Embrace Your Messy Space: Your Creativity Depends On It

Embrace Your Messy Space: Your Creativity Depends On It

Do you sometimes sit and stare at the blank page of a Word document and wonder what on earth to put on it that might resemble your next blog post? (I did just that before coming up with this topic.)

Do you occasionally look at your languishing Instagram or Pinterest account and wish you could think of something to post that isn’t your cat or the last thing you ate for dinner? (I’d admit to doing that too if it didn’t make me feel so dumb.)

Do you, every so often, glimpse the fun things that other people are posting on their Facebook pages or talking about in their emails and wish you had thought of that? (Content envy. It’s a thing.)

I hope so because otherwise I’m going to feel pretty lonely over here in what-the-hell-happened-to-my-creativity land.

When you’re marketing your business a creative lull is no fun. Maybe you Google for the latest list post: 10 Things To Write About When You’re Stuck For Blog Ideas. Maybe you fall back on something tried and true. Or worst of all, maybe you do nothing. Your content production wheel stops.

As I sat pondering this conundrum, a topic fell fortuitously in my lap. It’s based on a study conducted by Kathleen D. Vohs, a professor of marketing with an extensive background in psychology. And that study asks…

Are People More Creative In Messy Spaces Or Tidy Spaces?

As a chronic organizer, I’m one of those people who can’t seem to start writing an email or building a client website until the paperwork is filed and the thumbtacks sorted into boxes by color. Some people call that procrastination. I like to think of myself as egregiously neat.

So when I started reading the article on the subject I thought for sure we were going to hear more about the whole “clean space, clean mind” thing.

And yet that’s not what Kathleen and her team found. Instead, they found that given equal tasks under equal conditions, people in a “messy” room produced more creative ideas and solutions than people in a “clean” room.

And it isn’t just her. Other independent studies bear out the same result. We think more creatively and innovate more in a messy space. And while being tidy has its place (it can be better if we’re doing something that requires focus on a specific process), your inner five year old should be rejoicing right now because you have permission not to put that pile of papers away.

To be fair, they didn’t quite qualify the degree of “messiness” (ant-ridden piles of empty pizza boxes? A stray pencil or two?) except to say they had strewn books and papers around one room.

But it did get me thinking.

And I thought about my own working environment and where I was when the idea of taking on this topic struck.

Let me tell you a story and then I’d like you to think about YOUR space and how it’s working for you.

A Couple Of Years Ago, Ralph And I Went On A Bit Of A Zen Kick.

We cleaned and emptied our lives of extraneous “things”, let go of our attachments to stuff like my box of vinyl 45s and his high school t-shirt collection.

We removed the circus explosion of mismatched furniture and replaced it with streamlined, simple pieces. We got rid of the multi-colored walls and painted in soothing neutrals.

We stripped our office down, too, to clean walls, empty desks and minimal shelves filled with essential business books and a few necessary items like pencils, notebooks and our one very Zen green plant.

The Container Store loved us. A place for everything and everything in its place.

For A While, Life Was Peaceful And Good.

But a weird thing started to happen. As time went by we spent less and less time in our office and more time bouncing around to counters, tables, coffee shops and friends’ offices. We actually started to feel less productive in our clean space and used any excuse to avoid being there.

As it turned out, we were finding all that space and sparseness to be boring.

Stagnant.

And even kind of depressing.

It didn’t feel like us. It didn’t feel like what we did, namely, finding creative solutions, coming up with creative ideas and producing creative content.

I found that I could be far more creative if I grabbed my laptop and headed off to Barnes & Noble or even just to my kitchen countertop.

So Ralph and I started talking about fun-ifying our office and making it a place we actually wanted to be. A place we felt inspired.

So do you know what we did?

hello kitty

We Messed It Up!

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not a minefield of leftover takeout and old bills. But we liberated our “stuff” from confinement in neat boxes and started cluttering our shelves again. We hung a whole lot of artwork.

