Cluttered Desk, Cluttered Mind?
Do I have a cluttered desk? Sure. Organized clutter, mind you. Cluttered mind? Not usually.
This is a re-post of Creativity and Clutter, which was published on December 30, 2016.
Recently, we (my roommates and I) found out that the owner of the townhome we live in wants to sell the property. We were given 60 days, but found a new place with a move-in date of January 13th. We were suddenly faced with a rushed move and have gone into overdrive preparing and packing up. This of course leads me to packing up my art table. It took me two boxes to pack up all the things collected on and around my desk. Now mind you, for the majority of the year, I work in my bedroom for the air-conditioning. But the items on my cluttered desk remains, for the most part, exactly where I left them.
The whole process brought to mind the blog post mentioned above. I mused for a good while about the debate of clutter versus creativity and how I had enough to fill two boxes. By the time I taped up the last box, I decided that my original conclusion in that post still holds true.
Here’s the post in its entirety…
Creativity and Clutter
The Ongoing Debate
The debate about whether or not creativity and clutter are beneficial to each other lives on. Most creative people I know (myself included), live with clutter to varying degrees. Some chalk up the clutter to being creative. In other words, creatives will be more cluttered by nature, whereas the more analytical types will have rigid, sterile, OCD type environments that would pass a white glove test on any given day. But I’ve read countless posts and articles that say that clutter kills creativity. And I’ve read countless others that argue that point and go so far as to say the clutter fuels their creativity. So which is it?
In his post, Clutter is Killing Your Creativity (And What To Do About It), Jeff Goins states “Clutter is procrastination. It is the Resistance, a subtle form of stalling and self-sabotage. And it keeps me (and you) from creating stuff that matters. The mess is not inevitable. It is not cute or idiosyncratic. It is a foe, and it is killing your art.”
Wow. Seriously, Jeff Goins? Kinda harsh.
On the Flip Side
On the other end of the scale, you have those who claim that clutter begets creativity because the environment is less rigid and restrictive. In an admittedly limited study involving 48 university students, University of Minnesota’s Kathleen Vohs (Ph.D. in Psychology and Brain Sciences) conducted an experiment with people and ping pong balls in two rooms, one messy and one neat. Each student was instructed to come up with ten unconventional uses for the balls. Half of the students were placed into an organized room and the other half into a cluttered room. Their ideas were then rated on a one to three scale (not very creative to very creative). What she found was that all of the participants came up with the same number of ideas (as instructed), but the people in the cluttered room had far more very creative ideas than those confined to the neat and orderly room. “Being creative is aided by breaking away from tradition, order and convention,” Vohs and her colleagues conclude, “and a disorderly environment seems to help people do just that.”
The Problem With One Size Fits All…It Doesn’t
I, however, would be so bold as to say that, to a degree, they can both be right…sometimes. It seems to me that both Goins and Vohs are trying to put everyone into neat little boxes. And I’m sorry, but you just can’t do that. Every single person on the face of this planet is unique, down to the cellular level. We’re all different. Granted, there are some familial genetic similarities, traits, and characteristics. But we are all different in a multitude of other ways…the way we handle stress, the way we create, the way we innovate, the way we deal with tragedy, etc. We even learn differently, which is why our school systems are so flawed. We do not come from a cookie cutter factory. Some of us are better auditory learners, others visual learners. Some are both. Yet others are neither one, but tactile, hands-on learners instead. So how can you say one method is the be all, end all way of doing things? What works for one might not work for someone else.
Has anyone considered a happy medium? Personally, I consider my desk and my bedroom (where I do about half of my work) to be what I call, organized clutter. I’ve tried both ways throughout the years and have come to two conclusions. 1) Total and complete neatness and organization drives me insane. It’s so neat and clean that my mind goes completely blank. It’s so restrictive that my creativity is completely shut down. Complete neatness simply stifles any creativity. Period. And 2) total chaotic clutter is so overwhelmingly distracting that my mind can’t settle on any single creative track for very long. It’s like having that elusive word just on the tip of your tongue and the more you try to think of it, the harder it is to remember it. Too much clutter also starts making me feel claustrophobic, like any minute the mountains of clutter are just going to cave in on me.
So, yes…I have organized clutter. Magazines and reference material are stacked in piles according to subject matter and are contained on shelves. Books that I’m reading are collected on another shelf. (Yes, I read several books simultaneously.) The corner where my art table is has several current projects. And the table itself always has at least a dozen pencils and a variety of erasers strewn about. Wouldn’t it be easier to keep my pencils organized? Like by the hardness of the graphite, perhaps? Maybe for some. In my mind, it would be far more distracting to have to look up from my work and focus on where to put the pencil than to just set it on the table with the others. When I’m on a roll, I don’t need to have that creative flow interrupted by trying to maintain that type of organization.
Cluttered Creative Geniuses
Simply put, you cannot put everyone in a box. To prove a point, some of the greatest minds and greatest creative types would not fit into Goins’ scenario of ‘clutter kills creativity’. Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs all had chaotically messy desks, yet no one seems to question their brilliance or creativity. In their case, creativity and clutter not only go hand in hand, but seem to be a necessity.
Consider this from Albert Einstein, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”
I think it’s safe to say that with that list of messy geniuses, that clutter might kill creativity for some people, but fuels it for others. For myself, I’ve found that I need a happy medium. Creativity and clutter go hand in hand, to a point. So I maintain a balance that works for me. It’s never organized to OCD levels, but when I start collecting too many pencils, too many scraps of scratch paper, or too many reference pictures, I’ll take a moment to clean up just a little. If you’re having a problem with creativity and clutter, maybe you need to experiment with your work space. Start on either end of the spectrum. If you’re good at that level, then why make changes? If not, start heading in the opposite direction and adjust your work space accordingly. When you find your creativity flowing freely, consider that the sweet spot and stick with it.