The logic is familiar to every seven-year-old: Why do I have to make my bed if it’s just going to get messy again?
Eventually we surrender. As we learn to make our beds and do our chores, we grow up to embrace, and even fetishize, the virtue of cleanliness. We’re taught slogans like “cluttered desk, cluttered mind.” We feel pangs of anxiety when our garage is too dirty. We dust. We fret that our life is too jumbled, so maybe we try a time management system that involves books, software, and iPhone apps. We use these tools for a few weeks, then we fall off the wagon, so we feel more anxiety, then we try them again— this time for real— and then they fail again, and then again, until we say, screw it. Then we try them again.
But what if, at the age of seven, we were totally right? What if obsessing over cleanliness and order, for some of us, is just a big fat waste of time? This is the argument of Eric Abrahamson, a professor at the Columbia Business School and the co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. His theory: When someone praises the merits of order, they rarely take into account the cost of that cleanup. Desks don’t clean themselves. Filing systems take work. (Cleanliness, just like booze, has a trade-off.)
When someone praises the merits of order, they rarely take into account the cost of that cleanup.
“There are often significant cost savings to be had by tolerating a certain level of messiness and disorder,” Abrahamson writes in A Perfect Mess. “It’s not just that the advantages of being neat and organized are typically outweighed by the costs. As it turns out, the very advantages themselves are often illusionary.” If you spend 20 hours cleaning up your desk, he asks us, are you going to get 20 hours back of greater efficiency? (In fact, according to his research, people with orderly desks spend 36 percent more time finding things.) And this obsession for order could have a real psychological downside; his studies found that two-thirds of people report feeling guilty about their messiness.
A Perfect Mess begins with a quote from Einstein, who asks us, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?” Let’s push the idea further. So maybe your desk is buried under stacks of magazines, books, and empty cups of yogurt? Good news. That shit show is making you more creative. (Maybe.) Here’s the theory: The disjointed chaos of a mess could subconsciously nudge your brain away from convention. Where less advanced minds see a moldy slice of pizza, you see “a trigger for nonlinear thinking.”
There’s evidence to back this up. Kathleen Vohs, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, had a hunch that clutter could inspire our creative juices. She enlisted 48 volunteers and then instructed half of them to go into a clean workspace and half of them into a messy one. Then she conducted a brainstorming experiment. She told them to imagine that a ping-pong ball factory, for whatever reason, needed to invent some new uses for ping-pong balls. The volunteers had to write down as many ideas as they could. She also had a set of independent judges score their answers for creativity.
The results? “We found that the subjects in both types of rooms came up with about the same number of ideas, which meant they put about the same effort into the task,” explains Vohs in an op-ed.“Nonetheless, the messy room subjects were more creative, as we expected. Not only were their ideas 28 percent more creative on average, but when we analyzed the ideas that judges scored as ‘highly creative,’ we found a remarkable boost from being in the messy room—these subjects came up with almost five times the number of highly creative responses as did their tidy-room counterparts.” Messy has merit.
This piece is an excerpt from THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT WHAT’S BAD FOR YOU… THE BAD NEWS ABOUT WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU© 2015 by Jeff Wilser. It was posted with permission from Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.