Tidiness is usually considered a virtue and something we should all aspire to. Some people are naturally tidy and have always been that way, even as children. For years I felt somewhat guilty about my habit of leaving things in piles rather than putting them away. My excuse is that I will be using them again soon so what is the point of packing them up. In fact it was sometimes after I tidied and put things away that I had the most trouble finding things. Then I found some research which says being somewhat untidy isn’t such a bad thing.
Research done by Professor Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota showed participants working in a messy room were more creative and willing to try new things than those in a tidy room. Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman wrote the book, ‘A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits Of Disorder’. In it they claim people with a cluttered work space tend to be more creative because of the stimulation provided by having an assortment of materials accessible and visible. Messy desks are also said to foster problem solving. A disorganised setting is more likely to encourage brainstorming than a tidy one.
Many creative people including writers, sculptors and cooks confess to having untidy work areas. Famous people known for their creativity and innovation who are reputed to have messy work environments include Roald Dahl, Mark Twain, Alexander Fleming and Francis Bacon. Albert Einstein is another innovative person whose desk was messy. He is well known for having asked, ‘If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?’
Abrahamson and Freedman also believe it is easier to make a messy system adapt to change than a neat system. This is because neat systems tend to be rigid, making it more difficult for change to occur. Some of the most efficient people don’t have lists and this results in them being more flexible. Several successful companies are said to ‘embrace disorder’ as a conscious effort to encourage creativity.
People who have a tidy desk aren’t necessarily more time efficient. It takes time to be constantly filing, sorting and organising. It has been suggested that it is a more efficient use of time to have a big clean up every now and then instead of continuously organising.
Surprisingly, people with ‘fairly messy’ desks spend less time looking for things according to Abrahamson and Freedman. People who dislike visual clutter sometimes just put things out of sight without organising them, resulting in a problem finding what they need at a later time. A neat person isn’t necessarily organised and a messy person may not be disorganised.
The research suggests there can be benefits in a ‘fairly messy’ work environment, but is not promoting an unhygienic area or out of control chaos. In the end, it seems that those who find they work happily in a messy environment should stop feeling guilty and those who need order to function should do what works for them.