Science tells us that a too neat office can discourage innovation, while a messy desk is often a sign of creativity at work. But great artists through the ages didn't need studies to tell them about the benefits of a little strategic disorder. Many of them figured that out for themselves.
At least that's the impression you're left with after reading a great recent blog post by artist and writer Austin Kleon. In it he rounds up a diverse selection of creative greats -- from fine artists to celebrated writers -- all of whom have expressed, one way or another, that a healthy dose of messiness is an essential ingredient in their creative processes. ?
More mess = more serendipity
Whether it's the collage artist who consciously dumps scraps into disorderly boxes or the film editor who prefers old-fashioned editing technology that forces him to scroll through more footage to find the clip he thought he was looking for, all these artistic greats understand that disorder has one exceptionally valuable side effect -- more serendipity.
For example, here's a quote Kleon digs out about why writer Irvine Welsh doesn't organize his record collection: "I don't organize my CDs and vinyl by genre or alphabet anymore.... Having it all haphazard means I can never find what I want, but the benefit is that I always find something else, which is cool. I believe that art is as much about diversion as focus and planning."
And murder mystery queen Agatha Christie took a similar approach."[I]f I had kept all these things neatly sorted and filed and labeled, it would save me a lot of trouble. However, it is a pleasure sometimes, when looking vaguely through a pile of old note-books to find something scribbled down, as: Possible plot--do it yourself--girl and not really sister--August--with a kind of sketch of a plot. What it's all about I can't remember now; but it often stimulates me, if not to write that identical plot, at least to write something else," she explained of the useful chaos in her notebooks.
You can check out Kleon's thought-provoking post for a whole lot more examples. ?
Efficiency can be the enemy of creativity.
It's not just iconoclastic bohemians who consciously choose serendipity. Big companies (as well as tech icons like Steve Jobs) don't frame the issue as introducing a measure of disorder, but many have explained their insistence that people work at the office as a measure to increase serendipity, i.e. fortuitous, unexpected run-ins with colleagues that spark ideas. Sure, working from home might be more efficient -- cleaner and tidier if you will -- but it also a eliminates this powerful well of creativity.
Plus, as the Guardian's Oliver Burkeman notes, tidiness might sound like a great way to bring order and therefore mental stillness to your life. But usually what you end up with instead is a never-ending, time-sucking battle against the natural tendency of spaces of all kinds to descend into clutter and chaos. Far better to give up the battle and save yourself all that wasted energy by just accepting messiness into your life.
So for all these reasons, here's a suggestion: if you're looking for more creativity in your life maybe give up on that big clean out or perfect, pretty new organization system and instead take the advice of a whole host of creative greats and let a bit more messiness into your life. The result will probably be more "wasted" time, sure, but also more good ideas.