We took to randomly slapping stickers onto our furniture, including on an old doorstop of a server that we turned into a table for our lone Zen plant.

True story: that plant comes from a clipping that my mom rooted for us from her own plant when we got married, which was given to her by her father many years before.

Another true story: that server now spends its days as a table because it’s just too damn heavy to get down two flights of steps and to the trash. But it does look kind of cool.

On the whole, the office now looks… well, if not “messy” (though we do have a pretty good corner of that market) certainly cluttered. In a good way.

And Do You Know What The Result Has Been?

Our Instagram sports photos of our guitars, Ralph’s puppet and alter-ego Ralph Manerna, a bunch of toys, even more Hello Kitties and plenty of books and colorful things. My cat still makes an appearance but we’ve got a lot more to work with now.

ralph manernaOur blog posts (like this one) take inspiration from the stories around us. And you can never underestimate the power of a good story. The light beige walls of our clean, organized room did not tell any stories. In fact, I occasionally wanted to grab a fat marker and start scribbling on one of those walls just to force it to say something.

Now as I look around me there are stories in every piece of artwork, lessons in every toy, joy in every bead and button and bottle that enjoys its right to a space.

Being in our office is a lot more fun. A lot less feeling like “OMG I have to go to WORK…. Please kill me.” A lot more hanging out and getting stuff done instead of making excuses to be anywhere but.

In fact, although the rest of our house is still fairly Zen, I find myself gravitating to the office when I want to write or think.

Poor Barnes and Noble. Poor kitchen counter.

But a definite win for us – and in the end for our clients, who rely on our brains to be sharp and focused and not wandering to greener pastures and coffee shops.

So now that you know how a bit of clutter has worked for us, I wonder if you’ve ever taken the time to dig into how your working environment affects your performance and your mental well being.

Do You Find Comfort In Your Own Collection Of Junk… Er, Treasures?

Do you obsessively categorize and container everything?

Are you worried about what someone will think when they walk into your office?

Do you shove things into drawers, cabinets or boxes whenever you have a client over?

Do you perpetually feel guilty for leaving things disorganized or feel pressured to try harder to tame your environment?

I’ll raise my hand first if it makes you feel better.

But now we both have a reason to mess it up a bit. It will help you be more creative than all those other people who still think thumbtacks need to be sorted by color.

And if you fill your space with things you love, that inspire you and bring the story out, even better.

Science is on our side.

So tell me about your most creative space. If you’re up for it, let me know how you work best, or better yet, send me a photo of your favorite creative spot either via email ([email protected]) or on social and tell me one of your stories.

Then take that photo and story and use it in your own marketing! It’ll beat photos of your dinner any day.

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

I'm a business owner, content creator, podcaster and marketer. In 1999 I founded Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio, with my husband and business partner Ralph. In 2011 we created Web.Search.Social, a consulting and marketing service line for small businesses. We also cohost the Web.Search.Social Podcast where we challenge the status quo of marketing and the Carbon Based Business Units podcast where we talk about the human side of being an entrepreneur. On any given day I wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. My true passion is writing and in my spare time I'm busy planning my early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera
  • I love this so much! My office is painted a bright blue – it is filled with My Little Pony figures – we aren’t so much into Hello Kitty here! Our walls are filled with our kids artwork and we have a huge whiteboard which tends to be filled with cheeky doodles rather than ‘to do’ lists.
    I have terminal messyitis, but inside I long to be Zen. I am going to stop wasting my time pining for minimalism and embrace my clutter as being inspirational when it comes to creativity. Thank you for sharing.

    • Oh yes, I remember My Little Pony quite well! Your space sounds like a lot of fun and very inspiring. Maybe you need a small Zen corner of a room somewhere so you can go to be quiet and peaceful but as for your office, I say keep it fun. Yes, embrace your clutter!

