The Psychology of Messiness: How Disorder Can Make You More Creative
There's a general assumption--in homes, in workplaces--that neatness corresponds to productivity.
It begins in elementary school, with the annual rite of buying school supplies. You have the intent of staying organized, subject by subject, throughout the year. In adulthood, the habit continues. Every December, you buy an annual planner or calendar. It's as if you're buying a fresh white set of intentions. Moleskine notebooks beckon dreamers at every register.
As it happens, the fine art of getting organized is an official profession, with formal certifications, a code of ethics, and an official industry group (the National Association of Professional Organizers, or NAPO, 4,000 members strong).
And that's just the beginning. Moleskin, for its part, is a highly profitable luxury brand. The Container Store, beloved by organizers everywhere, had an IPO last year and boasts $532 million in year-to-date sales. Baron Fig, a notebook-maker based in New York City, raised $168,000 on Kickstarter not long ago--roughly 11 times more than it was targeting, according to cofounder Adam Kornfield.
And all that is just a yellow brick in the road of America's $4.3 billion stationery industry. Clearly, consumers are still paying for the tools of neatness and organization.
Yet it's possible--and even demonstrable--that you'll be more creative if your work space is disorganized and messy.
The Argument for Messiness
Last week, at the Yale School of Management's Art, Mind + Markets conference, Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota with an extensive psychology background, gave a talk called "Effect of Visual Order on Creativity." Her main point--which she and her colleagues have demonstrated in experiment after experiment--is that you get a creativity boost when you work in a messy space.
Last year, she described her work in the New York Times. In one experiment, she assigned 48 individuals to messy or neat rooms, and asked them "to imagine that a Ping-Pong ball factory needed to think of new uses for Ping-Pong balls, and to write down as many ideas as they could." Independent judges rated the answers for creativity. Here's what happened:
When we analyzed the responses, we found that the subjects in both types of rooms came up with about the same number of ideas, which meant they put about the same effort into the task. Nonetheless, the messy room subjects were more creative, as we expected. Not only were their ideas 28 percent more creative on average, but when we analyzed the ideas that judges scored as "highly creative," we found a remarkable boost from being in the messy room--these subjects came up with almost five times the number of highly creative responses as did their tidy-room counterparts.
(These results have been confirmed by independent researchers at Northwestern University, who found that subjects in a messy room drew more creative pictures and were quicker to solve a challenging brainteaser puzzle than subjects in a tidy room.)
Comparable results--wherein individuals in messy room were more creative than those in neat rooms--have occurred again and again in Vohs' research.
What This Means for Businesses
Does this mean that neatness has no use in the contemporary workplace, which venerates innovation and disruptive thinking above all else?
Of course not. The key takeaway here is that messy spaces have their place in work settings, while neat ones have theirs. At the Yale conference, I asked Vohs to speculate about how her research might apply to business settings. She agreed that a setting with visual disorder might facilitate brainstorming, while an orderly setting might be better for a fast meeting where an immediate decision is required.
Mind you, Vohs' research has to do with individuals, rather than teams. Is it not possible that a group dynamic would produce different outcomes? Vohs' doesn't think so, but admits that this is only her informed speculation. "I would say that what happens in people should happen in groups, but that's just a prediction," she noted in a follow-up email after the conference.
I asked NAPO for its thoughts on a Vohs' research--which quite thoroughly demonstrates that a messy office space spurs more creativity than a neat one. They pointed out that organizing isn't necessarily about neatness as a one-size-fits-all solution; that it's more about pleasing clients, and helping them structure their work spaces to achieve their desired outcomes. If creativity is the desired outcome, then an organizer will not be averse to devising a "messy" office space that provides some visual stimulation.
By contrast, if efficiency is the goal, then traditional neatness might be more appropriate. "For example, if the client's goal is to improve on-time delivery of recurring financial reports, and the client sees this as a structured task with an established process--then maybe a very cluttered workspace with random piles of reports makes it more difficult to find the information needed without digging," observes NAPO board member Kate Brown, owner of Impact Organizing in Sarasota, Fla.
She adds, "Vohs' study abstract concludes that, '…different environments suit different outcomes.' I think most NAPO members would agree with that statement."