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Mess and Creativity Go Hand in Hand!

 Is messiness a sign of creativity?

I certainly like to think so as I, yet again, transfer piles to other piles, essentially taking from Peter to lose Paul behind yet another stack of obvious essentials: tax forms, bills, favourite notebook(s), container(s) of pens and innumerable mechanical pencils (I do everything in pencil – commitment issues?!), old contracts, new contracts, more bills and a smattering of children’s artwork kept on my desk as a persistent reminder it needs framed.

I know we’ve reached critical mass when, without the energy to clear a space to work, I have to use my Wacom pen tablet or my laptop on my actual lap.

The issue of my workspace and it’s disorderliness (read: chaos!) is a source of perpetual frustration.  I know it should be tidy.  I see images of “efficient workspaces” and sigh.

I know that for me to be at my most productive, the space in which I work should be one that facilitates that end.  I’m a creative professional, and, in order for my creativity to flow at its most abundant, my stacks, piles and general shit-opia really need to be brought into some order.

Or should it? There seems to be a growing body of evidence that points to just the opposite.

Does clutter impede creativity or can mess and creativity co-exist – complement, even?

Apparently, on the day Einstein breathed his last genius breath, Time photographer Ralph Morse made his way to Einstein’s Institute of Advanced Studies office and captured a single, famous, photograph of the legacy of the world’s greatest mind.

Mess and creativity: Einstein's desk only hours after his death.

See, there… a veritable avalanche of paper, books and piles.  Not an inch of Einstein’s desk is free of paper. Books, manuscripts, magazines, and envelopes scattered and piled. The shelves similarly so. One shelf may hold journals neatly arranged, but otherwise piles and piles of papers.

It’s a mess, and, from all accounts, he liked it that way. When asked about his messy desk, Einstein remarked, now famously and exhaustively memed, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”

Coveting the tidy desk

Peruse Pinterest for a few minutes and you’ll find enough examples of tidy, productive workspaces to fully confirm you’re the disaster you’ve long suspected.

Tidy desks, clear of clutter and bedecked with only the most appropriate and organization-friendly of designer accessories appear to be highly coveted.

But, according to the experts, this tidiness may, in fact, be counterintuitive to the way creatives are actually most, well… creative.

Tidy desks be damned!  The combination of recent studies and evidence from the world’s foremost creatives show that just the right amount of mess on your desk can help you achieve greater creativity, defy convention, and even be more productive.

A 2013 University of Minnesota study published in the journal Psychological Science found that, while tidy desks may promote healthy eating and generosity, messy desks offer their own unique benefits. Participants in rooms where the desks were paper-strewn and the office was generally cluttered were found to be more creative.

The connection between mess and creativity

Delving into this seeming dichotomy, Kathleen Vohs (a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management) and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments in both tidy and unruly spaces with 188 adults given tasks to choose from.

For example, researchers asked 48 participants to come up with novel uses for a pingpong ball. Half the participants worked in a messy room and half in a neat room. The participants thought up the same number of ideas, but a panel of independent raters rated the messy-room participants’ ideas as significantly more creative.

Vohs describes her findings in the New York Times, concluding that messiness and creativity are at least very strongly correlated, and that “while cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.”  Contrary to popular opinion, a bit of a mess is more likely to inspire us to think outside the box, tap into our creativity to come up with new, more unconventional ideas.

Mess and creativity: Steve Jobs cluttered home Office

You may be more organized than you think

Interestingly enough, it’s more than likely that some order exists in what some may see as utterly chaotic.  To Einstein everything was where it needed to be, and he had his own system for organization.

Mark Twain is another great example of clutter-fied genius.  Much like Einstein, Twain worked among stacks and piles, paper and books littering his creative workspace.

For a guy who transformed our worlds, streamlining and decluttering our workspaces, Steve Jobs was, ironically, a man who worked in a mess. Steve Jobs’ desk was one with plenty of stacks – papers, journals, books and tech-y bits – the shelves of his home office heaving under the strain of unruly, disordered stacks of books.

Is it really clutter at all?

Let’s consider how we define clutter, and how we define if ours is really the disastrous mess we think it is.  Brooks Palmer believes that our concept of clutter is all wrong. Creator of ClutterBusting.com and author of Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back, Palmer says that clutter isn’t necessarily piles and items that appear disorderly.

Instead, clutter is made up of items we keep that are actually not serving us — the papers you think you’ll need, that book you’re never going to read, the papers you think you need to hang onto because you have to, etc. Consider if the things that surround you are providing something positive.  If it is and if you do need it, it’s really not clutter.

The thing is, creativity by its nature is simply messy business. Consider a child with finger paints:  paint everywhere… hands, ears, paper, hair, table, floor!  And what is the result of this undeniable mess?  A beautiful, unique, completely individual creation!

And we are so very pleased!

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