Messiness and Creativity – Does One Lead to the Other?

I am not a naturally organised person. Ask my family, my friends or my long-suffering partner whether I’m good at keeping things tidy and they’ll all tell you (once they’re done laughing) that no, I am not. My clothes are frequently scattered on my bedroom floor, my shoes kicked off in any number of places around the flat, my books left wherever I was interrupted while reading them last. I’m better than I used to be! My discovery of Marie Kondo has actually resulted in me keeping my clothes neat and tidy, consistently, for probably the first time in my life. I’m trying to make a habit of sweeping the flat for discarded shoes and books at least once a day to prevent a build-up of abandoned belongings. I’m making progress! But that doesn’t change the fact that my default state is mess.

Like, I suspect, many other messy folks, I’ve always quite liked the idea that messiness is linked to creativity. There aren’t many positive associations with being untidy; messy people are often assumed to be less intelligent, productive and mature than people who are more inclined to keep their surroundings neat. But at least we have this going for us, that our cluttered desks are a sign of an active and creative mind. Right…?

There was a lot of media buzz around some research by Vohs et al. in 2013 which suggested that being in a tidy space encouraged people to make healthy and ‘conventional’ choices, whereas being in a disordered environment made people more creative (you can check out a New York Times article, summarising the research and findings, written by one of the authors of that paper here).

Not everybody was sold on this idea though. Manzi et al. set out to see if they could replicate Vohs’ findings, and, in the rather starkly titled “Workplace Disorder Does Not Influence Creativity and Executive Functions”, they basically concluded that if working at a messy desk makes any difference at all it is a minor and unreliable difference.

The question then is: where does that leave me? Because clearly the main purpose of all this scientific research is to give me an idea of whether I’m better off organising my office space or not. Come on, Science, help me out here—will I write better if I tidy up?!

Maybe the answer isn’t a simple yes or no, but here’s another way to look at it. In a study into the link between stress and creativity, Yeh et al. (2015) found that stress leading to the “promotion-focused negative emotions” of frustration and anger had a harmful effect on creativity. So rather than looking to studies to tell us what to do with our spaces, maybe we need to turn the focus inwards. How do you feel when you’re working in a messy space? If you feel comfortable and relaxed, you probably don’t need to worry about straightening things up in order to get more or better work done. If being in a messy space winds you up though, you’re not going to be able to think creatively until you’ve had a bit of a tidy.

Where do you stand on the spectrum from neat-freak to total mess? And if, like me, you’re constantly surrounded by domestic chaos, do you think it has an effect on your creative output? Let me know in the comments!

5 Replies to “Messiness and Creativity – Does One Lead to the Other?”

  1. Honestly? I need to tidy my desk before I go to bed so that when I start the next morning I am starting from a fresh slate. It seems small but it really organises my brain.
    Also, I am messy but in the short term, never long term. That would drive me mental!

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  2. Pretty much all of the creative people I know are messy – Except for me! I find it mentally overwhelming if I have too many loose objects around me. And don’t like having to think hard to find my favourite scarf or car keys.

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