While writing my review on Marie Kondo’s hugely popular book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” I came across a very interesting study on the correlation between creativity and ‘mess.’
In 2013, Psychological Science published a study that proved how having a ‘disorderly’ space could actually yield more creative thinking. The study was led by Kathleen Vohs, a psychological scientist from the University of Minnesota. Vohs had conducted an experiment wherein half of the participants were asked to stay in a ‘clean’ room, while the other half stayed in a ‘messy’ room. They were then instructed to think up of new ways to use ping pong balls.
Although both groups came up with the same number of suggestions, the answers from the participants staying in the cluttered room were deemed to be more interesting and creative. Now, as a hoarder and an aspiring writer, this is the type of study that I could really get behind.
However, in another 2013 experiment, this time by Boyoun (Grace) Chae and Rui (Juliet) Zhu, it appears that productivity may actually favor employees working in a neat environment. In the article published in the Harvard Business Review, the duo detailed an experiment involving 100 students. The undergraduates were brought to either a cluttered space strewn with paperwork and used cups or an orderly desk. The students were then asked to solve a geometrical problem—an unsolvable one—that entailed finding a way to trace the figure without lifting pencil from paper or retracing lines.
The result? Students working in the ‘messy’ environment gave up after an average of just 669 seconds. Compare that to the average 1,117 seconds that the students in the ‘neat’ environment were able to keep up. Now, while this may be a study on persistence rather than direct productivity, we all know that to succeed in anything, you’ll need to have the patience to stick it out.
So, does that mean that messy creatives aren’t productive and the neat go-getters aren’t creative? Not necessarily. Perhaps the solution lies in the middle ground. In life, few things are ever really black or white. Ultimately, I believe that everything boils down to preference and personality. That, or one should always keep one’s desk neat but with inspiration-driving clutter within reach. Food for thought.