The section of Martin Luther King’s iconic 1963 speech that everyone remembers – where he begins “I still have a dream…that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” – that’s the part where King listened to the emotion of the audience and spoke from his heart. “Without notes, without a script lovingly prepared and committed to memory, his words began to trickle out and then to pour forth freely,” writes author and columnist Tim Harford in his book Messy, which celebrates the value of spontaneity and disorder. “It was a duet with his audience.”
These days it’s hard to avoid the admonishments of self-titled productivity gurus that we should take more control over our lives, our calendars, and in-boxes. We’re told we must reign in our wayward minds, rediscover the art of focus and plan, plan, plan.
But Harford provides countless examples of creative and entrepreneurial minds soaring to their greatest heights through the exact opposite approach, via thinking on their feet and an avoidance of over-planning: from the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett who recorded his mega-selling The Kohn Concert album when forced to improvise on a small, out-of-tune piano, to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who left Barnes and Noble and other corporations flat-footed when he seized the moment and gambled on the potential of online selling.
Without wanting to be overly orderly about it, we’ve drawn on Harford’s book and our own archive to show you five key areas where you could benefit from allowing a little more extemporaneousness and disorder into your work.
Do juggle multiple projects
For a study published in 2009, Robert Root‐Bernstein, the author of Sparks of Genius, and his colleagues, set out to discover what distinguished scientists who consistently made a huge impact from those whose work was less relevant. Based on interviews and tests with 40 scientists (including Nobel Prize winners) over two decades, Root‐Bernstein and his team found that a key factor was that the high impact scientists maintained simultaneous involvement in numerous research areas.
The fact is, working on multiple projects allows you to cross-pollinate ideas from different domains, meet people with diverse perspectives (see below), and when you’re taking a break from one challenge, it allows your brain time to incubate the problems in that area, increasing the chance that you’ll come up with solutions.
Don’t bother tidying your desk (or in-box)
According to the lean space philosophy, a minimalist, tidy desk and office is the foundation of efficiency and professionalism. But research that’s compared filers (who like to sort and store all their paper documents) and pilers (who leave piles of documents on their desk) has found that actually filers are less efficient: They struggle to deploy an effective ordering strategy and waste time storing low value documents.
Pilers, by contrast, waste less time on organization and are particularly adept at finding documents relevant to their current work (because they’re usually the ones nearer the top). “For the senior manager, the lesson is simple,” says Harford. “Resist the urge to tidy up. Leave the mess – and your workers – alone.” And it’s a similar story with email: An analysis, published in 2011, of hundreds of workers’ attempts to locate emails found that those who simply used the search function were substantially quicker than those who relied on a sophisticated system of folders (17 seconds vs. nearly 60 seconds, on average).
Do embrace the discomfort of strangers
When you need to collaborate, it’s tempting to go back to the tried and tested players who you’ve always got along with. But time and again studies show that group decision-making can benefit from a range of views and diverse perspectives. A relevant study from 2003 asked groups of friends to solve murder mysteries, either with or without a stranger also on the team – the participants in all-friend groups felt more comfortable and believed they had performed better, but actually it was the groups that included a stranger who excelled, even though they felt less comfortable, presumably because the strangers brought a fresh perspective and reoriented everyone to the task goal rather than to simply getting along.
“It is the ill-matched social gears grinding together than produce the creative spark,” says Harford. The same principle applies when you’re networking. At a conference or party, it’s natural to want to seek out the people you already know – in fact research shows that’s what we do even when we say our goal is to make new contacts – but to truly network, you need to embrace the discomfort of strangers and give yourself the chance for some random encounters.
Don’t keep a daily planner
No one will thank you if you’re forever late for appointments or missing project deadlines, but when it comes to planning goals and tasks ahead of time, there’s a good case for allowing plenty of room for maneuver. This means daily planners – where you schedule ahead what you plan to achieve each and every day – are usually not a good idea. Psychologists actually tested this back in the 1980s when they asked university students to either keep a daily planning calendar, a monthly planner, or none at all. In terms of completed work, the monthly group achieved nearly twice as much as the daily planners who managed to do worse than those with no plans. To paraphrase Harford, the reason daily planners don’t work is because stuff happens, like colds and computer crashes. “With a broad plan or no plan it’s easy to accommodate these obstacles and opportunities,” says Hartford.
As someone who has had to overcome a dislike of public speaking, I’ve definitely learned the benefits of preparation – nothing beats nerves better than knowing your stuff and feeling confident in your presentation. But I’ve also experienced the downsides: I mastered my script for a recent TV appearance but then was thrown after the presenter went off piste.
Harford gives his own example, of the way that Marco Rubio – the one-time favorite to become the Republican party’s candidate for president in 2016 – was mocked after a presidential primary in which, robot-like, he was unable to depart from chunks of over-learned rhetoric. The best solution is often a compromise – a mix of learned passages (I’ve found it especially helps to master the opening of a speech) and improvisation. Crucially, when you improvise, you are more likely to be original and creative – your brain literally stops censoring your words so carefully. “A script can seem protective, like a bullet proof vest, sometimes it is more like a straight-jacket,” says Harford.
Embracing a little chaos and spontaneity in your work isn’t a license for laziness – of course success depends on ambition and relentless dedication. Rather, it is about not wasting time on ineffective, unrealistic planning and not cramping your style through over preparation. Leave space for the magic. “Real creativity, excitement and humanity lie in the messy parts of life, not the tidy ones,” says Harford.