Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Messiness, neatness, creativity, and productivity

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Messiness, neatness, creativity, and productivity:
Is it better to be messy or neat for creativity and productivity?

Overview[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Creativity and Productivity[edit | edit source]

As humans, we are constantly looking for ways to improve. In fact, continually improving ourselves and moving forward is a key attribute of successful people. So, it comes as no surprise that when we look at every little way we can improve — whether that be performance enhancing drugs, studying, learning new things and developing SMART goals amonst[spelling?] others — our productivity and creativity can ultimately be improved.

Figure 1. Modern technology. Creativity allowed for the invention of smartphones and laptops

Productivity is commonly defined as the ratio between output volume and the input volume (Kumar et al., 2016). Duhan &, Haleem, 2016). To put it simply, it is the efficiency at which tasks and/or goals are accomplished. According to Kumar et al (2016), engaging in productive behaviours leads to greater productivness which, in turn, leads to better work and personal outcomes. It has been found that when people aren’t productive it can have massive flow on effects.This is particularly prevelent[spelling?] in businesses as, for example, in the United States alone there is approximately $500 billion of lost potential revenue due to unproductive employees (Huettich, 2020). Thus, it goes without saying, we should find ways to become more productive.

Creativity plays such an integral part in our modern society. As defined by Kupers et al (2018), creativity is our ability to access and use our own imagination to help solve often complex and abstract problems presented to us--while using novel and original thinking. It has been argued that creativity is a skill more crucial now than ever before in the 20th century[factual?]. Accordingly, in today's world, this human capacity is required for not just our prosperity, but also our survival (Kupers, Van Dijk & Lehmann-Wermser, 2018). Not only do our own predetermined internal characteristics play a fundamental role in our creativity, Manzi et al (2019) posit that our surrounding enviroment[spelling?] also plays a central role. This suggestion has lead to an abundance of media attention and speculation[factual?].

What is the Media Hype?[edit | edit source]

Researcher Kathleen Vohs conducted a study aimed to address the question of whether being messy or tidy was better for creativity. Typically, being in a tidy environment is often considered to be the better option (Vohs, 2013). According to Vohs (2013), even a scent of cleaning product can promote one's ethical standards and enhance trust. Conversly[spelling?], there has been negative connotations towards being messy, with associations related to death (Vohs, 2013).  

Despite these negative connotations, a question being raised is why would people put up with, and in some instances, embrace mess? According to Vohs (2013) and Manzi et al (2019), it has been speculated that being around disorder can lead people away from social norms—thus breaking tradition—which may potentially result in more creative thinking.

Vohs' study found that people were more creative when they were placed in messy environments when compared to being in tidy environments (Vohs, 2013). Vohs proposed that based on these findings, the minimalistic design of modern offices—normally kept neat and tidy—could in fact be negatively affecting people's ability to engage in creative thinking (Vohs, 2013). Due to these findings, although with little supporting scientific research, media outlets have begun advocating for messy desks at work[factual?]. Manzi et al (2019) conducted further research on this topic and proposed that an inhibition of some of the executive functions could be a factor leading to this creativity (Manzi, Durmysheva, Pinegar, Rogers & Ramos, 2019).

What is Executive Functioning[edit | edit source]

Executive functions are cognitive processes that allow us to have cognitive control over our behaviors (Diamond, 2013). They are the skills that allow us to play with ideas, focus our attention, resist temptation, and perform multiple tasks successfully (Diamond, 2013; Grafman & Litvan, 1999). Executive functions are skills that are essential for both our mental and physical health and overall wellbeing. They are also a cricital[spelling?] component of our cognitive, social and psychological development and play a central rolet[spelling?] throughout childhood, adolescents, adulthood, and older age (Diamond, 2013). There are a number of core executive functions, including inhibition and interference control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility--all of which can influence our productivity and creativity (Diamond, 2013).

Inhibition and Inference control[edit | edit source]

Inhibitory control encompasses being able to control our behaviour, attention, and our thoughts and emotions (Diamond, 2013). Without the ability to control these factors, we would be at the mercy of our impulses dictating our behaviour, attention, thoughts, and emotions (Diamond, 2013; van Velzen, Vriend, de Wit & van den Heuvel, 2014).  

