability.

As a, some would say, obsessively tidy person, I am not impartial on this one, but it seems to me that genuine mess is a problem.  The student whose folder is a mess is the one most likely to lose a worksheet.  The student with poor organisational systems is the one who will forget to hand in her homework on time.  I accept that someone else’s filing system might look chaotic to me but actually be perfectly functional.  I accept that sticking rigidly to a plan isn’t always a good idea.  After all, every teacher knows that sometimes the best lessons are the ones in which we divert from our plans.  But, again, I’m not sure I consider either of these things to be genuine examples of disorganisation.

But let’s set aside both my quarrel with the idea that this book is genuinely about messiness, and my feeling that mess is often a really bad thing because neither mean that the book is without merit.   The sections in the book that considered planning, group work and essay writing gave me particular pause for thought.


Students often ask me about how they should be planning their revision.  Studies quoted in Messy would suggest that the answer to this question is ‘not too rigidly’.  Psychologists Kischenbaum, Humphrey and Malett asked one of the groups of students in their study to create and follow daily plans with ‘specific, quantifiable goals, another groups to ‘set out goals and study activities a month at a time, and a third group not to plan at all’.  The students with daily work plans started well but ended up working fewer hours each week than those with no plans at all – 8 hours a week as compared to 10.  It was the monthly plan group who achieved the most, averaging 25 hours a week.  A year later, those in the monthly plan group still had better study habits than those in the other two groups.  Kirschenbaum et al concluded that the daily plans were a disincentive to hard work because it was so common for students to fail to achieve their daily goals, and that when this happened, their motivation sagged.  The researchers also pointed out that the daily plans were time consuming to produce, and diverted students efforts away from actual work.  Harford flagged up another problem with daily plans – they don’t allow for adjustment for an unanticipated illness or visit, whereas with a broader plans ‘it’s easy to accommodate these obstacles and opportunities’.

Group work

I have a great team at work.  We are generally all on the same page.  We are efficient.  We get things done.  But how good are we really at problem solving?  Probably not as good, Harford would suggest, as a more diverse, less harmonious team.  It is the work of Scott Page and Samuel Sommers that have prompted this conclusion from Harford. Page is a complexity scientist, apparently.  I am a little hazy on what these means but it sounds impressive. His studies show that ‘in many problem solving contexts diversity trumps ability’.  Add an economist to your team of statisticians and even if the former is a little bit average, he will add more value to the team than yet another statistician.  Page says: ‘There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions and the most innovative companies are diverse.’  Work by psychologist Samuel Sommers endorses Page’s conclusion.  Using mock trials inspired by real cases, Sommers has studied how juries make their decisions.  He found that if both an all-white jury and a racially diverse one were asked to consider the case of a black defendant, the latter were more thorough and careful in their evaluation of the evidence.  This was in part because the perspectives of the black jurors were different but also because the white jurors took more care to make sure that their viewpoints were well substantiated.  This was because they felt that they were more likely to be challenged about sloppy thinking by black jurors than by other whites.

Essay writing

Apparently, a similar thing applies to essay writing.  A study has shown that participants asked to produce an essay for someone with different political values from their own wrote more fluently, and argued better, than those asked to write for a ‘friendly’ audience.  This made me wonder if I should be telling my GCSE and A level students to assume that the examiner will not agree with their conclusions and to argue accordingly. It is a small experiment I will try, and if the results are worth reporting back on, I will do that here.

Image result for tim harford messy