Science Says It's Good to be Disorganized
While some throw pillows and bathroom signs claim that cleanliness is next to godliness, science says being disorganized can be a good thing.
In the book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, author Steven Johnson comes to the conclusion that messiness leads to creativity and that creativity is generally messy. The conclusion comes thanks in part to the work of neuroscientist Robert Thatcher who helped Johnson determine that “the more disorganized your brain is, the smarter you are” because when you’re messy, you can make new connections, tend to have a greater volume of ideas, quickly compare and contrast new breakthroughs, and when your mind wanders it leads to more creative solutions. He’s not the only person to make that assessment about the messier among us, either.
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A recent study by researchers at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management found that a cluttered environment not only can help increase efficiency, but also creativity. In one of their experiments, participants were divided into two groups—one placed in a messy room and the other in a tidy one—and both were tasked with coming up with new ways to use a ping pong ball. While both groups came up with the same number of ideas, a panel of judges determined that the ideas conceived in the messy room were far more innovative. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” writes psychologist Kathleen Vohs, who conducted the study. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”
That mirrors the findings included in the book, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. “Mess isn’t necessarily the absence of order. A messy desk can be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system,” write authors Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. “On a messy desk, the more important, urgent work tends to stay close by and near the top of the clutter, while the safely ignorable stuff tends to get buried to the bottom or near the back, which makes perfect sense.”
Physicist Adam Frank points out that the universe wants us to be messy. “The hard truth is that the universe itself is dead-set against our long-term efforts to bring order to the chaos in our lives. That's because the universe loves chaos,” he said on NPR. “For physicists, that disorder has a name: entropy.” In theory, fighting against the chaos is silly, because it’s hard-wired into the nature of the universe. Messiness and disorder are more natural states. If that doesn’t convince, you keep in mind that noted genius Albert Einstein, who had a famously messy desk, pointed out that, "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?" Who are we to argue with Albert Einstein?