Creativity in the Chaos– or Not?

There is a dilemma in the organized space vs. cluttered space argument— and yes, it is an argument. “A clean desk is the sign of a sick mind,” thought to be a play on Albert Einstein’s “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign” is an adage on which science, psychology, even the Bureau of Labor Statistics can not agree. What is best for creativity and productivity?

I cannot create in clutter. If I sit down amidst a mayhem of paper, files, magazines etc., I can’t concentrate. If the space is clean and organized, I can immediately do the task at hand. That is me. It does not have to be you. One problem with having this idiosyncrasy is that I woke up this morning, after taking the week off from blogging, and Christmas had vomited all over my writing desk. You have to understand, I do not let anything that does not have to do with writing touch my desk. Okay, my iPhone I allow, but that’s it. Yes, I’m afraid the non-writing implements will seep into the wood and spread their anti-creative cooties to my area of inspiration. Writers are not always logical, get used to it.

Somehow, in the cleaning pandemonium prior to guests arriving Christmas night, my desk– my monument to the written word– became laden with Christmas paper, opened gifts, and kitschy baubles that have no business polluting my sanctuary. Part of my bulletin board featuring a map needed for my novel had fallen. Unheard of.

messy desk

(The Shame)

This is probably a good time to tell you, I do not have OCD. People with OCD will recognize this from the fact that the mad shuffling to declutter my home needed to occur in the first place. Never fear, my house has plenty of dust bunnies, piles of unread mail, and a myriad of kid-type items laying around. Every day. In the last week, previously worn balled-up fuzzy socks have begun multiplying at an alarming rate in various areas they don’t belong. And I don’t own fuzzy socks. These belong to “no one” or “not me” according to my children.

However, What is best for creativity? Clutter or clean?

Anti-clutter proponents will tell you that the brain functions better in an organized space. The Journal of Neuroscience featured this article that states the brain can not focus effectively when the surrounding environment is cluttered. It is too much chaos and your brain can’t process information as well as it does in an uncluttered space. It may also annoy 30% of your coworkers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics stated in this article by the staffing agency Adecco.

One of my professors in grad school told our class that when she meets with children, she asks them to open their backpacks and based on the organization of its contents, she can determine the child’s state of mind pertaining to their home life. My classmates all nodded in agreement. Being the only one in the class who actually had children, this scared the crap out of me. I know the state of my kids’ backpacks— they are a small mirror of their tumultuous bedrooms. And I am a parent that reminds my kids to clean their rooms, often. I am not a parent who doesn’t notice and carries on. To suggest that a backpack indicates quality of parenting is asinine— the fact that there are people out in the world that will judge my parenting skills on a backpack is terrifying.

I feel the same way about my desk. Don’t judge my creativity based on the neatness of my workspace, or lack thereof.

The thing is, that many creative people thrive in messy spaces, are not distracted by them, and while their seemingly outward disorganization is overwhelming to the neat-nicks, these “disorganized” creatives, more often than not, know where everything is in their space. They just organize differently. The answer may be that every individual innately finds their livable level of organization tolerance. This New York Times article attributes level of neatness to a person’s spatial awareness. They might be unaware of their messiness because it doesn’t concern them. Their tolerance for chaos is higher. The author compared it to pain thresholds– everyone’s is different and some can tolerate more pain than others. This resonates with me– I have a high pain threshold, where many people don’t. My lower tolerance for messy creative spaces is similar.

More importantly, unless someone is forcing me to create in that space, I am not about to judge what works for them.

A truer answer might be held in more neutral, less black and white, articles such as this one by Psychological Science noting that there are pluses to both sides.  The study states that organization promoted healthier choices and doing good deeds in society, while disorganized spaces promoted creativity. How about a happy medium? As I look around my desk that I claim is so neat, I see to my right a plethora of multicolored sticky notes, my half-filled cup of now cold coconut green tea, my calendar that still says November. Without realizing it, and without seeing it as such, I have created a mini island of outward chaos in my ocean of ordered serenity. Perhaps I’m not as organized as I thought. Perhaps true organization aficionados find my desk to be a mess! It’s all in the tolerance level— the eye of the beholder.


I happen to have four creative children. Does this mean I will stop telling them to clean their rooms because their mess boosts inspiration? No. The main reason being that I like to put them to bed without injuring my feet. I don’t expect perfection though. When the mess reaches chaos, I say something. After all, I haven’t read any studies advocating how dirty laundry on the floor promotes creativity. The rest of the time, I give them the space to have their rooms reflect their own creativity. Their backpacks too.


(To view Time’s photo of Einstein’s desk the day he died, click here.)


  1. I can tell there is no OCD here, else the sticky notes would be vertically aligned in neat rows for starters. And I won’t even go into color coordination of various accessories. Thank heavens, since minutia madness can put you into a frozen state where absolutely nothing gets accomplished.

  2. I will never be OCD lol. I don’t have that commitment to cleanliness in me!

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