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Research shows that chaos can lead to creativity

Own a messy desk?

Envy the organized?

Fear criticism from the orderly?

Well, be ashamed no longer. A messy desk can be a sign of creativity. A recent article in the NYTimes What a Messy Desk Says about You  (September 22, 2013) centered on a study at the University of Minnesota that compared the neat office environments of individuals with the messy office environments of others. The research shows that imagination favors the cluttered.

This may be particularly encouraging to those who, despite having invested in fancy organization systems, are unable to maintain the uncluttered look of an office in a magazine or catalogue spread.

I am particularly happy to read the results of this study since the mound of papers on my desk from September to June is never completely dissipated. A good week of planning lessons and grading papers creates a small foothill; a bad week mimics a towering mudslide. Reading that apologies for the mess are not necessary for my desk’s appearance is vindication.

As evidence, researchers under the supervision of behavioral scientist Kathleen D. Vohs organized an experiment using college students.  The students were placed in in adjacent office spaces and given a series of tasks to complete. One of the offices was “exquisitely neat”; in contrast, the other office was “wildly cluttered”.  The students filled out questionnaires that had nothing to do with the study and after several minutes, were dismissed. As the students left the two different surroundings, they were offered the choice of an apple or a chocolate bar. As expected, those emerging from the tidy location chose the healthy apple; those who spent even a short time in chaos grabbed the chocolate bar.

The experiment, however, produced unexpected results when those college students were placed again in those messy or neat offices and asked to dream up new uses for Ping-Pong balls:

Those in messy spaces generated ideas that were significantly more creative, according to two independent judges, than those plugging away in offices where stacks of papers and other objects were neatly aligned.

According to the results that were  published online last month in Psychological Science, the theory that a chaotic environment can only produce more chaos has been brought into question. Dr. Vohs and her co-authors conclude in the study, “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights.” Apparently, an office with all the things out of the box can lead to thinking that is out of the box.

The school year is new, and there will be challenges ahead. I look at my own messy desk and consider that the pile of papers on my desk may be the secret to producing new and creative solutions. Where glossy magazine spreads are a minimalist tease, the desk in my office reflects the clutter of my challenging day. Where Ikea has failed, this small study has given me hope.

Take that, Martha Stewart, and hand me that bar of chocolate!