Organized Chaos: Can a Messy Desk Lead to More Creativity?

Organized Chaos: Can a Messy Desk Lead to More Creativity?

One could argue that creativity is one of the most desirable characteristics of the human race. But, like charisma — another trait starting with C — creativity isn’t always easy to define. Perhaps the simplest definition is using original ideas to make something impactful. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Pablo Picasso, and Steven Spielberg are just a few of the world’s great creatives, and they’re so well known, we often just refer to them by their last name.

One of Einstein’s memorable quotes — “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk a sign?” —  is often called into question when people try to define signs of creativity.

There’s a lot of discussion about whether a person’s workspace could generate more creativity, or specifically, whether tidiness or messiness makes a difference in the creative flow. Keep reading to get some insight.

Princeton Scientists Found Messiness Doesn’t Help

Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found out that people subjected to cluttered environments were less able to focus. In contrast, neat spaces led to better productivity and less irritability. The scientists used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brain, plus psychological measurement tools, to reach their conclusion.

The State of Your Desk May Reveal More Than a Preferred Cleanliness Level

A psychologist named Kathleen Vohs had a hypothesis that went directly against the findings of the Princeton study. She believed a messy desk might stimulate creativity. To test her theory, she invited 188 adult subjects into rooms that were either very clean or untidy. Then, she gave them two menus from a deli that served fruit smoothies. One menu was titled “Classic,” and the other was “New.”

Vohs found people in the messy rooms were more likely to choose the “New” menu” and those in the tidy rooms gravitated towards the “Classic” varieties. Therefore, she believes clutter is to novelty as tidiness is to conventional.

She also did a second experiment with 48 adults where the subjects were asked to come up with unusual uses for Ping-Pong balls. Again, the participants were placed in rooms that were either tidy or messy. Although the two groups came up with the same number of ideas, Vohs determined the people in the cluttered rooms discovered uses for Ping-Pong balls that were 28 percent more creative than the people in the cleaner environments

Embrace What Makes You Comfortable

While it’s doubtful purposefully making your desk messy would result in a burst of creativity, the adverse outcomes of these studies should prove comforting to people who already feel their desks are suitable spaces. Also, the two studies highlighted here are just the tip of the iceberg regarding attempts to link cleanliness and creativity.

It’s similarly important to keep in mind that the examples above were in carefully controlled spaces. Ask anyone you know, and he or she could probably come up with a creative person who has a very messy desk, and one who would much rather have a desk where everything is in its place.

In the end, it’s ideal to keep your desk organized in a way that makes you feel most at ease. If you typically find everything you need and stay clearheaded while sitting at a desk that may seem like a disaster zone to outsiders, why change what’s already working well? On the other hand, if you waste a lot of time searching for misplaced items or trying to clear enough space to write on a notepad comfortably, it’s probably time to tackle tidying.

headshot-megannicholsMegan Ray Nichols loves discussing the latest scientific discoveries with others on her blog Schooled By Science. When she isn’t writing, Megan is discovering the beauty in the world around her with her new telescope. You can follow Megan on Twitter @nicholsrmegan.

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