A cluttered desk is the sign of…
… a sign of a cluttered mind. What does that make the psychology of organisation? Is it beneficial or a slippery slide toward OCD? Turns out it could be both at the same time.
Most of us were raised to clean our rooms, make our beds, pick up after ourselves, and generally keep a place looking somewhat respectable, but definitely lived in. No one made a fuss over a few dirty dishes in the sink, a blanket casually tossed on the couch in a crumple, or a few signs of dust — as long as the dust bunnies weren’t big enough to take over the house and the toilet was clean, no one really noticed anything beyond that.
On the other hand, when we work in an office space, we are often nagged at to keep things neat, orderly, and tidy. This directive comes under the guise of respecting the workplace, being more efficient, and putting on a good show for any visitors that you have exceptional discipline and thus are all professionals (Brisco, 1917).
But that book was written in 1917, just after the turn of the century and the middle of the industrial revolution, but right before the roaring ’20s. Life and cultures were different back then, and the phrase “cleanliness is next to Godliness” was heard far and wide. Does it still ring true today?
Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota wanted to find out what kind of environment spurred creative, out of the box thinking for individuals. Turns out it’s not the neat environments that gives us a shot of creativity, but a messier one. Break out the oil paints? According to Vohs, it’s more of a problem solving type of creativity that they were looking at.
Why? No one is precisely clear about why, but I would hazard to guess that it’s because we break some cultural protocol to make us loosen up and think a little less as we were taught.
It’s not all creativity, though. Another study shows that a messy environment can also add to feelings of depression, isolation, and other negative feelings of inadequacy for emotionally sensitive people. It’s possible you just need the right amount of clutter to feel relaxed enough to think outside of the box, but not so much clutter that it makes you think ill of yourself.
Joseph Teece, a neuropsychologist at Boston College, noted in the Tuscaloosa News that neatness can go beyond just a desire to live in clean surroundings and into the realm of coping mechanisms. To those individuals neatness is a safeguard against anxiety. It gives them a sense of control over their environment, and helps distract them from other unpleasantness in their lives.
It might seem a bit old fashioned in these days of embracing our messier free-spirited self, but we absorbed the fundamental idea that when you care about your things, you take care of them, and when you take care of them, you keep them neat and orderly.
Turns out that it’s all about context and what you want to achieve. Efficiency and feel good? Aim for just a little mess with a lot of organisation. Need a creative boost? Slide those stack of papers around a bit to create a little more chaos. National Association of Professional Organisers (NAPO) members and Kathleen Vohs may agree that different environments suit different outcomes.