As I write this post, I currently have 27 tabs open in my browser. Assorted papers and snacks take over my immediate surroundings. And the kitchen table I’m sitting at could use a bit of tidying. As embarrassing as it to admit, this is pretty normal for me.
Productivity experts tell us that the key to doing great work is to be organized. And in my own desperate attempt to be more organized, I’ve devoured productivity articles and self-help books. I’ve even shelled out $1,000 on a business coach, but to no avail.
In the creative world, however, I’m in good company.
Marcel Proust wrote the majority of his seven-part novel, In Search of Lost Time, from his paper-strewn bed in a Parisian apartment; Leonardo da Vinci scribbled confusing concepts into disorganized notebooks and often started projects he never finished; Albert Einstein left his desk covered edge-to-edge with journals and notebooks (with a tobacco pipe thrown into the mix).
While I’m not comparing myself to the genius of Proust, da Vinci, or Einstein, it makes me wonder:
In a society that glorifies efficiency, optimization, and daily routines, is the loss of chaos to our creative detriment?
The pitfalls of over-optimization and productivity shame
Wake up at 4 a.m. Work out. Meditate. Divide your workday into increments of 25 minutes on, five minutes off.
Productivity articles are relentless in their recommendations of what you should be doing to optimize your life and work. More and more, the answer seems to be to plan more.
But what happens when we fall short of those prescribed rules?
Jocelyn K. Glei coined the term “productivity shame” to describe the feeling of failing to live up to the unrealistic standards set by the superstar startup founders writing Medium articles about their perfect daily routine. As she explains:
“The productivity stories that we typically hear are as unrealistic as any Disney movie.”
Instead of motivating us to improve, shame sets us on a downward spiral and can even lead to negative health outcomes such as depression and anxiety disorders.
But what makes us feel this shame?
In the book A Perfect Mess, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman argue that, when it comes to order and productivity, we’re our own worst enemies:
“When people are anxious about their messy homes and offices or their disorganized schedules it’s often not because the messiness and disorder are causing problems, but because people simply assume they should be neater and more organized and feel bad that they aren’t.”
Just as we believe the fairy tale of perfectly productive days, we falsely believe we need to be organized in all aspects of our lives. We fear the judgment of other people if they see a jumbled to-do list or messy workspace.
But Abrahamson and Freedman also point out that what seems like disorder might actually be an effective system.
For example, da Vinci’s notebook scribblings may seem confusing to us, but he used a shorthand that he surely understood. For example, art historians deemed some of his sketches “irrelevant” before realizing they were recordings of the laws of friction.
Even worse, all that tidying up has an opportunity cost.
The time and energy we spend trying to maintain order could be better spent doing the actual creating. Yes, an overzealous culture of productivity can hinder the very thing it tries to promote.
The link between chaos and creativity (according to science)
So what does science have to say about the connection, if any, between chaos and creativity?
A disorderly physical environment can enhance creativity
Productivity gurus will tell you that a neat and orderly desk is best. But as researchers from The University of Minnesota found, it depends on your goal.
In their experiments, participants placed in an orderly room chose healthier snacks, donated more money, and preferred conventional choices. While those in a disorderly room displayed more creative thinking and were drawn to novel choices.
As Einstein so pointedly put it:
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
If you want to make healthier, more traditional decisions, then by all means, clean up your desk. But if you want to explore new avenues, embrace the mess.
Creative achievers are more easily distracted (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing)
Researchers at Northwestern University found that participants with “leaky sensory gating”—in other words, a low ability to filter out irrelevant sensory information—had more real-world creative achievements.
While distractions are the bane of every productivity strategy, they also help creative people make connections between seemingly unrelated things.
For example, Proust’s In Search of Time includes vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, and smells. These may have been inspired by the real-life experiences of his noisy apartment (which he lined with cork to try to silence!)
Some believe Proust suffered from misophonia, a disorder that causes the sufferer to have an extreme reaction to certain sounds. As torturous as this was, his rich descriptions might not have existed if it weren’t for his inability to filter out distractions.
Presenting information in a disorganized way could help people generate more original solutions
In a paper titled Ideas rise from chaos, researchers from The University of Toronto found that participants were more creative when presented with an information set that was “flat” (having no higher-order categories) versus “hierarchical” (organized around higher-order categories).
In one experiment, researchers gave two groups a list of 100 nouns and asked them to come up with as many sentences as possible. The first group’s list was disorganized—or, flat—while the second group received a list that was organized into 20 categories.
The results? The participants with the disorganized list were more creative than those with the list that had been organized into categories.
Striking the balance between chaos and order
After poring over the research on creativity and chaos, my head was reeling. Nothing seemed conclusive. There are creative benefits to both order and disorder. But maybe more importantly is to understand how these factors play into most people’s workdays.
And that’s why I think the answer here, as with most things, is balance. To be both creative and productive, we need both chaos and constraint in moderation."To be both creative and productive we need both chaos and constraint." Click To Tweet
One final research paper I’d like to introduce that highlights this need for balance was authored by professor Brent Rosso. After reviewing the existing literature, he made two conclusions about constraints and creativity:
- The teams who benefit the most from constraints are those who embrace them and understand that both freedom and constraints are needed within the creative process.
- Not all constraints are helpful. Whereas constraints on work outcomes are more likely to enhance creativity, constraints on work processes are more likely to decrease creativity.
Rosso’s conclusions ring true in my own life.
As a writer—a job that requires creativity on a daily basis—I’m grateful for any externally imposed structure. Editors almost always ask for an outline to approve and assign a due date for the final draft.
If it weren’t for these constraints, I would rarely finish writing anything. Yet I also know that if my editors stood over my shoulder and tried to control when, where, and how I did my work, I wouldn’t be able to write to the best of my ability.
It’s this balance between constraints on what is being done and the freedom to choose how to do it that allows creativity to flourish (without missing deadlines!)
Even creative geniuses had constraints that shaped their work. Proust was confined to his bed due to terrible bouts of asthma. And perhaps it was because of this constraint that he was able to finish such a lengthy novel.
While da Vinci had patrons who commissioned work from him. Meaning that even though he normally struggled to finish projects, the pressure of deadlines may have spurred him on.
Don’t let productivity kill your creativity
We can never know if a quiet, distraction-free environment would have improved Proust’s writing. Or if more focus and organization would have influenced da Vinci’s inventions.
But one thing is for sure: Creative work is hard enough without the added burden of worrying about whether we should be more productive, orderly, or structured.
If your messiness or disorganization is stopping you from doing your best work, then, by all means, hire that business coach or read that self-help book.
But if it’s simply a way to alleviate the shame you feel over not being as productive as you think you “should” be, then skip it, embrace the chaos, and get back to the important work of creating—even if you have to do it from a messy kitchen table.
Amy Rigby is a freelance writer who helps startups woo their customers with words. She’s always happy to write (and talk) about entrepreneurship, remote work, productivity, and cats. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.