As the old adage by Albert Einstein goes, “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a creative mind, if what then, is an empty desk a sign?”
On the contrary, there’s an entire industry of self-help books and motivational speakers dedicated to “de-cluttering” your life, so surely there must be something wrong with a messy workspace. Right?
Maybe not, says science. Actually, there might be some warranted truth to Mr. Einstein’s musings – creative clutter may indeed be where it’s at.
While your mother had good intentions when she asked (or, quite possibly begged) you to clean your room and put away your belongings as a child, studies have proven that Mom might not always know best. (Shh, don’t tell her, of course.) In fact, thriving in a messy environment could actually promote creativity. Kathleen Vohs, PhD, of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, performed a study on this phenomenon and found that adhering to working in a clean, tidy environment encourages people to do normatively “good” things, such as donating to worthy causes and make healthy lifestyle choices. However, if you’re looking to get those creative juices flowing, you might just be better off leaving that clutter right where it is. (Again, our sincerest apologies to Mom.)
To prove the theory that slight disorder encourages creativity, Vohs conducted three experiments (the details of which can be found here). The takeaway, though, was that the participants in the messy room came up with more creative uses for a ping pong ball and chose new products over the older, better-known version than those in the neat and tidy room. It shouldn’t come as much of a shock, however, that keeping your belongings in unconventional places would promote an out-of-the-box thinking approach. On the other hand, being in an orderly environment, like sitting at a desk where everything is in its preferred place, more likely influences us to conform to conventional expectations. Interesting food for thought, huh? (And for those of you “non-neat freaks,” that’s not necessarily a pun referring to the stale sandwich tucked away in your junk drawer that you’ve long since forgotten.)
Be warned: before you haphazardly rearrange your supplies around your office, keep in mind that clean desks aren’t completely without virtue. In the same study, those in the tidy room were more likely to donate to charity and eat an apple over a candy bar. So, if you’re one of the strong-willed few still sticking to that New Year’s Resolution (it’s okay, we won’t tell if you take advantage of one little splurge on this Fat Tuesday), it might not be the worst idea in the world to take a few moments out of your day to tidy things up a bit. However, if you’re looking to be the next Steve Jobs, Mark Twain, or even Einstein himself, then you go ahead and savor in your organized chaos. Heck, you know exactly where that one file is within the piles, don’t you?
Now, if only a theory could be developed to encourage us not to have to eat our veggies…
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