Embrace Your Messy Space: Your Creativity Depends On It

By May 5, 2015 October 30th, 2017 Marketing Insights & Strategy, Podcast, Readings
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.