Organizing a Path Beyond Creativity
Much has been written recently about a study done by Kathleen Vohs, at the University of Minnesota, that finds a messy work environment promotes creative thinking. Here’s my two cents.
I’m a fan of evidence through science, but I am skeptical of these results. Furthermore, I would argue that creativity is rarely the biggest challenge.
Let me start by saying that I, not only understand the importance of creativity, but it is an essential part of who I am. My training and work experience has been as a creative. I was a professional illustrator and an art director. As a professional organizer, I still consider myself a creative. I don’t believe the two things are mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe organizing can enhance creativity.
Defenders of clutter, like to quote Albert Einstein, who famously said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” Ha, ha. Apparently, Mark Twain and Steve Jobs had notoriously messy desks too. So, who am I to argue with Einstein?
I’m no genius, but Tom Edison was. He is credited with saying, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Anyone, who has tried to bring an important project to completion, knows that this is self-evident. I know “creativity” is not the same thing as “inspiration,” but they are both about coming up with new ideas and solutions. I also think you could replace “genius” with “success” in Edison’s quote and you would arrive at the same meaning.
My point is, even if a cluttered desk does help create new ideas, that’s far less important than an efficient environment to do all the less-inspiring grunt work, necessary to bring these ideas to some sort of useful conclusion. The messy environment does not help with that. It prolongs the work, because you waste too much time trying to locate what you need, when you need it.
Still, if creativity is the point and you are convinced that your messy desk is an asset, ask yourself this. Have you ever had a brilliant idea in the shower? I’ll bet you have. It’s very common and there’s a good reason for it. In the shower, you are able to shut down all the distractions of the world for a few minutes, to relax. Also, there is no clutter to distract you, unless you count a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo. Since your mind has nothing in your immediate surroundings to grab onto, it drifts around until it finds something else to grab onto. These are great conditions for creative thought.
Recognizing priorities and finding clear paths to see them through is a far more elusive pursuit than creating ways to be more creative. In fact, creative people tend to have far too many creative ideas. I believe that’s a big part of why artists are so prone to drink. Alcohol deadens the steady flow of creative ideas, long enough to calm the mind, to a point where it can focus on the boring steps, necessary to bring an idea in for a landing.
Organizing is ultimately about taking the less important stuff out of the way, so that you can get to the most important stuff. Ironically, I was initially bitten by the organizing bug in an effort to carve out more time and space for my creative pursuits, mainly watercolor painting. I eventually came to realize that my priority was making a business out of helping others achieve their priorities through the removal of barriers. There’s no bigger barrier to productivity than a cluttered desk.
As I see it, geniuses, like Einstein, Twain, and Jobs, were not creative because of a cluttered desk, but in spite of it. That’s where the real mental strain is.