Sunday, August 4, 2019

In Partial Defense of Disorganization

I love organizing. As a child I liked alphabetizing the books I had, or organizing my collection of toy cars by sizes, and even my stamp collection. And this focus was especially pronounced with respect to my tax documentation. I maintained separate folders for interest statements, income documentation, charitable contributions and so on. Anytime I gave a donation to an organization I would record it on a spreadsheet and index the receipt and place it in a folder. And of course, I was proud of it. One day I was describing my organizational ability to my friend and colleague (now retired) Nina Gupta. She didn’t seem particularly impressed. And said something that went like: ‘Well, me, I just dump anything tax related into one folder, and figure it all out when I have to do taxes. Seems to work for me’. 
Over the years that conversation came back to me often. And as life grew busier there came a time when I just couldn’t carry on with my wonderfully organized filing system. And there was that first year when I dumped all tax related information into a folder – and still got my taxes done (albeit with no ability to brag about my wonderful organization). Was organization overvalued? It struck me last year when I was reading the book: “Algorithms to Live by” (by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths). After describing some very interesting research with reference to the benefits and drawbacks of sorting and organizing, they made a key statement about what to do when we are not sure: “ERR ON THE SIDE OF MESSINESS”. In some ways this was a Eureka moment!
Now, this is not about arguing that sorting and organizing is NEVER beneficial. Just that sometimes it is not. As Christian and Griffiths point out, when we sort and organize, there are significant costs to not just doing that but to keeping the system organized. This increased organization can speed information search and other key needs. However, sometimes the increased efficiency does NOT outweigh the cost of organization. Turns out that since my taxes are not super-complicated, dumping all documents into one folder is probably the more effective way.
As an educator and an administrator this calls into question so much of what I do and see. Do I really need to alphabetically arrange twenty term papers so that I can more easily enter grades in a spreadsheet? Do I need to super-organize a database that is going to be used only once a quarter? Do I really need to sort my emails into neat folders (As someone who currently has over 30 folders for emails, I did a double take when Christian and Griffiths cited research that shows the answer is almost always no)? And from when I worked in the corporate world, did I really have to pass judgment on that co-worker whose desk was always cluttered with papers? Apparently, research shows that co-worker will usually find needed documents quicker than others!