Why you should care

Keeping that desk cluttered just might prompt your next creative breakthrough.

If you peek into the office of Technology, Humans and Taste (THAT), an advertising firm in New York City, on a Friday afternoon, you might be puzzled to see employees and selected guests sitting on couches and clutching pencils. They’re jotting down ideas on forms and hanging them on boards around the office as music plays against a backdrop of Big Apple traffic noise. Within an hour, dozens of cards are scattered across the walls.

THAT’s unusual ideation process — called “THAT Creative Dim Sum” — is a cornerstone of the company’s approach to innovation, says co-founder and chief creative officer Nathan Phillips. Collaboration is key, and messiness? An absolute must.

This might drive Marie Kondo disciples to distraction, but research suggests there are benefits to a cluttered workspace. A 2013 study by the University of Minnesota, for example, showed that participants in disorderly rooms were more creative than people in tidy ones. Experts say disorder stimulates creativity because physical artifacts can trigger people to draw connections between separate ideas — ones already in your head and seemingly unrelated — to generate novel solutions. It’s a process known as “psychological bricolage,” according to Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan.

There’s a fundamental misconception that human brains are like an Excel spreadsheet, says Sanchez-Burks. The assumption is that everything we need to know is always kept top of mind to be accessed quickly, like sorting to a specific cell. But from a neurological standpoint, the brain stores memories through “associative networks,” meaning that separate memories or experiences aren’t organized together. People need nudges to combine ideas, which is exactly where the clutter comes in handy.

Moving through space among constantly changing scenery exposes the mind to diverse stimuli.

A tour of Sanchez-Burks’ office reveals a Coachella poster, a skateboard carved by his grandfather, a Tibetan Buddhist figure and a bookshelf stacked with texts about design and travel. These objects evoke percolating memories that spark ideas he can apply to projects more so than a barren desk or blank notepad. Which is why it doesn’t surprise him that innovators like Steve Jobs often came up with ideas while taking walks. Moving through space among constantly changing scenery exposes the mind to diverse stimuli, he says.

This doesn’t mean being singularly focused can’t boost productivity. Quite the opposite. In fact, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on psychological “flow” outlines a state in which people are so immersed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter — so much so that people don’t note passing time. The activity itself is also important. Having emotionally evocative objects in sight is likely to be more helpful to an author with writer’s block, for example, than to an accountant focused on finance reports.

But Sanchez-Burks pushes back a bit on the notion that clutter only benefits creative workers. Rarely does an employee execute 100 percent of their time without any problem-solving, he says. Because different tasks call for different stimuli, this balance should be framed instead in terms of the percentage of time people spend on each. When Phillips’ employees are producing pitch decks in specific formats, he says it can be productive to “crawl into a cave.” Inspired creativity, on the other hand, calls for collaboration.

And while people have personal preferences for messiness, Sanchez-Burks says neither neat freaks nor their messy counterparts are hard-wired. Perfectionists, too, benefit by breaking from orderly habits when situations demand different thinking. What’s more, there’s an unlikely overlap between decluttering proponents like Marie Kondo and his exact rationale for keep clutter. Kondo is all about only keeping objects that spark joy — which is not too far from Sanchez-Burks’ explanation that objects that prompt ideas can enhance productivity.

Phillips, for one, thinks of his creative process like doing laundry — and he notes that a mess isn’t always dirty. “If you keep your apartment really clean, you can always find what you’re looking for,” he says. But if you’re getting dressed for a party and have to sort through a pile of laundry, he says, you might discover that Whitesnake T-shirt you lost 10 years ago … and realize it’s just the thing you need.

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