Why being organized is not the only way to be productive, creative, and happy, according to science.
I was in a book club meeting when someone mentioned Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Everyone perked up at this, discussing the core concept of the book about how cleaning your room once will lead to a clean room for life. It was an interesting premise. I hadn’t read the book, so I listened with interest.
However, when the conversation veered to how clearing your room of clutter clears your head and allows you to be productive, I grew suspicious. You see, never in my life have I had a clean room. Maybe I did when I was young and my mother did the tidying up after me, but I don’t remember ever placing importance on tidying up in my adult life.
I’m the girl who dumps her blazer on the couch when she enters the house, leaves the keys on the door side shelf, her bag and phone on the center table. Then, once I’m done freshening up, I pick up my phone and continue with my day — the rest of the things lying where I left them. My work table is a mess, cluttered with old calculators that I might need someday and keys to places I no longer visit. There are piles of books, journals, and cards I’ll never use. My closet has more old clothes than I remember.
But in spite of this, I’ve never struggled with productivity. Yes, I’ve had bad days more often than I’d like to admit. There’ve been weeks when I struggled to climb out of bed to even cook a meal for myself — days when lying down and merely existing felt like a chore.
Getting out of such phases is hard. Therapy and medication help, of course. And once back on my feet, I could get back to work. There wasn’t any magical “change of scenery” or the “declutter your room to declutter your mind”. It was the same old room strewn with discarded clothes, the same old table piled high with books I’d never touch, and the same old me. But once I’d made my mind, the state of flow was back.
My own experience contradicted the conviction of my friends at the book club and got me thinking: is it really necessary to be organized to have a happy and productive life? Or can you use your inability to remove clutter from your house to your advantage? Read on to know the science behind it and why the art of decluttering only works for some people.
The Case for Decluttering
Having a cluttered house means you lose precious time looking in several places for something you need urgently. As Libby Sander, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Bond University Business School argues, if your house is organized, you would know exactly where that something is, thus saving you a lot of time.
However, ask any high-functioning clutterer (no, that’s not a term. I made it up because that’s what I identify as) if they take hours to find something, and their reply will always be the same — “It only looks cluttered to you. I know exactly where everything is and can find whatever I’m looking for in seconds.” Even the famous Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was once attributed as saying,
“Don’t clean up the mess. I know exactly where everything is.”
If a high-functioning clutterer doesn’t waste time in searching for things, how can their disordered surroundings impact their productivity?
Clutter and Productivity
It’s a common belief in the personal improvement scene that having an organized desk is the only way to boost your productivity. A 2011 study by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute established that because our brains “like” order, visual reminders of disorganization (aka a cluttered room) reduce our ability to focus and process information, thus hampering productivity.
However, in 2013, psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs and her team of researchers at the University of Minnesota tested how well students came up with new ideas when working in organized versus cluttered workspaces. The study showed that “participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas as their clean-room counterparts. But their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges.”
This connection between a messy desk and productivity wouldn’t seem so counterintuitive if people considered the cost of neatness, according to Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder —
“Specifically, people tend to ignore the cost of neatness, discount the possibility that messiness can’t always be excised no matter how hard it’s fought, and trust the idea that mess can work better than neatness.”
This establishes that organization is not the only factor for boosting your productivity. It also raises the pertinent question: how does clutter affect your creativity?
Clutter and Creativity
The 2013 study by Kathleen Vohs also found that orderly environments lead people toward tradition, making them more inclined to “play it safe” and conform to expectations. On the other hand, disorderly environments encourage people to do away with convention and think out of the box for innovative solutions to day-to-day problems.
In fact, some of the most creative minds the world has known have famously had disorganized workspaces. As this article in Inc Magazine points out, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs had messy desks, just like most other geniuses.
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
— Albert Einstein
Clutter and Mental Health
A 2019 study published in Building and Environment studied people’s psychological reactions to the physical work environment. The researchers found that cluttered spaces can have negative effects on stress and anxiety levels, eating choices, and sleeping patterns. However, it’s not possible to generalize the outcomes of such studies as they focus exclusively on the objective qualities of the workspace like lighting, acoustics, etc., which can’t be standardized.
A study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that objects we own can be closely linked to self-worth. Once a person owns something long enough, they stop viewing them as a possession and start thinking of them as a part of their identity. Marie Kondo might make a convincing argument that if something doesn’t “spark joy in your soul”, you’ve to get rid of it. But this research shows that getting rid of possessions perceived as “important” can lead to feelings of grief.
In addition, as Sam Gosling, a Professor of Psychology at The University of Texas, elaborates in the book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, there are three ways in which a person deliberately or unconsciously leaves clues about themselves in their rooms:
- Identity claims or the deliberate statements about culture, religion, or political views that express who you are as a person.
- Items that make you feel certain ways about certain things, like keepsakes, photographs, mementos, etc.
- Behavioral residue, or the items from your daily habits that make space for themselves in your room. For example, I journal a lot, so I have old pens and used journals all around my home office.
These are the ways you assert your identity and beliefs. If they make you feel good, there’s no need to classify them as “clutter.” If you find comfort in knowing that you’re surrounded with things you might need someday, there’s no reason to throw them away just because popular culture led you to believe that’s the only way to function.
One of my friends once told me that no matter what you search for on the internet, you’d always find evidence to both support and argue against it. The case of decluttering is no different.
Several of my friends prefer clean workspaces and rooms. Without the organization, they cannot function. On the other hand, I’ve never faced any productivity, anxiety, or stress issues directly linked with the clutter around me. Sure, I have bad days, but once things get easier, I can work just as well with the clutter as I could before.
Of course, to be completely honest, I would prefer to have a clean room once in a while, but it’s not a priority. I’d rather spend the time working on a new idea or reading a book than tidying up my room. No matter what the self-help industry or the research tells me, I know this is my comfort zone and I’d like to keep it that way.
If you’re someone who thrives in clean spaces, that’s perfect. But that doesn’t mean being organized is the only way to perform well at work and stay positive. As research has established, it is indeed possible to be productive, creative, and perfectly happy while living amid disorganization.
There isn’t just one way of being your best version. If you’ve always functioned well in clutter, know that there’s no reason to feel guilty or pressure yourself into doing something (i.e. cleaning) you don’t want to. If you’re a high-functioning clutterer like me, this inability to organize might as well be your secret advantage.
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