Working memory[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Working memory

Working memory is information in a small amount that can be held in mind to potentially be used in cognitive tasks (Cowan, 2013). Working memory is made up of verbal and nonverbal working memory (Cowan, 2013). It is a skill that helps us make sense of things that unfold over time (Cowan, 2013). Being able to do math in your head, comprehending written and spoken language, and reasoning would not be possible without working memory (Cowan, 2013). Additionally, wokring[spelling?] memory plays a role in creativity as it allows us pull apart seemingly unrelated elements and recombine those elements in a new way (Diamond, 2013).

Cognitive flexibility[edit | edit source]

Cognitive flexibility, also called set shifting or mental flexibility, is the ability to see things from different perspectives and thus, allows us to quickly and effectively adapt to a set of changed circumstances (Diamond, 2013; Dajani & Uddin, 2015). This ability to adapt allows us to undertake 'outside the box' thinking, therefore giving us the means to tackle problems from different perspectives (Diamond, 2013).

Does altered executive functioning effect our creative ability in messy and disordered environments?[edit | edit source]

Executive function impairment can lead to many mental health disorders such as addiction, ADHD, depression, conduct disorder, OCD, and schizophrenia (Diamond, 2013). This impairment is also associated with obesity, substance abuse, and poor treatment adherence (Diamond, 2013). However, Manzi et al (2019) hypothesised that some imparement[spelling?] may influence creativity levels.

Figure 3. A messy room. Does this mess mean we're more creative?

Menzi et al (2019) hypothesised that a messy work environment could affect an individual's executive functioning and positively influence creativity (Manzi, Durmysheva, Pinegar, Rogers & Ramos, 2019). It was thought that a cluttered environment may potentially deduce[say what?] top-down control, which, in turn, would hinder our inhibition and inference control. This could reduce our focus and attention, potentially allowing for more creativity as we are less guided by our cognitive schemas and are perhaps more exploratory (Manzi, Durmysheva, Pinegar, Rogers & Ramos, 2019). A study conducted by White and Shah (2006) found that individuals diagnosed with ADHD outperformed those without ADHD in creative tasks. This shows the potential that an alteration in executive function can impact creativity.(White & Shah, 2006; Manzi, Durmysheva, Pinegar, Rogers & Ramos, 2019).  

Research has indicated that a messy visual environment increases reaction times and decreases executive control[factual?]. Menzi speculated that messy environments provide more distractions which compete for attentional resources, therefore placing more demand on executive control, which is perhaps why we have seen a potential reduction in our top-down control (Manzi, Durmysheva, Pinegar, Rogers & Ramos, 2019). On the other hand, we could hypothesis that perhaps a tidy environment could then allow for more executive control, and therefore, better control of our attention—perhaps allowing for more productivity. To get a better understanding of the concept between cluttered work environments and its effect of creativity and executive function, Menzi et al (2019) conducted a study aiming to replicate Vohs[grammar?] findings on clutter and creativity and gain a deeper understanding between the role of clutter, executive functions, and creativity (Manzi, Durmysheva, Pinegar, Rogers & Ramos, 2019).

Using multiple measures in the study, the results indicated that there was not a significant difference between creativity or executive functioning when participants were working at a messy desk (Manzi, Durmysheva, Pinegar, Rogers & Ramos, 2019). However, a further study identified that there was indeed a difference in executive functioning between participants in different conditions (Manzi, Durmysheva, Pinegar, Rogers & Ramos, 2019). Menzi et al (2019) found an interaction showing that those who had better executive control tended to display more creativity when working at a messy desk. We can infer, but not conclude, that the differences between a neat and messy environment and the effect it has on creativity is impacted by an individual's own personal executive functioning. Menzi et al (2019) concluded that while there may be a small, unreliable effect of working in a messy environment, the amount of press it has received is unwarranted and more in-depth research is required for a more comprehensive understanding (Manzi, Durmysheva, Pinegar, Rogers & Ramos, 2019).  

So, should you not care about cleaning up your desk when mess appears in order to be more creative? The research isn’t there yet, so spare your co-workers the sight of mess everywhere.  

What About Productivity?[edit | edit source]

While creativity has a few more questions than answers, the effect of neatness of productivity has more research suggesting its positive effect.  

Does neatness improve productivity?[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Productivity can improve by as much as 10%

In work environments, it has been suggested that there is an underlying idea that when the environment is clean, tidy and neat employees feel more satisfied with their work environment—which, in turn, tends to have a positive effect on employee's productivity (Horrevorts, Van Ophem & Terpstra, 2017). This notion has been supported by research with a study showing that when an employee is satisfied with their work environment, 12% of them are more productive (Horrevorts, Van Ophem & Terpstra, 2017). How much more productive do they become? Well, it has been said that an improvement of the physical working environment, so, going from a messy and disordered environment to a clean and neat environment allows for better focus and less distractions, which can lead to a 4-10% increase in productivity (Horrevorts, Van Ophem & Terpstra, 2017).  

