Plenty of evidence shows working in a clean, organized work space encourages exercise, healthier eating, and donating to charity. That’s wonderful, but given my inclination to stack this week’s papers on top of last week’s, and usually a couple weeks’ before those, I’m interested in the other side. I’m talking about the research that shows your messy workspace lends itself to creative inspiration, coming up with new and innovative ideas, and generally awesome stuff that makes your co-workers spit out their $5 cashew chicken combos. Those statistics are the ones that give me the warm fuzzies. I don’t know about others, but for me, underneath the piles of papers, collage of Post-It Notes, and empty gum boxes, is a system I follow that allows all the disorganization to help me be more creative and systematic in my personal and professional life.
I work at Mostly Serious, a highly creative and innovative interactive design shop. I do most of the “non-creative, keep the place running and organized so the artsy-fartsies can make amazing things” things. My job requires me to be organized in order to be successful, but that organization in no way translates to the current state of my desk. We recently, as an office, took the Myers Briggs personality tests. I am a proud INFJ.
Here is a snippet from Portrait of an INFJ: “Consequently, INFJs put a tremendous amount of faith into their instincts and intuitions. This is something of a conflict between the inner and outer worlds and may result in the INFJ not being as organized as other Judging types tend to be. Or we may see some signs of disarray in an otherwise orderly tendency, such as a consistently messy desk.” Ah hah! I knew there was an explanation. I’m not lazy, I’m just suffering from an everlasting internal conflict—a conflict that can be both a positive and a negative.
The New York Times Magazine website recently covered a related experiment:
In the first experiment, they randomly assigned a group of college-age students to spend time in adjacent office spaces, one of which was exquisitely neat, the other wildly cluttered with papers and other work-related detritus. The students spent their time filling out questionnaires unrelated to the study. After 10 minutes, they were told they could leave and were offered an apple or a chocolate bar as they exited. Those students who sat in the orderly office were twice as likely to choose the apple than those who sat amid the mess.
However, a second experiment found that advantages go both ways:
In this one, college students were placed in a messy or a 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. Disordered offices encouraged originality and a search for novelty. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights.”
Some of the greatest, most forward-thinking minds we’ve ever known have been photographed posed at their desks behind mounds of clutter: Albert Einstein, William F. Buckley, Nat Hentoff, and Mark Zuckerberg to name a few. Albert Einstein writes, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Who am I to argue with Albert freaking Einstein?
Clutter and create until your messy little hearts can take no more, my friends. Spend less time throwing away those old magazines, past project notes, and ketchup packets from last week’s lunch. They may be the very things that end up inspiring you. Your desk will definitely be a wreck, but who knows? You might just change the world.
- BSM Consulting, Inc. “Portrait of an INFJ.” Accessed Feb. 15, 2014. http://personalitypage.com/INFJ.html
- Reynolds, Gretchen. “What a Messy Desk Says About You.” Sept. 19, 2013. The New York Times Magazine online. Accessed Feb. 15, 2014. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/19/what-a-messy-desk-says-about-you/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0