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Why minimalism is overrated

Marie Kondo can colour-code her socks all she likes, but the new thinking is that mess is your friend says Deborah Hill Cone.

By Deborah Hill Cone
If I glance around, where I am sitting right now on my shabby purple velvet couch, this is what I see: A wobbly pile of 27 books, with brainier looking ones on the top to impress visitors, then there is Sidney the Burmese cat, his collar frayed, a Lego dragon, a pair of discarded Star Wars pyjama bottoms, a strawberry-flavoured Smiggle pen, a lump of Blu-Tac, Mum’s swear jar (full), a candle which says “If you’re going to get in trouble do it at the Chateau Marmont”, a purple blanket crocheted by (now departed) mum, an ugg boot, a glittery sandal.
Clutter is my natural habitat.
I suppose some of these things around me are ‘bringing me joy’ – the candle smells like aviation fuel – but I’m hardly Marie Kondo-ing it (Japanese magic art of tidying up). I’m not even ‘hyggeing’ it either (Danish art of cosiness); I’m just a bit of a shambles. It seems I was gifted the genes for bad hand-eye coordination but missed out on the DNA for alphabeticising your spice rack.
And yet: good news! It’s suddenly becoming okay to be messy. In fact, it could even be beneficial.
It seems we’ve gone as far as we can go into the rigorous business of decluttering and being minimalist and the pendulum is swinging back to embrace a bit of muddle.
In his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, economist Tim Harford argues the forces of tidiness have marched too far.
The rigid thinking around tidiness and control disempowers us, so in being messy we are “recapturing our autonomy”.
Who knew?
And there I was just thinking I was a bit of a sloth. But in the age of big data and algorithms where everything is measurable, it makes sense that some forward thinkers are starting to ask whether there are some parts of life that are not improved by technology, efficiency and organisation. Not only that, they’re asking whether the effort we put into systematising everything, being proud of your sock drawer, is worth it.
Cognitive scientists study ‘neats’ and ‘scruffies’ – also known as ‘filers’ and ‘pilers’ – that is, people who establish a formal organisational structure for documents and those who let piles of paperwork accumulate.
They found filers had bloated archives full of documents they never used. Whereas pilers just kept documents on their desks for a while and sooner or later picked them up, realised they were useless and biffed them out.
It seems a messy desk is instead a ‘pragmatic system of organisation’ where the most recently used things get placed on the top. Given most scientists are by definition neat freaks, this is quite a radical admission.
“Disorderliness is no bar to success,” Harford says. I could kiss that man.
The artistic process is by its nature, messy. Originality demands saying yes to whatever comes up, not just whatever fits neatly into a pre-conceived category, and that means there will be mess.
It might get loud, and dirty. Mess is sexy. Kate Moss will always be hotter than the Duchess of Cambridge: a hot mess, sometimes.
The thing is, it’s not just that I’m too lazy to be neat. I find tidiness oppressive. I don’t like the way neatness makes me feel I have to be on my best behaviour. Being in very tidy places – Japan was weird – makes me want to go hog-wild and muck everything up. I exult in, rather than endure, a certain level of chaos. It is life affirming.
“Open your eyes. This horrible mess is your life. There is no sense in waiting for it to get better. Stop putting it off and live it,” as fantasy writer Robin Hobb said.
I’m not sure I entirely trust people who always have clean cars. I always suspect they’re the kind of people who get up and wash themselves after sex. But it’s not surprising. There’s more and more pressure to be engaging in improving endeavours, being healthy and balanced and sober. No wonder mess can feel so liberating. Because mess isn’t just about hanging up your clothes or stacking the dishwasher, it’s a state of mind.
Haven’t you ever noticed a high-powered career woman occasionally sneaking out for a cheeky fag? You can’t be virtuous all the time – all those spin classes and low-fat smoothies – without needing to break out occasionally.
In her essay The Perverse Allure of Messy Lives, Katie Roiphe says it’s precisely because we’ve all become so conservative that we are fascinated by the retrograde glamour of programmes like Mad Men in which people led messy lives, drinking too much, smoking too much, falling into bed with people they weren’t married to.
Roiphe advocates a ramshackle personal life: “I have two children, with two different fathers, neither of whom I am living with. It did take me a little while to achieve quite this level of messiness but I did it in the end.”
This isn’t new. The Bloomsbury Set – including writers like Virginia Woolf – styled themselves as an “experiment in living” with (for the time) loose morals and shoddy habits, all in the pursuit of living a free, creative life. Being bohemian looked fabulously louche, although children of some of those rule-breakers say amid the panache were sadder stories of alcoholism, breakdowns and suicides.
I guess there is mess, and then there is MESS. Because I confess while I’ve been writing this column, I had to take a break to get up to make all the beds. That brought me joy.
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