Does Untidiness Inspire Creativity?

You may feel dismayed to find that creative geniuses are messy folk. How about you? Are you the type of person who can’t get a task done in a room that isn’t tidy? We often use tidying as an excuse to avoid the work but there is power in a clean space despite what the following research says.

What Research Tells Us

The researchers from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota found in Experiment 2 of their 2013 study “Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity” that an untidy room results in higher creativity. They tested this theory with 48 American students in which students were put into orderly and disorderly rooms and given the task to come up with 10 alternate uses for ping pong balls.

But…Then There is This Thought…

Much of the research on the correlation between creativity and a messy workspace is suspect. I find this study strange for both its small participant pool and for its measure of creativity. Creativity is largely a subjective concept. Still, if one were to be presented with an empty room and told to write a story of say, astronauts and aliens–one’s empty space might be uninspiring.

However, if instead of writing a story, you need to sit down and finish filing your taxes, you might find a room filled with trinkets, books, and papers to be distracting and frustrating. Clearly, filing taxes is not a creative endeavor (though for some it is akin to writing fiction).

I find clutter frustrating for any task. It is a visual to-do list and one that I haven’t worked in time for. Take a look at my desk at school:

I have stacks of papers and I hate stacks of papers. My mind is continually drawn to it as I am writing this during my lunch break. In fact…

Much better. Now I have a specific and semi-tidy stack of papers next to my computer acting as a to-do list.

So How Does One Find Creativity Without a Mess?

If you are afraid that your tidiness is getting in the way of your creativity, there are ways around it.

  • Have bursts of color in an otherwise white room
  • Have a book of inspirational quotes or writing prompts right next to your computer or writing space
  • Go for a walk in nature, where order and disorder reside in relative harmony, to get your synapses firing

Color and Creativity

There is a relationship between color and creativity. Researchers from the University of British Columbia found that “[r]ed boosted performance on detail-oriented tasks such as memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31 per cent compared to blue. Conversely, for creative tasks such as brainstorming, blue environmental cues prompted participants to produce twice as many creative outputs as when under the red colour condition.”

My take on this is that red gets the lead out while blues inspire imagination. The color green, according to a German study, has a subtle effect on creativity. White, other sources report, when combined with natural light can be just as creativity-inducing as other colors.

The point is, find a flash of color that inspires you.

Inspirational Quotes and Writing Prompts

This one is completely anecdotal. I rarely look at quotes but when I do come across one that inspires thought, I receive a multitude of ideas. Here’s a good one for you relating to the topic today by the author of Madame Bovary:

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

-Gustave Flaubert

As far as writing prompts go, here’s one to get you dreaming: if you were to be thrown back into your mid-twenties with all the knowledge that you have now, how would you live the next ten years?

Creative Geniuses Regularly Leave Their Messy Confines

The famously untidy and “creative geniuses” such as Albert Einstein and Mark Twain would take long walks (45 minutes minimum). Charles Dickens took three-hour-long walks each day. Mark Zuckerberg and Alan Turing turned to running as their path to creativity and away from anxiety. Alan Turing, the inventor of the computer and intelligence hero of WWII, would run a distance of 50 kilometers (eat his dust, marathon runners) on the regular.

The common thread in all these practices is in reducing the noise one has in life. A person in a clutter-free room will find few distractions. If you run or walk in nature, you don’t have to deal with the clutter you left behind in the house.

The Noise of Envy

Similarly, don’t clutter your space with noise from other people. Stay off of Facebook so that you can concentrate on what’s important to you, not what’s important to you now that you are comparing your life to an acquaintance. For more on this, check out my post on focusing on your goals.

Tidiness is More Than a Purity Test

There is more to the experiment of the Minnesota study, penned by Kathleen D. Vohs, Joseph P. Redden, and Ryan Rahinel. In Experiment 1, participants (34 Dutch students in this case) in an orderly room made healthier choices and made more charitable donations. In answer to this, the researchers cited anthropologist Mary Douglas and her findings that “physical order often is linked to morality, patterns, and correctness, whereas disorder is linked to deviations and taboo,” (page 1861 of the study).

So Is Tidiness a Morality Issue?

In our current society of “purity testing” ourselves and one another, we look at people sticking to their diet as “being good.” We look at dads who take their kids out in public without their mother present as “good dads.” We set up these parameters for ourselves and others in different areas to make judgments as to who is and who is not a good human being. Also, most everyone has different criteria.

That’s a lot of noise to consider.

There are different ways to look at a tidy room. It can be a judgment of your purity on what others deem as acceptable or it can simply be a place you are better able to get work done in. Which one matters to you and why?

So, in essence, does it matter to you that the creative geniuses had messy desks? What helps your genius develop?

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