Let creativity be messy

You may have lied to yourself like this before:

“My desk isn’t clean—I couldn’t possibly start working.”

“After I fold the laundry and do the dishes, I’ll feel better. Then I can get started.”

“This isn’t the office of someone who is successful at work.”

The beliefs we allow to limit us are often some of the silliest. Have you seen the desk—heck, even just the laptop stickers—of your favorite artist or musician? It’s a mess. A maze of scribbles and seemingly unrelated weird thoughts. Some artifact they found on the side of the road that they thought was cool.

Have you never sat at a desk that had a few things strewn about and still been able to complete your work? The odds are good that it worked out fine. In some cases, it may have helped you relax into some work. Maybe that familiar, comfortable environment makes you feel more at home, wires different touch points for your brain that spark energy. Who knows how it works, really?

Imagine getting any type of work done in a windowless marble cell. It might be the pinnacle of cleanliness and tidiness, but it’s also distinctly devoid of humanity and inspiration.

This goes for another false binary we like to obsess about—efficiency vs. creativity. The idea that exactly as much time as you spend “working hard” on a project, particularly a creative one, is exactly as good as it was going to turn out. Anyone who sits down and says “I’m going to work on this for exactly two hours and my output is going to be directly commensurate with those two hours” is probably a naive young soul, who also probably has never tried it.

In short: being too organized can kill creative thinking. Creativity is very likely supposed to be messy. And if you are using a loose stack of papers and a pile of laundry as an excuse to avoid important work, you’re only sabotaging yourself. Let’s get to work undoing that mental block.

Inclination towards disorder


Productivity enthusiasts, like most of us here at RescueTime, often emphasize the importance of organization for achieving excellent results.

Interestingly, many creative minds share an inclination towards disorderliness. Marcel Proust, for instance, wrote the majority of his monumental work, “In Search of Lost Time,” amidst a sea of papers in his Parisian apartment. Leonardo da Vinci famously filled his notebooks with a jumble of ideas and often embarked on projects he never completed. Even Albert Einstein’s workspace was a testament to chaos, strewn with journals, notebooks, and the occasional tobacco pipe.

The thoughts of Proust, da Vinci, or Einstein, their examples prompt a thought-provoking question: In a culture that celebrates efficiency, optimization, and rigid routines, could our aversion to chaos be stifling our creativity?

Working with a mess

Ever scroll through those early morning routines of successful entrepreneurs, feeling like you’re already behind before the day even begins? It’s a familiar narrative in productivity circles—wake up at the crack of dawn, hit the gym, meditate, and then tackle your workday in perfectly timed intervals.

But life isn’t always a well-scripted routine. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we fall short of these lofty standards. Jocelyn K. Glei calls this feeling “productivity shame”—that nagging sense of disappointment when we can’t match up to the seemingly flawless routines plastered across social media.

Glei hits the nail on the head when she compares these narratives to Disney movies—inspiring, sure, but hardly reflective of reality. Instead of motivating us, this pressure to constantly optimize can backfire, leading to feelings of inadequacy and even impacting our mental health.

So why do we feel this way? According to Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, authors of “A Perfect Mess,” it’s because we’ve internalized this belief that order and productivity go hand in hand. But in reality, it’s often our own unrealistic expectations that leave us feeling overwhelmed by the slightest hint of disorder.

In essence, it’s okay to embrace the messiness of life – both literally and figuratively. After all, it’s often in those moments of chaos that creativity thrives and true innovation happens.

It’s common to buy into the idea of flawlessly productive days, just as we tend to think that every aspect of our lives should be meticulously organized. There’s often a fear of being judged if others catch sight of our chaotic to-do lists or cluttered workspaces.

However, Abrahamson and Freedman shed light on the fact that what appears disorderly might actually function as an effective system. Take da Vinci’s notebook, for instance. While his scribbles might appear perplexing to us, they were actually shorthand that made perfect sense to him. Some of his sketches were initially dismissed as “irrelevant” until art historians realized they were meticulous records of the laws of friction.

Furthermore, the time and energy devoted to tidying up come with a hidden cost. The effort spent on maintaining order could be better utilized for creative pursuits. Ironically, an excessive focus on productivity can sometimes impede the very creativity it aims to foster.

The surprising link between chaos and creativity (according to science)


But does this check out scientifically?