  • “So what have we learned today, Carol Lynn?” (Pretending to be Ralph) I’m not sure what your reply would be, Carol Lynn, but here’s what I’ve learned:

    Too much de-cluttering de-emphasizes your creativity. And a zen-like office is awesome if you’re a monk. 😉

    • I go in phases…. clutter crazy vs crazed by clutter 🙂 But no doubt the “zen” stuff really got on my nerves after a while. I like color and I like visual interest. I also like having a clean space but that’s what the OTHER room is for 🙂

      • Two thumbs up for color and visual interest! When I moved into my new home office space in AZ I immediately fell in love with the bright blue walls. Most people choose neutral shades and then add color via furnishings, artwork, etc. For me, the opposite was true. My desk, work table, cabinets, etc., are basic brown and beige so a bright color on the walls works out nicely. 🙂

        • We used to have both… in our living room, we had one red wall, one blue wall and the rest neutral. Then we had a reddish-pink couch, a blue arm chair and a yellow one. Like I said, circus! It was fun but I think we overcluttered in a sort of mind numbing way and then swung in the opposite direction with totally neutral and clean. But you do need color SOMEWHERE.

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    Aha – I knew those piles of clothes adorning my bedroom floors had some creative value! 😉

    Now that I think about it, I did pen a blog post about a stain on my carpet – was I innovative or grasping at straws? 😛

    LOVE LOVE LOVE <3

    Kitto

    • I vote for calling it innovative! Just think, you would NOT have had that story if not for the stain, right?

  • I’m kind of a neat freak. When I’m working, I do like to have a clear desk, but I do have some things around me that inspires my work. Mostly religious objects so it is not so clean. My office has a couch and a long coffee table. At first I wanted it to look neat and pretty, but it is pretty messy with “stuff” on it.

    When designing my home office, I have a piece of furniture that has sliding doors to hold paperwork. That’s pretty organized. I thought I would decorate it with pretty pottery. And so I did…but in between there is some things tossed around lol.

    I love the zen thing, but it just doesn’t work out. I realized a while back that it was part of my “control” issues. I wanted every thing in its place. It all came from my mom saying “there’s a place for everything and everything must be in it’s place” Oh boy did I have to work hard to knock that out of my subconscious!

    Thanks for writing this because now I feel normal.

    -Donna

    • That’s funny you say that about your desk because I like to have my desk clear too. The rest of the room, don’t care. But don’t get your stuff in my way when I’m trying to work! I think ultimately there is a balance. Too sterile and you are uninspired. Too messy and you are distracted and overwhelmed.

      You also sound like me with the “I want to organize all this stuff then decorate it nicely…” Never quite works out that way, does it? We don’t live in magazine worlds with perfect Pottery Barn baskets and four equally spaced vases. We just have STUFF – that we like, that we collect, that makes its way into our lives as gifts or accidents. At some point I gave up trying to “decorate” and just took out my STUFF from boxes. So many fun things, lots of memories and doesn’t cost me an extra dime!

      Here’s to being normally cluttered 🙂

  • Sherman Smith

    Hey Carol,

    Now I don’t feel so bad being a little messy. I remember my mom use to get on me on being messy.

    But I can see how it can be beneficial. I use to think it would be better to clear the clutter to let new ideas come in, but apparently that’s bit the case for everyone. If a bit of clutter in your life can spark some imagination.

    I noticed this whenever I’m on my bed thinking of something to write. Sometimes I can be blank for a long time. When this situation happens I go off and do something else. Usually I come up with a great idea and come back full of energy.

    Thanks for sharing and you have a good one!

    • Well, moms have to get on our cases to clean our rooms, I think that’s just a requirement 🙂

      Strangely enough, I also find that cleaning stuff up helps me think. I think it’s just the act of cleaning and not staring at the blank ceiling like you were talking about. A change of scenery can definitely help.

      Also, a lot of people find inspiration from going outdoors. And that’s not exactly neat and organized, is it! We have to do something to kickstart our creative minds and I’m sticking with all that “stuff” on my shelves 🙂