Feb 20, 2017

There is a collective fascination for spatial order, expressed by our desire for the symmetrical, colorful world of Wes Anderson’s films and the minimalist aesthetic of Japanese and Scandinavian spaces. But while a messy space is commonly subject to disgust, some of the greatest minds reveled in disorder. Mark Twain and Steve Jobs were never bothered by a chaotic workspace. Photographer Ralph Morse had documented Albert Einstein’s office, revealing the jumble of papers atop the scientist’s table. In the words of the genius, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”

A 2013 study published in Developmental Science found that children learn faster as they create mess. “It may look like your child is playing in the high chair, throwing things on the ground. And they may be doing that, but they are getting information out of [those actions],” the study’s senior author Larissa Samuelson explained. Meanwhile, behavioral scientists from University of Minnesota discovered that disorganization sparked creativity among individuals. The lead of the study, Dr. Kathleen D. Vohs, wrote, “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights.” On the other hand, the scientists also learned those who work in a tidy environment are more conscious of their choices, especially when it comes to health.

A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder authors David H. Freeman and Eric Abrahamson suggest clutter as a sign of productivity. They believe that the time allotted for organizing clutter could be used to accomplish other tasks. However, neuroscientists from Princeton University say otherwise. In 2011, they compared people’s efficiency in an organized environment versus in a cluttered one, and observed that a disorganized space decreases concentration, leading to poor performance. A 2010 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin discovered that a messy space leads to the production of a steady level of the stress hormone cortisol within its occupants, indicative of their chronic stress.

Before you excuse yourself from cleaning your paper-cluttered table or rush out to buy an organizer from the nearest Japanese stationery shop, you must also take cues from your personality. In a report by The Sydney Morning Herald, psychologist Susan Nicholson suggests that a person’s space reflects his or her Myers-Briggs personality profile. She posits that those with a “perceiving” profile are generally creative and comfortable in mess. On the other hand, those with a “judging” profile prefer structure and tidiness.

Take your job into consideration as well. A space in disarray could be fit for a creative, but imagine a surgeon with a chaotic table. That sure won’t work.

This story was originally published in Southern Living, February 2017.

TAGS: creativity messy messy space nolisoliph PRODUCTIVITY psychology space