Ep. 80: The Upside of Messy Teenagers

Ep. 80: The Upside of Messy Teenagers

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Episode Summary

Tim Harford, author of Messy and accomplished journalist, economist, and speaker, and I talk about how messiness can play a positive role in your teen’s (and maybe your) life. Turns out you can use messes, randomness, and disorganization to enhance your thoughts and actions, rather than bog you down.

Full Show Notes

You stick your head into your kid’s bedroom to see their desk littered with crumpled papers, gum wrappers, used dishes, worn books, pens, and chargers. Their bed is unmade, and some of the pillows are on the floor along with dirty or clean laundry. As far as you can tell, there’s no rhyme or reason whatsoever. It’s no wonder your teen has trouble concentrating! They live in a state of chaos. You call your child’s name, ready to lay down the law and make them clean their room. You want to run a tight ship, don’t you?

But what if this mess isn’t actually a bad sign? It’s very difficult to discern when somebody’s disorganization is an indicator of distraction versus a sign of productivity. Whenever a person is busy, it can be hard to stay tidy. Your work desk is probably the most cluttered when you have the most work to do. Your teen’s messy room might follow the same pattern! In some cases, mess could be a sign of creative potential. When this is the case, and when it’s time for you to step in and help your teen find their way?

This week I spoke with Tim Harford, accomplished journalist, speaker, and author, to get a better idea of how messiness and disorganization can play a positive role in your teen’s (and maybe your) life. His book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, takes a close look at how and when being untidy might actually be a positive thing!

For example, Harford points to great creative minds as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, David Bowie, Miles Davis, and Michael Crichton and points to one common denominator: mess. Often, the most high-achieving individuals are also the ones with the most pots on the burner. With so many projects bubbling away, it’s hard to keep everything in order. Enthusiasm and curiosity are two great traits for accomplishing goals, but they also make it very hard to keep things tidy, and they might make someone seem like they’re easily distracted. This is something you should keep in mind next time you see your teen leaving things half-finished. They might be taking a break from one project to begin another! If this is the case, it’s important for you to foster the right amount of encouragement and guidance without overstepping boundaries.

Harford cites multiple studies and field experts in our talk that provide awesome perspective on the concept of messiness. A parent of teenagers himself, Harford uses his research and expertise to give some great advice when it comes to applying the concept of messiness to family life. In our interview, he teaches me all about how to:

  • Turn accidents into positive experiences
  • Creating “empowered” spaces for teens to excel
  • Cultivating diverse friendships and perspectives
  • Making the most of quarantine situations with family

Raising a messy or distractible teen can be a challenge, but Harford’s wonderful advice is sure to help any parent come to, if not an appreciation for, then at least an understanding of how mess might transform a life. Thank you, Tim!

The 28-minute public version is free to listen to, and the 53-minute extended version, packed with extra goodies, is reserved for site members. Log in or start a free trial to access everything our site has to offer!

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Empower Your Teen Using Their Bedroom:

In his interview with me, Tim Harford, author of Messy, discussed a brilliant study in which workers were placed in four different office spaces and then measured on their productivity. Turns out, the participants were most productive (and happy) when they were allowed to arrange their own work space. Workers who were allowed to arrange their workspace but then had that freedom enforceably revoked were the least productive group AND reported feeling the most upset and distracted during and after “working.”

Tim admits that this study made him seriously reconsider how he was parenting his own teens. Rather than dictate how his teens rooms should look, Tim and his wife decided that decrees would make more sense. Decrees such as “vacuuming is happening on Thursdays so if you don’t want the things on your floor touched or moved by someone else, you’ll have to take care of that by Wednesday evening.” Similarly, Tim has a schedule for laundry, and if dirty clothes are not in the laundry room, they don’t get washed.

It’s time to re-empower your teen in their own bedroom and take the stress off of you in the process. Schedule a day in your calendar to release your teen’s room back to them. You can still have rules like, no food in bedrooms,and similar decrees like Tim Harford has, but, this time, make it clear to your teen that their bedroom is officially theirs.

2.  Get Messy:

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About Tim Harford

Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of  Messy, Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, and the million-selling The Undercover Economist. Tim is a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less, the iTunes-topping series Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, and the new podcast Cautionary Tales. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House. He is an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford and an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.

Tim has appeared on The Colbert Report, Planet Money, and Today, among others. His writing has been published by leading magazines and newspapers including Esquire, Forbes, Wired, New York Magazine, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Tim was made an OBE for services to improving economic understanding in the New Year honours of 2019. He lives in Oxford with his wife and three children.

Want More Tim?

Catch Tim on his website, Twitter, Facebook, or watch his three TED Talks.