In addition to my laptop and a big monitor, this is what is strewn on my 4-ft. x 4-ft. home office desktop right now: a container of pens, a box of paper clips, two flash drives, a HDMI adapter (doesn’t work), chapstick, two coffee mugs (one empty, one half-full from this morning—it’s 3:30 in the afternoon), an empty can of grapefruit LaCroix, an empty water glass, a dead printer cartridge, a pile of papers from a project that went to the printer two weeks ago, piles of papers and drafts of projects I’m working on now, a clutter of tax papers for my accountant, the holiday work schedule of a colleague (expired), a small notepad, a large notepad, and several to-do lists spanning back several weeks. I won’t get into what my Mac desktop looks like. Or my email inbox. I think you get the idea.
The rest of my home, my car and even my purse and wallet are orderly, but my workspace has always been this way. I like piles of paper. Piles make sense to me. They say, “We are here and keep thinking about us” the way a filing cabinet simply does not. My pig-pen ways have not gone unnoticed. In my first teaching evaluation, the principal mentioned my messy desk made me look unprofessional. Ouch. Later on, in the corporate world, colleagues teased me. I didn’t listen then, and I’m not going to start now. I do my best work in a jumbled environment, and I know some of you, do, too. Here’s why.
Clutter encourages creativity.
In a 2013 study at the University of Minnesota, 48 adult subjects were assigned to messy or tidy rooms and were asked to think of as many new uses for ping-pong balls they could, then write them down. Independent judges then rated answers on creativity (using the balls for beer pong, for example, was rated low; using them for ice cube trays was rated high). The messy room subjects had ideas that rated 28% more creative than their tidy counterparts, and they had five times as many ideas the judges rated as highly creative. These findings suggest something about clutter enhances creative thought.
A mess encourages challenging norms.
In another branch of the same research, 188 adults were told they were participating in a consumer choice study. Each subject was assigned to either a messy or a tidy room, where he or she was shown a fruit smoothie menu. The smoothies had three optional “boosts” (added ingredients): health, wellness or vitamins. One version of this menu used the word “classic” (think conventional) and the other version used the word “new” (think novelty) to highlight the “health” boost option. When tidy room subjects chose the health boost, it had the “classic” label almost twice as often. When the subjects were in the messy room, they chose the health boost with the “new” option more than twice as often. The takeaway: Subjects overwhelmingly preferred convention (“classic”) in the tidy room and novelty (“new”) in the messy room. So if you want to play it safe, be tidy. If you want to encourage innovation, maybe it’s time to embrace the chaos.
Einstein, Edison, Twain and Jobs had messy desks, and they rocked it.
Albert Einstein, known for his messy desk, famously said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” As someone who lives among what my co-workers have coined, “the piles,” I can relate. I simply feel like I’d rather be creating things than file, organize or purge. I’m not comparing myself to these top geniuses, but judging from these photos, I’m guessing Einstein, Edison, Twain and Jobs were in my camp. The next time you feel guilty for not cleaning up, think about relativity, light bulbs, Huck Finn and the iPhone. We might not have these things if the creators’ papers were neatly filed away.
Having a messy desk might actually help you get more steps.
Think about it. If your desk is messy, you’re more likely to be on the move. And moving around helps you think. According to another study, regular exercisers tend to do better on tests of creativity than their less active peers. I like to think that my messy desk is helping get more steps in because I want to get up and move about. At the least, taking regular strolling breaks from your clutter can help you think better, plus walking around the room is a great classroom management tactic. Some teachers are even trading their desks for aprons.
The institutional need for an orderly desk is a little dusty.
The perceived need for neatness and order is a carryover from the Industrial Revolution. Before that, schools were scattered, attendance was spotty and curriculums were random. The Industrial Revolution created the need to churn out factory-ready workers, so modern schools became the place for children to learn the basics and a healthy dose of order. To succeed as adults, it was essential for kids to learn to fall in line. The prevailing need for tomorrow’s workforce, on the contrary, is to solve problems, make connections and become lifelong learners. To lead by example, educators need to constantly, creatively reinvent themselves in order to keep up with ever-evolving technology, society and most importantly, students. If the clutter helps you do that, keep it.
So ignore the hype and free your mind.
If you spend any time on Pinterest or watching HGTV, you’ll see that organizing is all the rage, but it may not be the answer for everyone. For those of you who thrive in chaos, you’re ok. Rest easy on that pile of papers. You are doing fine—maybe even better—than the clean desk owner across the hall.