A strategist's month of living messily
A view from Lucy Halley

A strategist's month of living messily

Lucy Halley spent a month following the advice laid out in Tim Harford's book, Messy: How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World.

Organised in my professional and personal lives, my natural tidiness serves me well as I race from my desk at Kitcatt Nohr on Brick Lane and my role in the planning team, to my home in North London and my role as mum to two small children.

But reading Tim Harford’s Messy: How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World recently leaves me with a nagging sense that my natural tidiness is getting in the way of my creativity, and my work and my home life would benefit from me embracing mess.

The concept of Messy is that mess and creativity are inextricably linked. Harford argues that we must fight our human inclination for tidiness and embrace mess in order to innovate and succeed.

Mess makes me deeply uncomfortable – I’m never going to say yes to mess unless I force myself. So, to fight my tidy instincts, I commit to living messily for one month and to keep a diary – can I find the magic in mess?

I apologise in advance to my colleagues, family and friends, and promise to tidy up after myself…

Day 1

This idea comes to me while I'm huddled on the sofa in the office, trying to keep warm. It’s not exactly Bowie fleeing to West Berlin, but it seems to work - commit to getting away from my desk more when real thinking needs to be done.

I’m briefed on a pitch. I shun the tidy temptations of Mintel, TGI and my usual planning props. Instead I decide to immerse myself in the client’s brand experience and then take a point of view.

Day 2

I write up my "pitch on a page" and circulate it to the wider team. I’ve always been anxious to reveal my thinking until I’m confident it’s right. It has been a conscious effort and sometimes uncomfortable to share my thoughts with colleagues earlier in the process, but it’s making my thinking and the work better.

Realise that – in this way, at least – I have been embracing mess for some time.

Day 3

Despondent at the result of the US election, I think about the neatness of my Facebook and Twitter feeds. In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, I had a real sense that I had been talking only to like-minded individuals, a dangerous place for a planner.

A tool from The Wall Street Journal dramatises this by showing liberal and conservative Facebook feeds side-by-side. The Guardian suggests some conservative websites I could read to burst my "filter bubble". There’s a lot in here I find difficult to stomach, but some good writing too.

Feels like the world is going to shit, but embracing messiness helps me to hope some good might come from this.

Day 9

I’m at a two-day conference. Ed – my boss – has asked to see a first draft of the pitch deck by 9am tomorrow, which gives me the perfect excuse to swerve the dreaded networking breaks.

Harford draws upon a study by psychologists Paul Ingram and Michael Morris, demonstrating how executives at a networking event stated their aim to meet new people (messy) but did exactly the opposite – making a beeline for people they already knew (tidy).

I recognise hiding behind my pitch deck as a spectacular failure in my fight against tidiness, but I’m painfully shy.

Day 11

I’m busy bouncing about between the pitch, developing a membership proposition for an existing client and writing this article. I’ve often thought I do my best work and am happiest when I’m busy, but reading Messy I realise it’s having several projects on at once that creates this sense of flow. It’s when I’m not looking directly at a problem that I see the solution, often at 2am or during my walk to or from the station.

Wonder if and how an industry increasingly driven by project plans and 100% utilisation targets can continue to allow for messiness like this.

Day 18

The pitch is going well. The core team already works closely together, but we are also drawing in specialists from our wider agency family. This creates mess, but it’s making the work better. We run through a draft deck with Hattie (Kitcatt Nohr’s MD) at the end of the day and get a big thumbs up.

A wider, more diverse team can make for awkward, uncomfortable, more challenging conversations, but it prevents any "groupthink" and unsticks us when we get stuck.

Day 23

I’ve been thinking about mess in the workplace and the concept of the empowered office – where employees have control over their environment. It strikes me the kids’ bedrooms are the equivalent of disempowered offices – I arrange their rooms as I think best. I decide to foster the eldest’s creativity by letting him keep his shoes on his bookshelf, his books on his bed and his Lego all over the floor.

Entertaining discussion with Hattie (a fellow tidier) when she asks us to tidy the office in advance of the pitch meeting. I say that making us tidy up is disempowering and stifles our creativity.

Hattie suggests (jokingly, I think) what I can do with "that Messy book" Not much tidying gets done – I’m claiming this as a victory for messy living.

Day 24

It’s the day before the pitch. Instead of writing a detailed script (I was a drama student – I’m good at learning lines), I note a couple of key points I want to land on each slide and practice these.

We anticipate likely client questions, but there’s an element of mess here we can’t control. Tomorrow I’ll have to listen and be prepared to improvise.

Day 25

The pitch goes well, I think. I enjoy presenting – it feels fresh, honest and personal. I don’t worry about remembering my lines.

Day 29

I initially fight the temptation to have a post-pitch desk tidy, but it’s getting to a point where I can’t concentrate. I instantly feel more under control, though Messy has taught me that this is probably because the pitch is over, not because I have a tidy desk.

I’m delighted to realise that I’m one of Harford’s "pilers" – the stack of papers to the left of my keyboard may appear messy but – with recently used documents working their way to the top of the pile – filing is easy. The bottom 95% gets dumped in the recycling bin.

Day 30

To tell you that we won the pitch would be the tidy conclusion to this piece, but we don’t have a decision yet. I go to see Tim Harford talk at the Royal Geographic Society and reflect on what I’ve learnt from my month of living messily.

I’ve learnt that I can be messy, but it’s something I’m always going to have to work at. The fight against tidiness is worth it, though – mess makes me a better planner and a better person.

Lucy Halley is a senior strategist at Kitcatt Nohr.

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