While conventional wisdom may advocate for a tidy workspace, research from The University of Minnesota suggests otherwise. According to their findings, the state of your physical environment can significantly influence your creative output.

In a series of experiments, participants placed in tidy rooms tended to opt for healthier snacks, made more conservative choices, and were more inclined to stick to conventional decisions. On the flip side, those in cluttered environments showed a penchant for creative thinking and were drawn to novel options.

This brings to mind a famous quip attributed to Einstein: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

So, if you’re aiming for healthier and more conventional choices, a clean desk might be the way to go. However, if you’re seeking to unleash your creativity and explore new horizons, perhaps it’s time to embrace the mess.

Embrace the possibility of distraction

Being easily distracted might not always be a drawback, especially for those with a knack for creativity. A study from Northwestern University revealed that individuals with “leaky sensory gating”—meaning they struggle to block out irrelevant sensory input—tended to have more real-world creative accomplishments.

While distractions are typically seen as productivity killers, they can sometimes serve as catalysts for creative minds to forge unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.

Take, for instance, Marcel Proust’s masterpiece “In Search of Lost Time,” which is full of sharp depictions of sights, sounds. These descriptions might have sprung from Proust’s own tumultuous living situation in a noisy apartment, where he resorted to lining the walls with cork in a futile attempt to dampen the clamor.

Some scholars speculate that Proust may have grappled with misophonia, a condition characterized by an intense aversion to specific sounds. Despite the agony this condition inflicted, it’s possible that Proust’s inability to tune out distractions played a pivotal role in shaping the richness of his literary descriptions.

Disorder might promote new solutions

In a study titled “Ideas Rise from Chaos,” conducted at The University of Toronto, researchers discovered that presenting information in a disorganized manner could actually spur people to generate more original solutions.

During the study, participants were tasked with creating sentences from a list of 100 nouns. One group received a disorganized list, while another group received a list organized into 20 categories. Surprisingly, the group with the disorganized list demonstrated greater creativity compared to the group with the categorized list.

This finding suggests that when information is presented without a clear hierarchy, it can inspire individuals to think more freely and creatively.

Chaos versus order – what’s better?


Navigating the delicate dance of chaos and order in creativity can feel like diving into a whirlwind of conflicting advice. You begin your research, hoping for clarity, only to find a labyrinth of conflicting viewpoints. It’s like trying to untangle headphone wires—frustrating and also weirdly intricate.

Yet amidst this chaos, one thing becomes abundantly clear: both order and disorder have their creative merits. But what’s crucial is understanding how these elements intersect in our everyday routines.

Picture this: organization isn’t just about ticking tasks off a list—it’s the backbone of progress tracking, deadline hitting, and effective teamwork. It’s not about stifling creativity; it’s about nurturing it in a structured environment.

So, where does the sweet spot lie? Well, as with many things in life, it’s all about balance. To ride the wave of creativity while staying productive, we need a pinch of chaos and a dash of constraint, mixed just right.

A man named Brent Rosso conducted research of his own. He investigated the dance between constraints and creativity, uncovering some gems:

  1. Teams thrive under constraints when they embrace them, recognizing the push and pull between freedom and structure in the creative process.
  2. Not all constraints are created equal. Constraints on outcomes can fuel creativity, while those on processes might put a damper on it.

It’s all about that delicate balance between what we do and how we do it—a dance where creativity flourishes without missing a beat.

Even the greats had their constraints. Take Proust, confined to his bed by asthma. His limitations may have fueled his masterpiece’s completion. And da Vinci was constantly under deadline by, let’s just say some pushy clients.

So, in this intricate tango between chaos and order, let’s find our rhythm—a symphony of creativity and productivity (we would hope).

Productivity and creativity don’t have to be at odds


Don’t let the pursuit of productivity stifle your creativity. We can only wonder if a serene, distraction-free setting would have enhanced Proust’s prose or if da Vinci’s innovations would have been further influenced by more focus and structure.

What’s certain is this: Creative endeavors are challenging in their own right, without the added pressure of constantly striving for productivity, organization, or structure.

If your clutter or lack of organization is hindering your creative process, then it might be worth considering seeking guidance from a mentor or diving into a self-help book.

However, if it’s merely a means of easing the guilt over not meeting arbitrary productivity standards, then feel free to let go of that pressure, embrace the chaos, and refocus on the essential task of creation—even if it means working from a cluttered kitchen table.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

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