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Put Down the Broom: Tidying Up Can Hamper Creativity

28 February 2016

From Wired:

If clutter drives you nuts, you’re in good company. There’s been a burst of excitement recently about neatness, propelled by The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s best-selling guide that urges us to toss out anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” If we can succeed at decluttering, Kondo says, we will feel pure bliss. “The lives of those who tidy thoroughly and completely,” she writes, “in a single shot, are without exception dramatically altered.” As the biggest neatnik and picker-upper in my casually messy family, I thrill to this idea.

But one kink, though. A strand of recent research suggests that mess can, counterintuitively, sometimes be useful.

This is particularly true at work. In one study, Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota, took 48 subjects individually into two types of rooms—one messy (with loose papers and pens strewn around the desk and floor) and one that was spic-and-span. She had the subjects do a classic test of creativity: Generate new uses for a Ping-Pong ball. When her team scored the results, the subjects who’d worked at a messy desk in a messy room were 28 percent more creative than those in the tidy environment. “When things are tidy, people adhere more to what’s expected of them,” Vohs says. “When things are messier, they break free from norms.”

What’s more, you may perceive colleagues’ messy desks as wrecks—but from their perspective, they’re perfectly organized. In The Myth of the Paperless Office, Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper documented a worker with an epically cluttered lab who could find any document he needed in no time. For pack rats, mess is an organizational strategy.

It also creates serendipity. An old report sitting on the corner of your desk can spark a useful idea when you glance at it. I suspect this is why thinkers and writers often work amid teetering piles of books. A random spine becomes a delicious mnemonic trigger, bringing back a favorite passage or tele­porting me to the first time I read it.

Link to the rest at Wired


19 Comments to “Put Down the Broom: Tidying Up Can Hamper Creativity”

  1. Hmmm, if what they say is true, and looking around this room, then I’m the most creative person in all of Texas … 😉

    • And I win for NJ.

      I know where everything I USE is. Occasionally, I have to clear stuff away, but most often that’s because the task at hand needs some organizing space. That’s temporary.

      I know I have to clean all this out before we move to a retirement place, but that’s thousands of decisions and a huge amount of energy expended for what’s basically not a productive activity. It just has to be done.

      Meanwhile, every productive bit of time I have goes into writing, not tasks like cleaning.

    • I call for Virginia! And not just my room, but my whole house. I do use a laptop a lot, though, so I NEED all that clutter…

  2. My mother used to say dust is a wood preservative. In that tradition, I say: dust bunnies are ENABLING you.

  3. So explain to me how I can get some great plotting done while washing dishes.

    I hate studies like this. They’re pretty pointless overall. My messy desk neither helps nor hinders me UNLESS I have something that I need for plotting purposes (say a note scribbled down while out somewhere) and I can’t find it on my desk. Which is why I usually put those notes into my plotting files as soon as I get home.

    • Or mowing the yard, working on a puzzle …

      They talk a bit about paper, but there’s little enough of that in here. A stereo a couple decades out of date, electronic bits and bobs in boxes and not, a dismantled laptop that the motherboard had died, even an old lava lamp.

      But there’s also the kindle in reach for when my muse is in hiding and I’m tired of staring at my own words on the screen. Whatever gets your thoughts flowing is what you need — for most of us it just isn’t a blank wall or room …

    • I’m sure ideas come to me when I’m washing dishes because my hands are wet and I can’t write them down!

  4. Precisely !

  5. “When things are tidy, people adhere more to what’s expected of them,” Vohs says. “When things are messier, they break free from norms.”

    I’m not convinced this is true. She is merely speculating about the results of the study.


    It also creates serendipity.

    I suspect the benefits of serendipity may be real. (Read Bellwether by Connie Willis.) Despite the potential benefits, I hate mess. All the more so because various life events have turned my own once-tidy abode into a huge, howling mess. 😉

  6. Talking about the book mentioned, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, I watch Japanese home improvement shows and there is not much evidence the book has sold many copies in Japan.

    • I read the book. It sounds like she visits one house at a time. I’ve adopted her folding approach. It’s good.

    • I just put the book on hold at my local library after I noticed the title on LibraryThing. Japanese or not, it sounds sounds like she’s got a new paradigm (whole categories rather than room-by-room) for approaching decluttering. I’m curious to see what she has to say.

  7. Hmm. I know if I’m looking at clutter I tend to focus on it too much. Write a chapter? No, I have to re-file all those papers I gathered when doing my taxes, or dust the floor … seeing clutter just takes up too much headspace. I don’t want the to-do list hanging over me.

    But cleaning often leads to serendipity. I think of things while I’m filing stuff or dusting. If what I’ve thought of is awesome enough, I will stop cleaning and run back to my keyboard.

    This looks like one of those “do what works for you” things.

    • … seeing clutter just takes up too much headspace. I don’t want the to-do list hanging over me.

      That’s how I feel about it. I agree that different strokes work for different folks.

  8. Did anyone else flash on Monty Python at the idea of throwing out anything that doesn’t “spark joy?”

    • No, but I was reminded of a newspaper cut out of a Muppet cartoon.

      It was the Swedish chef’s kitchen, with knives in the dartboard and everything anywhere but where you’d expect to find it. Title I think was: A place for everything and everything all over the place …

  9. Uh, does this mean that compulsive horders are the most creative people?

    Somehow, I don’t believe so. But I do believe that an ultra-clean, ultra-orgainized workplace is the sure sign of a sterile mind! 🙂


    An Unsterile Mind

  10. I read the book and have used the methods within to my benefit. I am still pathologically messy (not dirty, just cluttered) but now I have far fewer things strewn about. It’s quite wonderful, actually. I can have my mess about me, fueling my creativity 😉 but it only takes ten minutes to clean up when I’m in the mood.

  11. I’m in the process of reading this book. Not sure what I think of it yet, other than maybe I can find a way to get control over the house without killing myself room by room. The problem is, my place is very small so things have to be moved to whatever clear space is available, which just makes more mess, somewhere else.

    I don’t mind clutter, because I have things and I want to keep them, but having a total mess, a hoarder-house in the making, is depressing me. But if I got rid of everything that didn’t spark joy, I’d have an almost-empty house and I’d have to sleep on the floor and stand in the corner during the day while I contemplated the futility of it all.

    Goodness knows what my kids would think. Probably send me off to the psych ward. Some people thrive in minimalism, but that’s not me.

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