Photography: Daniel Dorsa

Why Messy People Get More Done

Even if you’re a neat freak, embracing the mess might just be the key to unleashing your creativity

II admit it: I’m a neat freak. Before I can tackle a work project, I have to make sure everything around me is in its proper place. This has been especially true during quarantine, when the nonstop anxiety and total lack of control just make me want to fold sheets and reorganize all my glassware in size order.

Even during normal times, tidiness is my religion. I never have more than 10 tabs open at one time. The papers on my desk must be stacked in an orderly pile, and I make sure my notebook and favorite pen are close by but also perfectly parallel to the edge of my desk.

My husband, on the other hand, is a student of chaos theory. His desk is a sea of cryptically labeled Zip drives, mismatched file folders, and half-drunk cups of coffee. Once, he found a partially eaten cupcake behind a monitor and had no idea where it came from. Just thinking about it still gives me heart palpitations.

But guess which one of us hits a creative roadblock first? It’s always, always me.

Mess can lead to innovation

It may be hard for fellow neatniks to believe, but messier people tend to have an easier time productively harnessing creativity. Steve Jobs was a notoriously messy person who, in his pre-Apple days, was even sloppy on job applications. Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity at a supremely cluttered workspace that remained as such until the day he died. As artist and writer Austin Kleon writes of his messy workspace, “I intentionally cultivate my mess. Creativity is about connections, and connections are not made by siloing everything off into its own space. New ideas are formed by interesting juxtapositions, and interesting juxtapositions happen when things are out of place.”

This is not to say that all geniuses embrace mess, but some of them certainly seem to have benefited from it. One explanation for this is that people who prefer order also tend to stick to the “rules” and thus have more trouble thinking outside the box. Kathleen Vohs, chair of the marketing department at the University of Minnesota, co-authored a study on this theory. When she and her team tested subjects’ creativity levels in neat and messy environments, they found that subjects in the messier settings came up with more innovative ideas.

“If tidiness makes people stick to rules, norms, and expectations, then mess could help people be creative,” Vohs tells me.

After all, tidying up can be a form of procrastination. One reason neat people may have trouble being creative is because they’re engaging in “experiential avoidance,” or the outward things we do to try to mitigate our internal discomfort. “In order to minimize that discomfort, [neat people] need to clean and organize,” says Jill Stoddard, director of the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management. “Focus on the cleaning interrupts productivity/creativity — that’s the cost.” (Messy people also practice experiential avoidance — it just usually manifests in different ways, like missing appointments or losing everything smaller than a baseball.)

So, if you’ve been hitting a creative wall lately, it may be time to let things get a little unkempt. You just need to quiet that internal voice whispering, “Put everything at a right angle, and then you can get to work.”

How to reframe the concept of ‘mess’

For those who have a staunch aversion to disorder, try thinking about it in a different way. Vohs says that connecting mess with something positive, like a freer mind, may make it easier to accept an untidy environment. In Louise Erdrich’s poem “Note to Myself,” she reminds herself to do more writing than cleaning, urging herself not to worry “if anything matches, at all. Except one word to another.”

If you feel the compulsion to clean, Stoddard suggests stopping, taking a breath, and saying to yourself, “This is here now. I have space for this. There’s nothing that needs to be done here.”

You can also keep your clutter confined to one room (or one area of a room) so it’s not taking up too much psychic space.

Ultimately, you have to decide what truly matters to you. Do you really want your time to be spent keeping everything clean? Or do you have other work you need or want to do? Once you know the answer, it might be a little easier to leave those papers strewn everywhere and save the dishwasher unloading for tomorrow.

Writer of varying attitudes. Words at WaPo, Scientific American, Cosmo, Audubon, Weather, McSweeneys, Weekly Humorist and elsewhere. Likes laughing. And cheese.

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