Can a messy office make you more creative?


That messy office might be inspiring great ideas…

New research shows that an organized office might make you behave better but a messy office can lead you to more creative breakthroughs:

Order and disorder are prevalent in both nature and culture, which suggests that each environ confers advantages for different outcomes. Three experiments tested the novel hypotheses that orderly environments lead people toward tradition and convention, whereas disorderly environments encourage breaking with tradition and convention — and that both settings can alter preferences, choice, and behavior. Experiment 1 showed that relative to participants in a disorderly room, participants in an orderly room chose healthier snacks and donated more money. Experiment 2 showed that participants in a disorderly room were more creative than participants in an orderly room. Experiment 3 showed a predicted crossover effect: Participants in an orderly room preferred options labeled as classic whereas those in a disorderly room preferred options labeled as new. Whereas prior research on physical settings has shown that orderly settings encourage better behavior than disorderly settings, the current research tells a nuanced story of how different environments suit different outcomes.

– from “Physical Orderliness Changes Decisions and Behaviors” by Vohs, Redden and Rahinel

So we’ve all seen that many conventional people have organized offices and creative people tend to be messier.

What this says is that spreading those papers around might actually make you think in more original ways and that straightening up might make you eat healthier and be more kind.

What’s going on?


Do I have an excuse to be a slob now?

That study showed that we’re affected by our surroundings on a deeper level: orderly environment, more orderly behavior. Unconventional environment, more unconventional thinking.

Prior research backs this up and gives us more insight into why this works.

A disorderly environment actually makes it harder for our brains to think clearly and be productive:

Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.

But as far as creativity is concerned, this is a good thing. A disorganized mess of things bashing into one another produces new ideas.

In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson posits that the more disorganized your brain is, the smarter you are and offers many examples of how more collisions between ideas equals more originality:

  • The “accept everything” mantra of brainstorming doesn’t work. Debate is far more effective. Let those ideas fight.

Now increasing unconventional behavior is not all roses.

As Duke professor Dan Ariely, author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves, explained when I interviewed him, creativity also means more lying:

We find it when we measure students that are more creative, they cheat more. We find that when we use priming to increase creativity, we also increase dishonesty. 

Would you really want a disorganized desk influencing you all the time?


So there’s a time to straighten that messy office

There’s a time for new ideas, but more often there’s a time for just getting down to business.

You might want to clean that desk because research points to conscientiousness as the one-trait-to-rule-them-all in terms of future success, both career-wise and personal.

Via How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character:

“It would actually be nice if there were some negative things that went along with conscientiousness,” Roberts told me. “But at this point it’s emerging as one of the primary dimensions of successful functioning across the lifespan. It really goes cradle to grave in terms of how people do.”

The workplace doesn’t usually reward creativity. In fact, more often it punishes it.

Via How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character:

Bowles and Gintis then consulted similar scales for office workers, and they found that supervisors judged their workforce the way teachers judged their students. They gave low ratings to employees with high levels of creativity and independence and high ratings to those workers with high levels of tact, punctuality, dependability, and delay of gratification.

Are you a creative person? Want to be a CEO? Good luck. You’ll need it:

In sum, we show that the negative association between expressing creative ideas and leadership potential is robust and underscores an important but previously unidentified bias against selecting effective leaders.


To organize or not to organize?

What’s fascinating about that first study I mentioned is that it doesn’t say messy and neat offices are mere indicators of personality — those environments actually influence our behavior.

So they’re a tool we can use to be what we need to be when it strategically benefits us most:

  • In the traditional workplace, most of the time it’s probably going to be in your best interest to keep that desk clean and your mind focused.
  • But when you need to come up with something new and challenge the old ideas? Let the papers fly, the folders overflow and don’t be afraid to knock a cup of coffee over for good measure.

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