Six Children and No Theories

Covering parenting and child development issues

Cluttered Desks and Creative Minds: Part 1

Written by Lisa Lawmaster Hess, Community Blogger | Aug 3, 2014 6:17 PM

“Exactness and neatness in moderation is a virtue, but carried to extremes narrows the mind.” (Francois Fenelon)

From time to time on my blog, I bemoan my organizational struggles, specifically, the clutter that seems to be a perpetual part of my life. I will clear away piles only to have them re-emerge, slowly but surely, in the same places over and over again. Like weeds, the papers in my house proliferate and take root on horizontal surfaces.

And I can’t blame my family. At least not most of the time. Typically, the papers are mine and I’ve come to learn that their presence signifies one of two things: a task I need to tackle or a collection of items that are homeless. Leaving things where I can see them is my organizational system -- a perpetual visual to-do list.

Unfortunately for pilers like me, we live in an age where professional organizers proliferate almost as quickly as my papers. As increases in technology make “paperless” the ideal, those of us who need visual reminders and prefer hard copies to their virtual counterparts look not only antiquated, but sloppier than ever.

But is neater really better?

Do an Internet search on “messy desk” and it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll uncover a series of studies done at the University of Minnesota touting the benefits correlated with messiness. 

Benefits? Really? 

Not surprisingly, the most notable benefit was creativity. Those in disorderly environments were better at thinking outside the box (or thinking outside the mess, if you will) on a task the researchers used to measure divergent thinking. 

Now granted, I have a personal interest in this area -- me and my piles of papers. And I recognize that these studies were correlational, meaning that although there are apparent links between messiness and creativity, no one is saying that messiness actually causes creativity. At best, we can say that messiness fosters creativity for some people on a specific task. 

But for those of us for whom “away” is synonymous with “forgotten” and “lost,” that correlation is a self-esteem saver.

I’m certain my Type A (naturally organized; a place for everything and everything in its place -- always) friends out there are dismissing this or, at best, seeing it as an excuse for descent into household chaos. So please understand -- I love clear, clutter-free spaces as much as you do. I simply require a certain amount of disorder in order to function.

And I’m not alone. Penicillin was discovered in a lab that was not only messy, but, in fact, downright disgusting. Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg also worked in messy (if less disgusting) spaces. Einstein, in fact, has been credited with posing the question, "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?"

Please understand that I'm not accusing my Type A organizer friends of being empty-minded; I'm simply suggesting that Type A organizers who live with less traditionally organized family members might want to be more open-minded.

Okay, so maybe your thirteen-year-old isn’t the next Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs. Maybe you don’t appreciate paying good money for clothes that end up in wrinkled piles on the bedroom floor. Maybe you need to have some rules about shared family spaces until they’re making a salary that resembles that Mark Zuckerberg’s.

And maybe you’re right. But just maybe, so are they.

Think for a moment about how much time you spend arguing with your children (or perhaps even your spouse) over making that which is messy tidy. Is it time well spent? Do the lessons stick? More important, can the offender function in the midst of what you see as chaos?

Check back next week for some ideas on how to bridge the gap between naturally organized people who function when everything is in its place (a.k.a. “away”) and family members who believe that “out” is away.

And yes, I promise to see both sides of the argument. But until then, feel free to write your rebuttals in the comments below. 

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