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The Strengths of Being Messy

There is a bias toward neatness in our culture and those of us who define ourselves as "messy" have bought into that bias. We may have spent our lives fighting against our natural style, trying to be as neat and organized as we think everyone else is. Messiness isn't, in itself, a strength. It is, however, a kind of talent--a pattern of thought that can be turned toward productive outcomes.

When I was a teenager, I would have been delighted if my mother had thought my messy room showed "talent." I am not arguing that we should all live in the filth a teenager can gather in one small room. On the other hand, it isn't necessary for every room to be photo-ready in order for it to be comfortable and livable. Like unrealistic beauty standards make normal-sized women think they are obese, unrealistic tidiness standards make perfectly normal clutter seem like hoarding.

"What if being somewhat messy, in a broad sense, is a better deal?" -A Perfect Mess

Messy spaces nurture creativity. Research shows that messy environments encourage divergent thinking and creativity. These skills are vital far beyond traditional creative endeavors like art and music. Creativity keeps businesses competitive. Science and technology moves forward through creativity and innovation. Creativity might even help us live longer.

In one group of studies (1) students were placed in messy, orderly, or empty spaces and asked to complete certain tasks. In the first study, they solved a manipulative puzzle; in the second, a word association test; and in the third, they drew pictures. In all three studies, those in the messy room were more creative than those in either orderly or empty spaces.

Thinking outside the box. Consider the phrase "thinking outside of the box." In itself, the "box" is tidy and constrained, but thinking outside of the box is valuable to business and other settings. Those of us who thrive in an atmosphere that seems random to others are also likely to see things that others miss.

Open-mindedness. Divergent thinking also allows us to look outside our "bubble" and explore ideas that might be outside our current assumptions. Social psychology researchers (2) have found that people in untidy environments rely less on their preconceived ideas to make decisions than those in tidy environments.

Problem-solving. Creative problem solving involves using divergent thinking (aka, "thinking outside the box") to generate ideas for solutions. Brainstorming is a common tactic used to encourage divergent thinking. Creative solutions may be easier to generate for Messies. Have you ever used a shoe to pound a nail because you had no hammer? That's the kind of creative problem solving that can save the day; a straight line thinker has no way to pound the nail until they have the "correct" tool in hand. What a waste of time and resources is that?

Serendipity. Making connections between very different things may be easier in a messy setting, where unlike objects may be side-by-side, or where a mistake turns into a solution.

Take, for example, the story of penicillin, discovered when Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming returned from vacation to find green mold growing in his lab Petri dishes, like forgotten plates in a kitchen sink.

Or the invention of matches, when pharmacist John Walker used a stick to mix potassium chlorate and antimony sulfide. Like a good messy person, he didn't use a proper cleaning device to get the stuff off the stick, but instead bent down and scraped it against the stone floor. It burst into flame, becoming the prototype for “sulphuretted peroxide strikables.

On a lighter note, you might remember a commercial, "Hey, you got peanut butter on my chocolate." Serendipitous delicious messiness!

Being neat and classically organized takes time, energy, and money. The authors of A Perfect Mess: The hidden benefits of disorder, point out that "the costs of being neat and well organized often outweigh the benefits." Ultimately, it saves time to allow clutter to accrue. In an office setting, for example, the expectation of tidiness means that paper notes from meetings would be neatly filed in a filing cabinet. Imagine instead, a pile of meeting notes on a shelf. Is it any less organized than the filing cabinet? No. The pile is in reverse chronological order, with the most recent notes at the top. It takes slightly less time to toss notes on the pile than it does to open the cabinet and find the appropriate file. And there is no set-up time for creating the pile, unlike the time and materials it takes to put a label on a manila folder. Digital productivity is the same; with a good search tool, and adequate keywords in a file's contents, there is no need for a complicated filing system to keep track of documents.

Perhaps that is why researchers found that academics whose offices were extraordinarily untidy wrote close to the same number of peer-reviewed articles and researchers whose offices were extraordinarily tidy, while those in the middle (who clearly spent some time decluttering, at least now and then) published less than those at either end of the spectrum. My thought is the most untidy spend less time filing; the most tidy spend less time searching for lost items. For those of us with a talent for messiness, it might be that we are better off finding our own organized clutter than trying to conform to others' formulas of tidiness.

It turns out that a little bit messy--we aren't talking all-out hoarding or seriously unhygienic--is an advantage, for a number of reasons. And, honestly, "everyone else" is a lot messier than we tend to think.


(1) Vohs, K., Labroo, A., & Dhar, R. (2016). The Upside of Messy Surroundings: Cueing Divergent Thinking, Problem Solving, and Increasing Creativity. ACR North American Advances.

(2) Niedernhuber, J., Kastenmueller, A., & Fischer, P. (2014). Chaos and decision making: Contextual disorder reduces confirmatory information processing.Basic and Applied Social Psychology,36(3), 199-208. doi:10.1080/01973533.2014.890621

(3) Abrahamson, E., & Freedman, D. H. (2013). A perfect mess: The hidden benefits of disorder. Hachette UK.

(4) Penny, H. A., Kurien, M., Fowler, G., Wardle, D., Azmy, I., & Sanders, D. S. (2018). Grit and tidiness: Could what we know help us achieve success? Postgraduate Medical Journal,94 (1110), 246. doi:10.1136/postgradmedj-2017-135376.

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