Make a mess, make a breakthrough

On Saturday 19th August the NSPCC are holding a Messathon, a 2.5km obstacle course of messy, muddy fun where families get out and get active together. The event is to raise money for the Childline service which offers help and support to thousands of children and young people whenever they need it.

At 10Eighty we are organised types but making a mess can be a lot of fun and we approve of fun. A tidy desk is generally seen as a positive, but could mess actually be good for the mind? Does it help creativity? One of my favourite broadcasters is Tim Harford who claims that if you want to be creative and resilient, you need a little more disorder in your world.

Messy: How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World celebrates the benefits that messiness adds to our lives: why it’s important, why we resist it, and why we should embrace it instead. Using research from neuroscience, psychology, social science, as well as tales of inspiring people doing extraordinary things, Harford explains that the human qualities we value – creativity, responsiveness, resilience – are integral to the disorder, confusion, and disarray that produce them.


Stop struggling for success

Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman says of Harford’s work “His liberating message: you’ll be more successful if you stop struggling so hard to plan or control your success”.

Many people seem to feel threatened by anything vague, unplanned, random or hard to describe. We like a script to rely on, a system to follow, being able to categorise and file stuff. But there’s a lot to be said for a loose and experimental approach in some situations. Try it and see what happens!

Columbia management professor Eric Abrahamson and writer David Freedman present the thesis that organisational efforts tend to close off systems to random, unplanned influences that might lead to breakthroughs. Neatness for its own sake, they say, not only has hidden costs in terms of man-hours that could be spent doing other work but it turns out that the highly touted advantages may not even exist. More loosely defined, moderately disorganised people and businesses seem to be more efficient, more robust, and more creative than the obsessively neat.

This brings to mind two ideas we think are worth considering:

  • Just relax – don’t fret about the untidy aspects of much of life, recognise that clutter and disorganisation can be beneficial
  • Off the wall, contrary, messy spontaneity can lead to exciting personal and professional discoveries.

Stop playing it safe

Studies show that there is no need to be ashamed about being messy; Albert Einstein famously joked “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota says that orderly environments “encourage convention and playing it safe”, while people are subconsciously encouraged to think creatively in a messier setting.

A similar study using cluttered desks and shop fronts by researchers at the University of Groningen, Germany, made similar conclusions. “Messy desks may not be as detrimental as they appear to be, as the problem-solving approaches they seem to cause can boost work efficiency or enhance employees’ creativity in problem solving”.

So, don’t worry too much about decluttering, being able to find stuff when you need it is good but being a neat freak may not be as great as you might imagine.

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Michael Moran – CEO 10Eighty

A blog about career and talent management, things that might help you with your career and in your job.