The Psychology Behind Your Mess: Why Creative Geniuses Often Flourish in Clutter

All our lives, we’ve been made to feel guilty for not being organized. Organization, we were always told, holds the key to success.

Organization is a quality that’s typically impressed upon everyone pretty much from birth, and is emphasized everywhere including work, home, school – even in our bunks at sleep away camp. With countless “clean your room” commands and judgmental condemnation from authority figures about not being neat, we’re raised with the idea that if cleanliness is next to Godliness, than messiness basically saves us a seat next to Satan. At the very least, it’s a quick path to failure. And none of our protests could say otherwise.

So, what good can come from being disorganized, right? Well, a lot more than our parents could ever think. Numerous studies have provided solid psychological evidence that messiness, rather than being symptomatic of poor standards or effort, may actually provoke creativity. Recent studies conducted by the University of Minnesota conclude that “disorderly environments encourage breaking with tradition and convention,” and this settings can alter preferences, choice, and behavior.

For the disorganized among us, staying neat is often just not an option – it’s not in our DNA to put things where they belong. Usually, by the time we reach adulthood, we typically give up any pretense of even trying to stay organized. Some of us are perfectly happy in our clutter. It’s where we work and create to the best of our abilities. It’s a comfort zone for deep thought and sincere reflection. Our mess is our own, and anything outside of that feels uncomfortable.

Psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs, from the University of Minnesota, and two of her colleagues predicted that being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions. Their intuitions, as reported in Psychological Science, were borne out: among other conclusions, their experiment concluded that messy rooms provoke more creative thinking, and working in chaos has certain advantages. In one study, college students were placed in either a messy or neat office and asked to dream up new uses for Ping-Pong balls. Those in messy spaces generated ideas that were significantly more creative, according to two independent judges, than those plugging away in offices where stacks of papers and other objects were neatly aligned.

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” Dr. Vohs and her co-authors conclude in the study, “which can produce fresh insights.”

So, how does this study translate into an excuse for our rooms being pigsties? Creative thinking is a way of looking at problems or situations from a fresh perspective that suggests unorthodox solutions (which may look unsettling at first). So a messy room is a disorderly environment, breaking free from the more traditional clean room (orderly environment), and can provoke more creative thinking – at least to the naturally disorganized piggy. Unconventionally disorganized desks can have a sense of organization only the creator can operate through.

In fact, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Mark Twain all had very messy workspaces. Einstein himself said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”

This evidence is not, of course, an excuse for otherwise tidy people to suddenly become messy: leaving trash on your office desk won’t magically have you waking up one morning more creative. But for those of us who are genuinely disorganized and have fought all of our lives against forces (parents, teachers, drill sergeants) who have refused to believe there’s creativity in our chaos, this is exciting science.