The Surprising Health Benefits Of Clutter

Before you start purging, find out whether that messy desk is actually good for you.

January 21, 2016
cluttered room
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAG SUNDBERG/GETTY

Here’s a situation you’re probably familiar with: You walk into your office thinking about a project that’s due soon and sigh: Confronting you is a terrible mess. Papers are piled all over the desk, and random notes-to-self are push-pinned to the walls. How are you supposed to think surrounded by all this, let alone get anything done?

Related: The 8 Best Plants To Boost Your Productivity

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But it turns out that mess may be good for you. According to a 2013 study published in Psychological Science, researchers from the University of Michigan found that environmental disorder actually stimulates creativity. As part of the study, students were asked to complete tasks that involved coming up with new ideas, and the ones who had a greater number of ideas—and more innovative ones at that—had been working in a messy area.

This goes against the prevailing notion that you’re not living as coordinated or efficient a life as you could, that clutter is holding you back—and that if you could just Simplify Your Cooking Space and otherwise stop living such chaos, you’d have more time to get everything done. This is the idea touted by clean-freak gurus like Marie Kondo, whose best seller The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying-Up and others like it are part of the home-organization trend that includes everything from shoe containers and self-help books to professional organizers who will come to your house and throw things out for you. According to studies by the Freedonia Group, it all amounts to an $8 billion (and growing) segment of the economy, but the University of Michigan’s findings are reason enough to pause: Perhaps a degree of clutter and disarray is not only tolerable but actually preferable. After all, nature isn't exactly neat and organized. Even our gardens teem with beautiful chaos—and that's what makes them great.

This is something that makes intrinsic sense to many creative types, such as Jeremy Miller, a writer living in Houston. “Generally, I’m an organized person,” says Miller. “If there are things strewn about, it will cause me stress. I’m not a neat freak, but I need to keep tidy. I like harmony and silence.” But Miller has found that his tidy inclinations hinder him as a novelist. His solution? He deliberately makes his office a mess. 

Miller first discovered the value of disorder while earning his master’s degree in creative writing at Miami University in Ohio.  “For me, ideas are very messy when they start, and I’m comfortable in that space. I keep sticky notes with ideas posted around the office, as well as inspiring photos I’ve cut out from magazines. It feels like something’s cooking at all times.” 

And far from being in the way, those notes can lead to breakthroughs when Miller gets stuck. “I’ll write down ideas I like that didn’t go anywhere at first. And seeing them again weeks or months later, I’ll find I can incorporate them successfully into something else.”

In his book A Perfect Mess, Columbia Business School professor Eric Abrahamsson argues that too much organization can become a distraction and hinderance to productive work. While most people agree that too much mess can be a problem (read “Are You A Hoarder? Or Just Messy?” to gauge how bad your clutter issues actually are), there’s a wide spectrum between chaos and order. “Most people simply assume they’re on the overly messy and disorganized side of the line and believe they would do well to drag themselves in the direction of neatness and order,” Abrahamsson writes in his book.  

So instead of worrying that you’re too disorganized, or spending endless hours attempting to perfectly arrange every pillow on the couch and every shoe by the front door, relax. When it’s time to clean, look at What The Buddhists Can Teach Us About Household Chores, and approach your tasks without anxiety about getting everything done. If you’ve got too many clothes, by all means, feel free to purge. But don’t worry that you’re not living your best life because there’s paper on your desk, dishes in the sink, or clothes on the floor. A cluttered house can be the sign a well-lived life. 

And that project that’s due soon? Don’t waste time trying to clean your office first—dig in, instead, and start brainstorming. Who knows? One of those notes on the wall might help spark the great idea your project needs. 

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