Justine: Messy vs. Neat Workspaces Equals Better Productivity or Creativity?

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A clean, Zen-like workspace may improve persistence.

Yesterday, Jilly talked about the barrage of ideas and inspiration she’s had in her writing life (and how it’s perhaps a bit out of control), and on Wednesday, Elizabeth told us about how she’s been cleaning office lately. Both of those posts have got me thinking about my writing environment and how distracting it is.

I once read an interview with a writer who has a very cozy reading room, so she can be comfortable and enjoy her books. But the room where she writes is very Zen-like in order to avoid distractions, and I’ve decided I need to take that on if I’m ever going to get this book finished, because instead of sitting down and looking at words on the page, I look at the plethora of junk that’s filled my desk (for example, right now on my desk, in addition to the two monitors, lamps, and wireless speaker, I have a baby monitor, a tube of Krazy Glue, a ceramic butterfly that I painted with the kids at the local paint-a-pottery place, gift cards for a local mom-in-need, tissues, sticky notes galore with a bazillion reminders and phone numbers, wires to goodness knows what, an adapter for my iPhone, mail, a binder for the Parent Service Organization for my kids’ school, a roll of tape, more mail, a cookbook holder [?? no idea why that’s on my desk], a bottle of lens cleaner, and lint).

And that’s just my desk.

Every “thing” in my world seems to go from one place to another, but never to its proper place (if there even is one). Perhaps it’s because I’m juggling two kids, a husband, trying to write, and taking on the presidency of my kids’ school PSO. I’m constantly picking up their crap and trying to find a proper place for it. Or I’m yelling at them to get their stuff off the couch, off the counter, off the table, off the floor…off, Off, OFF!

In any case, all the junk in my life makes it hard for me to concentrate lately. Instead of focusing on writing, I’m focusing on all the stuff that’s not where it should be and am thinking of what has to go where, which leads to what I have to do, etc.

It turns out that science backs that up. In an experiment conducted by Grace Chae and Juliet Zhu, 100 undergraduates were introduced to two environments…one neat, the other messy. They were then given an (unsolvable) problem. The individuals in the neat environment stuck to the problem on average for 18 minutes, whereas the individual in the messy environment only kept at it for 11 minutes on average. Chae and Zhu have reproduced similar results in other experiments.

What this shows is that a messy desk is an obstacle to persistence (and I would go so far as to say productivity). Chae and Zhu believe that if your work environment is messy, it’s mentally draining. It threatens your personal control, and when the messiness is of your own making (as mine is), it can seem overwhelming, demonstrating your lack of control.

A messy space may boost creativity.

A messy space may boost creativity.

On the flip side, though, many studies, including those conducted by Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota, have demonstrated that creativity gets a boost when your space is messy. For example, individuals in a messy room drew more creative pictures and were able to solve complicated brainteasers faster than those in a tidy room.

So what does this mean for me? Because I’m trying to get my story organized and in a detailed outline format, I may need to go for the Zen writing room right now. Maybe later, when I’m brainstorming ideas for my next book, I’ll feel better in a messy environment.

Or perhaps what this all ultimately comes down to is personal preference. In my work life, I had a messy desk. Stacks of paper everywhere (although if you asked me for something, I knew exactly where to find it), hardly any room on my desk to write, and it didn’t both me, or my productivity or creativity, at all. I never felt “stuck” like I do now.

Some friends have asked why I just don’t go work at Starbucks or pull my laptop out when I’m on the couch, and it’s because around my desk I have research books, a huge whiteboard with my story outline on it, and an oversize map of Regency London. In other words, the things I need to write my story are in my office.

This past weekend, I made huge strides in “cleaning up and throwing away” the stuff in my office that I’ve been hanging on to for unknown sentimental reasons. I hope by the end of the week to have it in perfect, Zen-like order. Even if it means taking the personal stuff (like mail and bills and the like) and moving that to another desk somewhere else. Fingers crossed it goes well.

What sort of writing environment person are you? Zen or messy? Have you noticed a difference in your writing creativity or productivity if your environment is neat vs. messy?

6 thoughts on “Justine: Messy vs. Neat Workspaces Equals Better Productivity or Creativity?

  1. Sometimes life just throws up, and it often seems to land on my writing desk! I’ve been writing elsewhere for months. The library works pretty well for me, and so does the coffee table downstairs (although my legs fall asleep, which, ahem, cramps productivity).

    If it’s my mess, and there’s enough room to work, it doesn’t seem to bother me. But if it’s someone else’s mess . . . that’s a little more difficult to work through. When I’m sitting and thinking, I think the odd distraction can add a little extra something to my thought process. But when I’m actually writing, it’s just me, the keyboard and the screen, and rarely a couple of extra computer documents for reference.

    Good luck with the decluttering! I always liked the Fly Lady, even if I didn’t stick with the program long enough to actually see a decluttered home. I saw improvement.

    • Wow, I checked out FlyLady (never heard of her). I am proud to say that her first baby step is shining your kitchen sink. Mine already is (that’s one thing I have to do in the kitchen every day). The rest seems…daunting. I’ll have to check it out when I have more time. Perhaps I can apply her methodologies to my office, which is what really needs it. The rest? We’ll see. 🙂

      How odd that I seem to be the opposite of you…if it’s someone else’s mess, it bothers me more than if it’s mine. Maybe it’s that whole control thing (and being out of control). In any case, if I have kids’ stuff on my desk, it’s less distracting than if it’s mine.

      My eldest is home sick today from camp, so while he recuperates on the couch, I’m going to try to make more progress on the office. I’ll report back later!

  2. I don’t trust the studies about neatness and messiness and which works best. I think it’s all a person’s psyche. If subjects were able to concentrate for only 11 minutes in a messy office, who’s to say they’d do better in a clean one? Unless they were tested that way. But it could also be that the room wall color was disturbing for some. You never know.

    My office is a wreck for many reasons, but when I’m working, I sit with my back to it, I look at my screen, and I get on with whatever I’m doing. Some days I’m more productive than others. Is that because the messiness bothers me? I don’t think so. Would I rather have the office tidier? Well, yes, but not Zen-tidy. That minimalist Zen look bothers me, especially the lack of color, which I find downright depressing.

    • I’ve just finished cleaning up my office and while not quite Zen, it’s neat. There’s nothing on my desk now except lamps, monitors, my speaker, and whatever else I need to work with at that moment. It’s kind of liberating. I also moved some furniture around (okay, I turned my desk 90 degrees — that’s about all I can “move”), but I’m facing a corner now with no ability to see the rest of the room behind me. I’m hopeful that, like you, I can just put the rest of the room out of sight, out of mind.

      • That’s interesting. I hate having my desk face a blank wall – it disturbs me as much as the minimalist Zen style bothers Kay. I don’t like writing in our home office – it’s quiet and comfortable in there, but I’d much rather sit on the sofa in my sitting room, with just my laptop and a notebook and pen.

        That said, if I had two little kids and a dog in the house, I’d probably give a different answer!

        • Well, admittedly, I’m not facing a “blank” wall. I have some cork board squares in a colorful pattern, my enlarged map of Regency London, and some artwork my kids have done for me. Hopefully that serves as inspiration. 🙂

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