Albert Einstein was famously messy. Steve Jobs thrived in chaos. And J.K Rowling wrote her greatest works at a cluttered desk.
So why is it that we are often told that a messy room equals a messy mind? From birth we are engrained with the notion that neatness is to be praised, while disorder reprimanded. That organisation leads to success and mess is slovenly.
“Messiness has been deemed variously a moral failing, a hallmark of laziness, a serious character flaw, or a hardwired human behaviour,” writes Dr. Richard A. Friedman in The New York Times. But what if all this time we’ve had it wrong? If the messy minority we’ve stigmatised as incompetent individuals have been secretly thriving in their disorderly existence.
“Contrary to popular belief, messiness is not necessarily a sign of mental disorganisation,” says Friedman. “Nor does messiness seem to preclude productivity: Some of the most creative and prolific people are inveterate slobs.”
According to physicist Adam Frank, disarray is the natural order of the universe; it is the law of entropy.
“The hard truth is that the universe itself is dead-set against our long-term efforts to bring order to the chaos in our lives. That’s because the universe loves chaos,” Frank says.“While you might be able to reduce chaos in one small location like your desk, the very work you do creates more mess for the rest of the universe.”
So if all the great intellectuals and creatives are doing it, and it seems it’s the unwavering state of the cosmos, perhaps it’s time to stick it to the man (read: mum) and leave the bed unmade.
Albert Eintstein was famously quoted, “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
You only have to look at some of the greatest authors of our time to see that mess inspires creative thinking. J.K Rowling, Mark Twain and Roald Dahl were notorious for working in a room littered with notes, piles of clutter and random titbits of inspiration.
But it’s not just history, science is proving it too. A 2013 study led by Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management found that cluttered environments foster creativity and breed inspiration. By contrast, keeping things neat and orderly seemed to, “encourage convention and playing it safe.”
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My mother is further confirmation. An author herself, she is a woman who cleans up behind you when you’re not even finished using something. Observe her desk however and you’ll find stacks of paper, a dictionary the size of Russia and post-it-notes dotted with quotes, reminders and inspiring words.
“From a young age, we are taught to feel bad about ourselves for being messy. Disorganised or unkempt people are frequently maligned by society,” says John Haltiwanger of Elite Daily. “In the process, the hidden benefits of this quality are overlooked. It takes courage to embrace disorder, as it often requires accepting constant criticism and going against social constructs.” In other words, messy people go against conventional wisdom. They contradict the status quo.
In a sense, this provides a certain uniqueness in their character and their ability. Something that sets them apart from the rest, which is really what establishes the most creative, the most successful and the smartest from the pack.
“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” Dr. Vohs and her co-authors concluded from their study. By misplacing things from their conventional locations, it enables one to think outside ‘conventional reasoning’ – the definition for creativity according to the study.
An ability to work in chaos may represent a higher-level focus. Instead of concerning themselves with all the minute details, messy people tend to focus on the task at hand. In other words, they have an innate ability to tune out distractions, which makes them more productive.
“Many messy people are unconcerned or unaware of the seeming chaos of their local environment,” says Friedman. “Like people with high pain thresholds who may not notice low-level pain, messy people may just not feel their space as keenly as neatniks.”
So does this mean we should trash our desks and wait for a stroke of genius? Not exactly. The relationship between messiness and creativity is by no means causal. That being said, if Officeworks is your adult Disneyland it may be time to back away from the colour-coded note binders. Unchain yourself from the OCD need to be tidy and who knows, you may be the next Albert Einstein.