My Messy Life: Q&A with Josh Freed

August 26, 2015 | By Simon | Filed in: General.

Josh Freed is a self-confessed mess. The Montreal Gazette journalist and author’s office is shockingly disorganized, yet he claims his best work is born from the chaos. In the new, one-hour CTV documentary My Messy Life, which airs Saturday May 17 on CTV, Freed defends his clutter and gets to the bottom of the battle between the chaotic and the neat in an attempt to prove that a messy desk does not equal a messy mind.

In the film, he meets several renowned messy deskers such as Canada’s former Justice Minister, the Hon. Irwin Cotler, who explains that his busy desk reflects his busy mind. And he drops in on Internet guru Esther Dyson, who argues that tidying up is an inefficient waste of time and that her mess is in fact the secret to her success. See their shockingly messy desks in the gallery below.

Freed spoke with earlier this week.

The Montreal journalist and filmmaker of My Messy Life, is a man with a lifelong and self-confessed ‘order disorder.’ Photo by Andrei Khabad

Q: My Messy Life gives the fantastically messy people of the world the opportunity to explain (ie. justify) why their bedrooms, their offices and their cars are such cluttered disasters. How would you explain the reason for your lifelong “order disorder”?

A: It’s my natural order. My otherwise excellent grade school report cards always had dire teacher warnings (A grade 5 example: “Josh will never succeed in life unless he conquers his messiness.”)

My brain thinks in a lot of tangents and my office is probably just one big tangent – and somewhat of an X-ray of my busy brain. It might be genetic: my father was quite messy when young, too. Then again, my mother was super neat – so maybe I’m just having an extended childhood rebellion.

Q: Was there someone you interviewed for the film who you think gave the best justification for why it’s OK to be messy? For example, Internet guru Esther Dyson said cleaning is a huge waste of her time as she could be doing far greater things that decluttering her office.

A: I think Esther Dyson made the point that constantly filing, finding and re-filing things requires a huge hidden cost in anti-mess maintenance time — more time I suspect than many messy people spend looking for things.

I think radio host John Shaeffer made another strong point: that piling systems (as opposed to filing systems) allow for a lot of creative accidental thinking — because you’re forever bumping into things you don’t expect to and suddenly bouncing off them to create potential new ideas.

Q: What is the biggest contributing factor to your accumulating piles? Is it a love of paper?

A: Yep — I love paper. Always have, always will. My wife says that maybe I have a fetish for paper — but I think I just love the look of it, the touch of it, the texture, the portability, the crumple-ability, the sensuality of paper rubbing against your naked skin and — Oops, I’m getting carried away. Maybe she’s right.

Q: Your office is really, really messy, but did you meet someone whose mess shocked even you?

A: Definitely. We all have our Outer Mess limits. Steve Fyvish, the unnamed violinist in the film, was way over the top with his five foot piles of paper all over the entire floor, so much so that I found myself picking things up off the floor and even tidying — an unfamiliar experience.

Also, comedian and “King of Clutter” Joe Franklin’s celebrity museum of memorabila was a bit overwhelming in sheer density of space used , even for me…There were a couple of artists we didn’t include in the final cut who grossed me out — because they incorporated food into their clutter, which is a real verboten for me.

I have a rule that no one can cross my office door border with as much a peanut or a cup of coffee. I don’t want to take the chance that it gets left somewhere in the mess and shows up a year later.

My office may be a “mess”-terpiece — but it’s all-paper and 100% food-free.

Q: Until recently you were embarrassed by the state of your office. When guests were in your home would you close the door? Would you under no circumstances allow them to see your office?

A: Until three years ago, I only allowed close friends to peek inside the door of my office, because I was worried about what others would think… But then I decided to just get over it.

I came out of the closet at a Moses Znaimer ideaCity session two years ago where I gave a talk on messiness and creativity and showed pictures of my messy office to a room of 500 fairly well-known people.

I was pretty nervous at first but the talk went surprisingly well and afterwards over 100 people (several very well-known) came up to tell me they had secret messes, too that they’d always been embarrassed to show. That’s when I suddenly knew it was time someone came clean on mess and made a film that explored and possibly (gasp) even defended it.

Q: But now you’ve come to terms and even embraced the fact you are messy and you aren’t going to change. How did that happen?

A: Meeting so many interesting and generally confident messy people during the filming and research ( although many well-known messes wouldn’t allow us to film them) convinced me that I’m just part of a large and largely secret society whose members require some mess to work creatively.. I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that mess is really more of an aesthetic issue than anything else — and that one person’s mess may be another’s laboratory, with a hidden underlying order that only the mess-maker understands perfectly.

Bottom line — maybe I’m not messy. I’m just differently-organized in ways that neat people can’t see. Then again, I have launched my own major cleanup since the filming ended and I no longer have to maintain the continuity of the “set.” But after a recent day-long session of cleaning and re-piling things, I’m not sure anyone but me can see the difference.

Q: Perhaps the biggest problem for messy people is maintaining relationships with their neatnik spouses or roommates, would you agree?

A: Yep. It’s a constant source of “mess stress” for many couples and it’s estimated to be behind 10% of divorces.

After talking to dozens of couples, I’m convinced the only solution that works well is for the neat person to allow the messy one a DMZ area where they can “express their mess,” whether it’s an office, a back room, a shed, a corner or whatever — a space where they can just be them.

However, I wouldn’t recommend that you make this the kitchen — or for that matter the living room or anywhere else that matters a lot to the neat partner. My wife has always done her best to ignore the chaos of my home office as long as I agree to keep the order in the rest of the house so it’s never much of an issue between us — we’ve agreed on a border of order.

Q: What do you think was behind the decluttering movement of the early 90s that saw an onslaught of professional personal organizers launch lucrative careers?

A: We live in a fairly overwhelming age of both information and material clutter and I think many people feel a bit out of control. I think the decluttering movement began as a response to helping people cope with this — but like many movements and businesses it developed a life of its own and a constant need to continue to grow. That’s given it an evangelistic fervour with a zeal to convert (and nag) many people who didn’t really ask for help in the first place.

It’s become a cult of cleanliness, which seeks to impose order on desks, offices, closets, and many other small spaces — possibly because its hard to control the bigger surfaces of modern life itself.

Q: Are neatniks control freaks?

A: Obviously some people are neat nazis — out to order the whole world in their own image, and pushing desk organizers, closet organizers and other weapons of “mess destruction.” But many other neatniks are just people who require some order around them to be productive. Frankly, I’d rather have a neat airline airline pilot and a neat surgeon who doesn’t go on creative tangents in the operating room, but I’m happy to have a messy professor, or MP, or actor, or architect, or anyone else who may thrive artistically in a little chaos.

Q: If I’m a really messy person and want the neatnik in my life to get off my back, is there any argument I could throw at them so they’ll leave me alone?

A: We messy are rarely evangelists. We don’t ask you neat to mess up your own rooms, or become personal “dis-organizers.” We don’t create endless TV shows that come into the homes of you neat people to mess you up (there are six shows that try to neaten up the messy). So just why should we messy have to put up with the fervour and the tyranny of the tidy?

It’s fair to ask us to try to keep YOUR neat spaces neat, but you should allow us the same respect for out messy corners (within reason.) There are countless messy geniuses out there from Einstein to Edison to dozens of messy scientists, lawyers, artists and others Ive talked to — who thrive in some disorder even if they don’t want to show it off on TV.

It’s time we liberated the messes and gave them a small area to call home.

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