The Psychology of Messiness & Creativity: Research Shows How a Messy Desk and Creative Work Go Hand in Hand


You may have come into con­tact at some point with Tracey Emin’s My Bed, an art instal­la­tion that repro­duces her pri­vate space dur­ing a time when she spent four days as a shut-in in 1998, “heart­bro­ken”: the bed’s unmade, the bed­side strewn with cig­a­rettes, moc­casins, a bot­tle of booze, food, and “what appears to be a six­teen year old con­dom”…. If you were savvy enough to be Tracey Emin in 1998—and none of us were—you would have sold that messy room for over four mil­lion dol­lars last year at a Christie’s auc­tion. I doubt anoth­er buy­er of that cal­iber will come along for a knock-off, but this doesn’t mean the mess­es we make while slob­bing around our own homes are with­out their own, intan­gi­ble, val­ue.

Those mess­es, in fact, may be seedbeds of cre­ativ­i­ty, con­firm­ing a cliché as per­sis­tent as the one about doc­tors’ hand­writ­ing, and per­haps as accu­rate. It seems a messy desk, room, or stu­dio may gen­uine­ly be a mark of genius at work. Albert Ein­stein for exam­ple, writes Elite Dai­ly, had a desk that “looked like a spite­ful ex-girl­friend had a mis­sion to destroy his work­space.” Ein­stein respond­ed to crit­i­cism of his work habits by ask­ing, “If a clut­tered desk is a sign of a clut­tered mind, then what are we to think of an emp­ty desk?”

Mark Twain also had a messy desk, “per­haps even more clut­tered than that of Albert Ein­stein.” To find out whether the messi­ness trait’s rela­tion to cre­ativ­i­ty is sim­ply an “urban leg­end” or not, Kath­leen Vohs (a researcher at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta’s Carl­son School of Man­age­ment) and her col­leagues con­duct­ed a series of exper­i­ments in both tidy and unruly spaces with 188 adults giv­en tasks to choose from.

Vohs describes her find­ings in the New York Times, con­clud­ing that messi­ness and cre­ativ­i­ty are at least very strong­ly cor­re­lat­ed, and that “while clean­ing up cer­tain­ly has its ben­e­fits, clean spaces might be too con­ven­tion­al to let inspi­ra­tion flow.” But there are trade-offs. Read about them in Vohs’ paper—“Phys­i­cal Order Pro­duces Healthy Choic­es, Gen­eros­i­ty, and Con­ven­tion­al­i­ty, Where­as Dis­or­der Pro­duces Cre­ativ­i­ty.” And just above, see Vohs’ co-author Joe Red­den, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Mar­ket­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Minnesota’s Carl­son School of Man­age­ment, dis­cuss the team’s fas­ci­nat­ing results. If con­duct­ing such an exper­i­ment on your­self, it might be best to do so in a space that’s all your own, though, like the rest of us, you’re too late to cre­ative­ly turn the mess you make into lucra­tive con­cep­tu­al art.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Ein­stein Tells His Son The Key to Learn­ing & Hap­pi­ness is Los­ing Your­self in Cre­ativ­i­ty (or “Find­ing Flow”)

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Jessica says:

    We all know this, except Emin’s mess hap­pens to be real­ly bor­ing, plus it ought to be in the bed, not beside it, and not in seedy lit­tle piles. Ama­teur.

  • Eithne says:

    Hi Dan,

    I saw this arti­cle via mental_floss on Face­book.

  • God says:

    I could not have said it bet­ter. Xtras for ‘seedy’

  • Glenny says:

    re: ‘If you were savvy enough to be Tracey Emin in 1998—and none of us were—you would have sold that messy room for over four mil­lion dol­lars last year at a Christie’s auc­tion.’ I think you will find that Emin did not col­lect that wind­fall, just like Peter Doig did not col­lect $11.3 mil­lion for White Canoe when it sold in 2007. It left his stu­dio for around $1500 some years before. I won­der how messy Charles Saatchi’s desk is? But then again I do won­der as to the state of Jeff Koon’s desk or indeed Damien Hirst’s.… I recon tidy and very messy respec­tive­ly… but that’s just a gut feel­ing…

  • skimo says:

    messi­ness or dif­fer­ent order?

  • edurdo says:

    I mess my world for ny own dis­ad­van­tage , eduar­do

  • jackie says:

    IMHO, it’s a man­i­fes­ta­tion of ADHD. Com­ment­ing for a friend.

  • Lauren says:

    I per­son­al­ly don’t like clean­ing my work spaces because then I can’t find any­thing! And when my desk or table is neat, I get hung up on keep­ing it neat instead of just doing what­ev­er I sat down to do.

    My mess­es are usu­al­ly orga­nized, and let me let go of keep­ing things neat and tidy and look­ing good for who­ev­er might be going by. I can focus on doing what I’m doing, not the con­di­tion of my desk.

    Dri­ves my hus­band bat­ty when I work on some­thing. I don’t know how I make a mess, but I do, even if I’m just writ­ing (work­ing on my book series leads to the din­ing table being cov­ered in books, papers, var­i­ous cats and writ­ing uten­sils, and food). He’s the same way, so I don’t pay him any atten­tion. He scat­ters things to the four winds just as much as I do.

    Besides, there’s some­thing cozy about a messy work space. It actu­al­ly feels like some­one works there, some­one that’s a real human being full of chaos and activ­i­ty. Clean just feels…clean. Uncom­fort­able. How can you work here and enjoy your­self while keep­ing every­thing so neat and prop­er? So much ener­gy spent on that. (I under­stand some hob­bies and pro­fes­sions demand clean­li­ness to cer­tain degrees, and I can’t argue with that.)

  • perfessa says:

    I’ll take a OCD per­son over a slob any time. Yeah there might be a few messy geniuses—but most are just dis­or­ga­nized human beings in every­thing from their work to their per­son­al habits.

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