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The Psychology Behind Messy Rooms: Why The Most Creative People Flourish In Clutter

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Dan Scotti

All our lives, we’ve been told to “be organized.” Organization has always been pegged as a direct key to success.

Whether at home, school or in your bunk at camp, organization is something that has been instilled in everyone pretty much from birth. On the other hand, being messy has been equally condemned and made to be a quick path to failure. And, honestly, no rebuttal could say otherwise.

I mean, what good can come from being disorganized, right? Perhaps more than you might think. More recent studies, conducted by the University of Minnesota last year, provide us with a new side of the debate. The pro-messy one.

There has always been this sort of “urban legend” that has floated around modern society deeming people with messy desks as having a high affinity for creative reasoning.

Frankly, I initially thought that people with “messy desks” had to be creative, out of necessity, to survive outside the boundaries of organization.

Last week’s take home test, still undone, in one corner. A page from last month’s Playboy ripped out and crumpled next to the bottle of cocoa butter in the other. Empty Arizona cans distributed across the surface, like a battlefield.

Your desk is a mess. Then again, it’s your mess, and thus, it feels very in-control. When you habitually fail to put things in their designated place, you’re bound to get creative figuring out ways to make everything, I don’t know, fit. And fit comfortably.

While it might look completely random to strangers, a lot of times, a person’s mess is very methodical – with respect to himself.

Psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs, from the University of Minnesota, who set out to debunk this urban legend, didn’t confine her study to solely the desk. No, Vohs, clearly a creative mind, chose to think outside the desk. She just sounds messy. The creative kind of messy.

Using a paradigm consisting of one messy room and one tidy room, and a series of trials, Vohs concluded that messy rooms provoke more creative thinking – and provided scientific evidence!

The next question is, what exactly constitutes “creative thinking,” and how will your pig sty of a room help?

Creative thinking, in its purest form, is thinking outside the lines of “conventional” reasoning. When considering this, it should be no huge shock that messy rooms containing possessions misplaced from their “conventional” locations would promote creativity.

I suppose if you prefer to “lay,” and I use that term very loosely, your clean clothes on the floor of your bedroom, when the empty dresser is only a few feet away – you’re certainly thinking outside the lines of conventional reasoning. And that same concept could be applied to more abstract conception.

Consider this from Albert Einstein, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”

Obviously, Einstein’s desk looked like a spiteful ex-girlfriend had a mission to destroy his workspace, and executed it rather successfully. Yet, there’s no denying Einstein’s creativity.

Einstein wasn’t alone. Mark Twain, too, had a cluttered desk. Perhaps even more cluttered than that of Albert Einstein. Mark Twain was one of the most imaginative minds of his generation.

If the likes of Einstein and Mark Twain don’t catch the attention of Generation-Y, I give you Steve Jobs. No wonder he invented iBooks, it’s clear he had trouble maintaining his real life ones. His desk, and office alike, were f*cking disasters. I suppose this just added to his brilliance.

So what does this mean to you? Trash your desks, trash your rooms and hope for a touch of genius? Not exactly. The relationship between messiness and creativity is by no means causal. Being messy won’t find you waking up one morning more creative.

The two are, however, correlated. If you are “messy by nature,” perhaps finding a healthy medium between your usual mess and that urgency to clean, is optimal. By curbing your sloppy desk, room or tendencies, – keep in mind – you might also be curbing your overall creative tendencies.

Ultimately, the only way for you gauge the effectiveness of your mess-induced creativity is to go out and experiment for yourself. So, go ahead, make it rain with all your important files and paperwork, toss your clean clothes across the room, have a blast. See what you come up with, after.

PSA: If you have a roommate, tell him not to send me any hate mail if your dorm room turns into a zoo while you experiment with this. I am not liable for any of the future messes my readers may create.

Dan Scotti

Dan Scotti

Staff Writer

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