A famous photo taken in Princeton, New Jersey in 1955 depicts Albert Einstein’s office the day he passed away. One would imagine a thinker of such superior intellect would have the finest productivity tricks and systems to keep his brilliant brain as clutter-free as possible. Did he have a standing desk? Were his books alphabetized for easy reference? Did he use a fancy goal-setting journal?
As it turns out, the answer to all of those questions is no. Einstein’s desk was about as messy as it gets, the kind of setup you would expect from an editorial cartoon depicting office workers in impossible paper-pushing jobs.
Einstein isn’t the only big thinker to flourish in disorder. Mark Twain, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are just a few other documented examples of creatives who kept their desks in a state of organized chaos.
So does being messy actually lead to better creativity? Or does it depend on your personality? Here’s what science has to say.
Organization and creativity
Research published in Psychological Science has good news for messy-deskers. Scientist Kathleen Vohs and a team at the University of Minnesota found that both clean and messy workspaces have their own unique perks.
In this series of experiments, participants were seated at a desk that was either clean or messy, then asked to answer survey questions and make various decisions. Participants seated at a messy desk generated more creative ideas during a brainstorming exercise. They also chose new or novel products over established ones when presented with options.
In contrast, those seated at clean desks behaved more conventionally, doing that was expected of them. When presented with either an apple or piece of chocolate for a snack, for example, participants seated at clean desks chose the healthy snack more frequently.
It’s a chicken-or-the-egg scenario that invites us to consider the type of thinking we want to cultivate. Do you work best after clearing space first and giving yourself some mental white space? Or does chaos leave you feeling freed up, resulting in your best and most valuable ideas?
How to channel your creative juices
Creativity is one of the most important and lucrative skills you can cultivate as an entrepreneur. Here are a few tips to tap into your inner Einstein on a regular basis.
Focus on passion. Figure out what makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning — then go after it with everything you’ve got. When you’re inspired, the grind feels weightless and exciting.
Stay informed. You don’t know what you don’t know, and often learning about a new technology or shift in markets can get your creative juices flowing. Make it a habit to read and learn every day.
Consider non-verbal brainstorming. To-do lists and fancy journals are great, but why limit yourself to words? Sketches, models, and doodles can help you flesh out ideas without being burdened by the confines of language.
Your work environment doesn’t have to be perfect; it simply has to work for you and free your mind. Let yourself get messy, cultivate creativity, and your next wild idea might be the one that helps you go the distance.