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Messiness vs. Cleanliness

17 September 2013

Allison read It’s Not 'Mess.' It’s Creativity. by Kathleen D. Vohs in The New York Times and pondered her current messiness versus cleanliness conundrum.

Tags: allison read, balance, creativity, design thinking

Last week Kathleen D. Vohs' article, It’s Not 'Mess.' It’s Creativity., hit The New York Times and all of my social media networks lit up with posts declaring some version of, “Oh yes! I knew my messy office helped me to be more creative.” Vohs' article summarizes the research she and her colleagues reported in last month’s Psychological Science journal. They did several experiments that proved “...that being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions,” and that “...messiness fostered creativity.” In one experiment, “...subjects came up with almost five times the number of highly creative responses as did their tidy-room counterparts.”

And yet, Vohs began her article with the fact that, “Historically, the evidence has favored the tidy camp. Cleanliness, as the proverb says, is next to godliness. The anthropologist Mary Douglas noted almost 50 years ago a connection between clean, open spaces and moral righteousness. More recently, psychologists have shown that the scent of citrus cleaning products is enough to raise people’s ethical standards and promote trust. Conversely, in another study, people were found to associate chaotic wilderness with death.”

Our historic conventions lead us to believe that cleanliness will lead to a better life and Vohs' current experiments prove that those conventions could be wrong. Messiness might just be the ticket to the creativity and innovation we’re all craving. I definitely fall into the messier side of things when it comes to the piles in my office and my closet at home. I try to straighten up, but then things just seem to come undone again. I’ve mostly made peace with this ebb and flow in my life and don’t worry about it much anymore. I make things straight enough to not look out of control and find ways to allow for the mess that I’ve always known fueled my creativity.

So I’m in the, “Yay! I knew messiness could be a good thing,” camp. And yet, if you read last week’s blog post, Are You Drowning in Email?, then you know that the “messiness” in my inbox feels a bit out of control at the moment. I’m trying a one-month experiment from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done to see if I can bring some order to the chaos. One week into my experiment I can tell you that it is SO HARD TO DO! And just as I’m trying this experiment, here comes an article with a little proof that my messy ways might be the source of my creativity. That’s just the kind of research I don’t need right now as my brain looks for any kind of excuse to stop the one-month experiment.

While Vohs’ research might not be perfectly timed for my disciplined email experiment, I know her findings are important as I work with organizations to help them figure out how to create team norms and workspaces that support creativity. (Our Power of Ideas course and design thinking efforts keep us pretty busy on the innovation front.) I also have a feeling that the only way I’ll be able to pull off David Allen’s email advice is if I permit some of my natural messiness to creep into my process in allowable ways. I’m not sure what those allowances will be, but I’ll include my findings when I report back in October. What do you think about my messiness vs. cleanliness conundrum? Can the two coexist peacefully? If you're in the cleanliness camp, how might you allow for some messiness in an effort to fuel your creativity?


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