Seeing as though more employees are satisfied and productive in a clean working environment, and more tense, frustrated and less productive in messy environments businesses would be doing themselves a favor to take note (Horrevorts, Van Ophem & Terpstra, 2017). Just due to a lack of satisfaction and productivity in the US businesses approximately lose $500 Billion a year (Huettich, 2020).  

How else can a neat environment inadvertently productivity[edit | edit source]

Messiness or clutter can make people feel more stressed, anxious and depressed (Clark, 2021). While small amount of stress (arousal) can potentially help increase productivity, too much may lead to lowered productivity levels. This is commonly referred to as ‘The Yerkes-Dodson law’, where performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, however it decreases when the level becomes too high (Teigen, 1994). Therefore, while setting goals with a time frame may increase stress levels and productivity, additional stress of a messy and cluttered environment could potentially negatively effect productivity.

Messiness or clutter can lead to depression. Apart from the normal symptoms associated with depression, depression may indirectly cause impaired work functioning, lowered productivity, and decreased job retention (Beck et al., 2011). Several studies have demonstrated that even minor forms of depression negatively effect work performance and thus (Beck et al., 2011).  While these effects of messiness—and the subsequent effect on productivity—are entriging[spelling?], these correlations are not causation and more indepth research is required to gain a more construct and concrete understanding of messiness and productivity.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Lets[grammar?] see how much information you've retained!

1 Vohs suggested that messiness allows us to be more creative:


2 Inference control is not a component of executive functioning:


3 Approximately how much revenue is lost in a year due to poor productivity?

$200 Billion
$800 Billion
$500 Billion
$950 Million

4 Employees that are satisfied with their work environment are how much more productive?


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The effects of messiness and neatness on our productivity, specifically creativity, has recieved[spelling?] a large amount of media attention[factual?]--and rightly so. The fact that approximately $500 billion [currency?] of potential revenue was lost, due to unproductive employees, allows us to speculate the amount of impact that could be had if we were able to make these employees more productive. One step that could enable this to happen would be having clean, tidy, and neat working conditions. Doing this has the potential to increase overall productivity by 4-10%. While it makes sense to keep things neat for productivity, what about creativity?

As with productivity, increasing an individuals[grammar?] creativity would be beneficial as it would enable us to come up with new ideas and solutions to problems. However, while there have been suggestions that a messy envrionment[spelling?] promotes this, current evidence is not fully convincing. Vohs' study, which attracted vast media attention[factual?], displayed some evidence towards messiness increasing creativity. Manzi et al (2019) looked to replicate and further explain Vohs findings and suggested that changes in executive functions, as a result of a disordered environment, potentially leads to greater creativity. While there were small interactions seen between messiness and creativity, the press attention was unwarrented[spelling?] and more indepth research is required.

Ultimately, there are clear benefits to maintaining a neat environment. While there is evidence to suggest that a messy environment may improve creativity, there isn't enough evidence to justify being messy over being neat.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

MindManager Blog.

Kumar, S., Duhan, M., & Haleem, A. (2016). Evaluation of factors important to enhance productivity. Cogent Engineering, 3(1), 1145043. doi: 10.1080/23311916.2016.1145043

Kupers, E., Van Dijk, M., & Lehmann-Wermser, A. (2018). Creativity in the Here and Now: A Generic, Micro-Developmental Measure of Creativity. Frontiers In Psychology, 9. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02095

Manzi, A., Durmysheva, Y., Pinegar, S., Rogers, A., & Ramos, J. (2019). Workspace Disorder Does Not Influence Creativity and Executive Functions. Frontiers In Psychology, 9. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02662

Teigen, K. (1994). Yerkes-Dodson: A Law for all Seasons. Theory & Psychology, 4(4), 525-547. doi: 10.1177/0959354394044004

van Velzen, L., Vriend, C., de Wit, S., & van den Heuvel, O. (2014). Response Inhibition and Interference Control in Obsessive–Compulsive Spectrum Disorders. Frontiers In Human Neuroscience, 8. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00419

White, H. A., and Shah, P. (2006). Uninhibited imaginations: creativity in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Pers. Individ. Differ. 40,1121–1131. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.11.007