The joy of a little creative clutter


Last updated 1/8/2020 at 4:38pm | View PDF

Each January after the holidays are over, there seems to be a renewed obligation or duty to reorganize. Everywhere you look there are articles, books and news stories that promise to help you tidy up and embrace your inner minimalist.

However, for those of us who despite our best efforts can't fully commit to the minimalist movement, there may scientific validation. If you too have a beloved collection of books or a permanent stack of paperwork on the corner of your desk then take heart. That mess just might be the right environment to spark creative thought and inspiration.

"If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk a sign of?" quipped Albert Einstein in defense of his notoriously messy office. Would it surprise you to learn that a scientific study might prove that Einstein was right?

Dr. Kathleen Voh, a social psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota School of Management sought to study just that question. She published her findings in the journal Psychological Science. In her study, she found that although tidy work environments promoted healthful eating and generosity, they tended to stifle creativity. Her study found that working in a "messy room" actually encourages novel thinking.

So, if you too think best with a little creative mess then you are in good company, as Voh notes that other innovators who had notably messy desks include Mark Twain, Frida Kahlo, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr. and Steve Jobs.

In case you were wondering, I am not a hoarder and my house is not a terrible mess. But I doubt my office would meet the lofty standards set by all those organizational experts. My house has its own colorful and charming eccentricities. I have collections of things I love - books, magazines and an oversized closet full of art supplies. When inspiration strikes, I have been known to make quite a creative mess. This may from time to time cause my neatnik husband to shake his head and question my sanity.

However, he has learned it is best to just walk away. We have an understanding that it will all get cleaned up.

Is there some middle ground? Can happiness and a little clutter really coexist? Experience has taught me that there is such a thing as a happy mess. A little paint and glitter on the kitchen table and a dish or two in the sink are the spontaneous creative moments that fuel me.

Along the way, I have made peace with the reality that young children come with a certain amount of mess. As a mother I would rather spend my time imagining new adventures than always having an impeccably clean house. So, here's to a new year filled with more creativity and less worry. In the end, it's all relative.

Every drawer in my house might not be perfectly organized, but my home will be artsy and above all joyful.

- Amy McCauley of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email her at [email protected]


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