Work Culture

The creative upside to clutter


Published on October 14, 2022

Good news for that constant pile of miscellaneous clutter taking over your desk—untidy spaces aren’t all bad when it comes to getting work done. According to research from psychologist Dr. Kathleen Vohs, there’s a creative upside hidden in every mess. A professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Vohs has spent much of her career exploring how people think, feel, and behave and her study on the relationship between messiness and creativity continues to shape the conversation around organization and work. Here, she speaks with Tiffani Jones Brown about unconventional approaches to creativity, finding inspiration in disorder, and rethinking the way we make decisions. For more of their conversation, listen to Remotely Curious, a podcast on remote work.

Almost a decade ago, you published research that found a correlation between messiness and creativity. What happened in the study?

We had our people come to the laboratory and some of them were put into a room that had pieces of paper and other office supplies very neatly arranged. We gave them this contrived situation where we said there is a factory that makes ping pong balls and it has a surplus of ping pong balls. What else could they be doing? What else could could consumers be doing? What could the factory be telling people to do with these ping pong balls?

We found that when our participants were in a laboratory that was messy and there were things turned around, then they came up with more creative answers in this task compared to the people in the clean room. We had people who were not in the experiment, look at their answers, knowing nothing else about the study and just rate how creative they were. Non-creative answers would be: you could throw them at someone. Creative answers were things such as you could put hooks in them and use them for earrings.

"Aren't there cases in which not following the rules and not sticking to norms is in fact the better thing to do?"

Why do you think messiness might contribute to creativity or conversely, why might cleanliness lead to more conventional thinking?

It's interesting to think: is this a function of the fact that tidiness and cleanliness has been associated with rule following, or is there something more fundamental about those arrangements? And that's an answer that I don't know, but generally the idea is that there's a set of associations that go along with tidiness and neatness. People before us in the psychological literature have really looked at the psychological benefits of being in a tidy environment. In a nutshell, they figured out that tidy environments sort of inspire people to be rule followers—to stick to what is known, what is expected, to stick to tradition. 

My colleagues and I took that idea and flipped it on its head and said, aren't there cases in which not following the rules and not sticking to norms is in fact the better thing to do? And we quickly hit upon this idea that creativity is one such outcome. That was sort of the aha moment for us where cleanliness and tidiness leads to rule following and sticking to the norms and doing things in a sort of expected way. Then maybe messiness would inspire people to do things outside of what's expected, and that could lead people to be innovative and creative. 

In what ways has working remotely changed the way people organize their work life?

Remote work has made work messy, if you will. Because before we had this clear delineation. You would get in your car, you would get on the bus, you would go to the workplace and you'd be there for a set amount of time. Everything was much more compartmentalized and in its place. And now remote work has upended our sense of, when are we working? When are we not working? At a meta level, remote work is very much related to messiness.

At a more granular physicality level, the idea of remote work has introduced more messiness into people's lives because not everyone had a dedicated space from which to do work prior to the pandemic. And so what does it mean to be doing remote work? While oftentimes it meant taking over an existing space, it could be carving out a little niche in your basement and putting up a table there. It could be taking over the kitchen table. It could be propping yourself up in the dining room. And so that is messiness insofar as our understanding of space. 

In your view, what is the impact of this remote-work messiness on creativity?

The pandemic was a time of a lot of things, but you could really understand it as a time of innovation and creativity in people's everyday lives. I mean you don't have to have big-C creative creativity. You can have little-C creativity infusing in your lives. Just the notion of a new way to get work done is itself a creative endeavor. What does it mean to work? What kind of work are we doing? I think the flexibility and adaptivity that people showed during the pandemic in their work lives, but also in their personal lives, is in part a reflection of how much our lives got messy during the pandemic. 

Now that working from home is more common, are there any ways we might organize our spaces for more creativity or more focus? 

Consider leveraging the different spaces that you have at your disposal. One thing that's so nice about remote work is that you're able to make use of the physicality of where you are in different ways, ways that you could never really do if you were in a physical workplace. 

Think about doing some of your creative work, where you're trying to brainstorm or come up with some ideations, down in the basement—which you associate with a rec room, where you associate with game playing, where you associate with entertainment. By contrast, think about dining rooms. My dining room—if it's like anyone else's—is not used that much. It's just very neat and presentable. So you can work there when it's time for focus work, and especially the kind of focus work where details are going to matter. Following the rules, sticking to order, seeking convention—that's going to be what you want to lean into. 

"Just the notion of a new way to get work done is itself a creative endeavor."

You’ve also done quite a bit of research on decision fatigue. Could you talk about your findings?

Our studies looked at whether making decisions was related to people's willingness to do something hard or difficult in a subsequent period. In an example of one of the studies, we would have people come into our laboratory, which we had outfitted to be like a store. We would have different colors of socks on the pairs of socks on the table. And we would say, which would you choose a red pair versus a blue pair, a blue pair versus a white pair, a black pair versus a green pair and so on. Afterwards, we would have people do things that are challenging or unpleasant. In one example, we would have people put their hands in cold water or work on challenging puzzles. We wanted to see how long they could last doing these tasks and withstanding discomfort. 

We found that when people had made decisions, then they were less willing and less able to do those hard tasks, compared to people who had similar tasks, but didn't make any decisions [beforehand]. So that told us that there's something about decision making that is psychologically unpleasant and leaves you less able to do challenging tasks in the future.

How do you think remote work has impacted decision making and ultimately, decision fatigue? 

One of the downsides of remote work is that it has upended our lives to a degree that we have to make new decisions routines and structures all over the place. Just the notion of when to work is now a decision. When you have less defined moment-to-moment tasks, then it's up to you to make those executive decisions on what you're going to work on at any given moment. [There’s also] the whole idea of not having routines. Routines and habits are ways for people to not have to make quite as many decisions in their lives. More broadly, remote work has upended routines and habits. 

What are some things a company could do to help prevent decision fatigue within their organization? 

I think companies are getting good at this, but introducing routine and getting some more structure is going to be really beneficial. Of course, working from home and remote work, one of the benefits is flexibility. So that's gonna be an interesting balance as we progress into remote work 2.0. 

There has been a bevy of research in the financial sector and in the medical sectors, and what they have found is that when employees are making decisions and performing earlier in the day, they're best at their jobs. Their performance and decision making quality decreases as the day goes on. One of the takeaways of this as I work with companies and I talk with employees and employers, is how can you structure that workday so that you're leveraging the benefits of having that full capacity of decision making abilities.