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

Allison Hirschlag
Published in
4 min readApr 2, 2020

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…



Allison Hirschlag
Writer for

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