The Psychology Behind a Messy Office, Why Creativity Thrives There

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Einstein once said:

‘If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?’

Being “highly organized” is one of the most common skills listed on the resumes of job applications across all industries.

Society often associates organizational skills with being successful while associating disorganization to carelessness and uncleanliness.

But what if I told you that a messy office creates an environment for which creativity and innovation thrive?

I’m sure you’ve come across your fair share of desk ornaments proclaiming that “great minds have messy desks.” While this urban legend has graced office desks for years, recent studies are confirming the validity of this statement.

Messy desks, it turns out, may help people think more creatively – that is outside of traditional conventions. Scientists are finding that clutter promotes creative thinking and stimulates new ideas.

The Science Behind Messy and Creativity

MessyDesk

Psychological scientist Professor Kathleen Vohs and a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota mapped the behaviour of people working on messy and clean desks with a series of experiments.

The study concludes that “order and disorder are prevalent in both nature and culture and each environment offers advantages for different outcomes.”

Three experiments were conducted to test the hypotheses that orderly environments lead people toward tradition and convention, whereas disorderly environments encourages the exact opposite behavior – the breaking of tradition and convention – and that both settings can alter preferences, choice, and behavior.

In the first study, participants were asked to fill out questionnaires in an office. Some participants completed the task in an orderly office, while others did so in a messy, disorderly and unkempt office.

When they were finished, each participant had the opportunity to donate to a charity and choose a snack of chocolate or an apple. Participants who spent their time in a clean and orderly room followed societal expectations and donated more money to charity and were more likely to choose the healthier snack option than those who took their survey in a messy office.

In the second experiment, participants were asked to come up with new uses for ping-pong balls. While participants in the messy room generated just as many ideas as those thinking in the clean office, the group surrounded by clutter and disorder generated ideas that were rated as more interesting and creative by impartial judges.

Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a massive difference in people’s behavior.” – Professor Kathleen Vohs

The third study separated participants, once again, into messy and clean offices. Participants were given a choice between a product labeled “classic” and one labelled “new.” Findings showed that participants in the messy room were more likely to choose the novel product over the traditional, confirming that messy environments encourages people to move away from convention.

Whether you have control over the tidiness of the environment or not, you are exposed to it and our research shows it can affect you.

So, what does this have to do with you and me?

The key takeaway here is to work in an environment that best aids you in achieving your desired outcome.

If messy, visually stimulating workspaces gets your creative juices flowing, then embrace your clutter and hustle on.

However, Vohs’ evidence is not an excuse for otherwise tidy people to turn into filthy animals. But it does give us some data to use when designing spaces specifically for inspiring creative work.

Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Mark Twain, all highly-regarded creative geniuses, claim to have had messy workspaces.

Findlay’s Snark: Ross’ office is unbearably clean! I have never seen a desk with nothing but a computer on it other than in a staged photo. (Ross note: I clean up before guests show up)

Creative thinking requires fresh perspectives, unconventional solutions and freedom of exploration. If a messy desk helps enhance your creative performance, celebrate this research. If you prefer to work on a clean desk with little visual distraction, than by all means get out your label maker and start filing.

Vohs’ would agree. She closed the abstract to her study with, “the current research tells a nuanced story of how different environments suit different outcomes.” So before you throw your files in the air and make it rain in your office, perform your own experiment and create an environment that supports you in doing your best work.

Now over to you! Are you a neat freak or does your office look a war zone? What does your ideal creative lab look like?

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