When I read Marie Kondo’s hit book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I thought it was terrific — but not quite right. She argues that cleaning up will leave you with your mind and spirit clear, which is correct; but it can also leave you with your mind empty. That’s because, as I’d found in reading years of social science about the way we organize our desks, sometimes mess can be useful for sparking new ideas.
So I wrote my latest Wired column about this. Several friends emailed me in horror after reading it. “I’m never going to let my kids read this story,” they said, “because then they’ll use it as an excuse not to clean their rooms.”
Put Down the Broom: Why Tidying Up Can Hamper Creativity
by Clive Thompson
If clutter drives you nuts, you’re in good company. There’s been a burst of excitement recently about neatness, propelled by The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s best-selling guide that urges us to toss out anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” If we can succeed at decluttering, Kondo says, we will feel pure bliss. “The lives of those who tidy thoroughly and completely,” she writes, “in a single shot, are without exception dramatically altered.” As the biggest neatnik and picker-upper in my casually messy family, I thrill to this idea.
But one kink, though. A strand of recent research suggests that mess can, counterintuitively, sometimes be useful.
This is particularly true at work. In one study, Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota, took 48 subjects individually into two types of rooms—one messy (with loose papers and pens strewn around the desk and floor) and one that was spic-and-span. She had the subjects do a classic test of creativity: Generate new uses for a Ping-Pong ball. When her team scored the results, the subjects who’d worked at a messy desk in a messy room were 28 percent more creative than those in the tidy environment. “When things are tidy, people adhere more to what’s expected of them,” Vohs says. “When things are messier, they break free from norms.”
What’s more, you may perceive colleagues’ messy desks as wrecks—but from their perspective, they’re perfectly organized. In The Myth of the Paperless Office, Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper documented a worker with an epically cluttered lab who could find any document he needed in no time. For pack rats, mess is an organizational strategy.
It also creates serendipity. An old report sitting on the corner of your desk can spark a useful idea when you glance at it. I suspect this is why thinkers and writers often work amid teetering piles of books. A random spine becomes a delicious mnemonic trigger, bringing back a favorite passage or teleporting me to the first time I read it. When I pull out an old book from my stacks, inevitably a random page suggests something new. (I hadn’t looked at The Myth of the Paperless Office, a book from 2001, in years—but wow, I’m glad it was readily at hand!) Kondo advises chucking out nearly every book you’ve ever read, a suggestion that made me yelp out loud. I’d have a neater house, but it’d be like excising a chunk of my brain.
Still, she’s right about one thing: Messy surroundings can be spiritually draining. A study by Temple University marketing professor Grace Chae found that when people worked in a clean office, they were far more likely to persist on a difficult task than those who worked in a messy one. Vohs, too, found that people behaved slightly better in a neat room: They gave more to charity (when offered a chance to do so) and ate more healthily (choosing apples over chocolate). Mess, Chae tells me, saps our willpower: The disorder gets into our soul, reducing our grit. I often find I can’t do certain types of draining work—like filing my taxes—until I’ve cleaned my home office. Mess may help us create ideas, but tidiness helps us act on them.
Also, clutter is a mess culturally. Historically, women have been the ones who feel pressure to clean up everyone else’s crap—particularly in the household. It’s a classic example of unpaid labor, with men free-riding the benefits.
But it’s worth thinking about the upsides of tolerating, occasionally, a bit of your own clutter. In moderation, it can be a useful tool for thought. Clean up your desk too much and you might find you’ve accidentally cleaned out your mind.
(Thanks to Barbara Hanson for the Creative-Commons-licensed image!)