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You might thing that being neat and tidy is the best way to get stuff done, but being messy actually has its perks.

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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Sources:
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797613480186
https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-character%2C-value%2C-and-management-of-personal-Whittaker-Hirschberg/f1a9b8fca3f1a69c655f86a4d0fcfa076fccee1a
https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/u.osu.edu/dist/d/37041/files/2016/12/Tonietto-and-Malkoc-JMR-2016-2b6lj4e.pdf
[♪ INTRO].

Do you ever start a project and then think, “I just need to organize my desk first,” or… “I should probably wash the dishes?” You might think that being neat and tidy is the best way to get stuff done. But sometimes, it might actually be holding you back.

Research suggests that, in some situations, being kind of a mess can actually have its perks. So neat freaks, cover your eyes— let’s take a look at the science of messiness. For one, messy workspaces might not be the productivity-killers people make them out to be.

In fact, if you’re trying to be creative, a little clutter might even give you a boost. Scientists have actually put this to the test. In a study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2013, researchers hypothesized that people working in neat, orderly environments would think more traditionally, while people working in messy spaces would think more out of the box.

So they set up an experiment with 48 participants. They put people in either an orderly or messy environment and gave them… a ping-pong ball. Then, the researchers basically asked them to come up with creative uses for that ball.

Their answers didn’t even have to be realistic. They could say things like, “give it to a cat” or “saw it in half, and use it as a boat.” Nothing was off the table. By the end, participants across the two rooms came up with similar numbers of answers.

But the quality was different. A panel of blinded judges graded the answers on creativity. And without knowing which was which, the judges rated the answers from the messier room as significantly more creative than answers from the orderly room.

Score for the messy team! There could be a good reason why that group was more creative, too. The authors suggest that an orderly space might put participants in a frame of mind where they’re less likely to color outside of the lines.

In other words, they might see the rigid organization around them and then limit themselves to ideas that fit within that system. On the other hand, people surrounded by mayhem might feel freer to do their own thing. And that’s not the only evidence in favor of letting your neat side slip a little.

Findings from a study published back in 2001 suggest that your urge to keep things tidy may actually distract you from your task. The researchers involved took a close look at the paper-processing strategies of two types of office workers they labeled as “filers” and “pilers.” They looked at fifty workers in all. The filers looked at every document as it came in and filed it accordingly.

The pilers were more chaotic and let papers pile up. You know which one you are. The researchers expected the filers to be the more efficient workers.

But the results went completely against their hypothesis. They found that even though filers were taking stock of everything as it came in and categorizing it for easy access, they ended up saving much more junk than the pilers, and looked at the things they saved less frequently. In the end, the filers seemed more worried about keeping their desk clean than keeping their workflow on track.

If a paper came in, they filed it away to keep their workspace tidy, even if that document wasn’t really that useful. And, in general, since it takes so much effort to create and maintain a filing system, filers are less eager to go back in and clear everything out. So they end up with well-organized, useless papers… forever.

Just the thought of sorting through years of filing might make you want to schedule a vacation ASAP… but sometimes, that isn’t the best idea. It turns out that people who schedule their leisure time too strictly actually enjoy it less. In 2016, an article published in the Journal of Marketing Research looked at thirteen studies related to scheduling leisure time.

And the researchers found that just the act of scheduling an activity actually put kind of a downer on things. People who neatly planned out their activities anticipated them less and enjoyed them less overall. The study’s authors think that might be because when you schedule something, you have to worry about all sorts of things—figuring out the time, the place, who’s coming, who’s not coming— and it can kind of start to feel like work.

Even a spontaneous get-together can lose its spark if you try to structure it too much. Like, just having a mental note that “Okay, first we’re going to dinner, and then we’re going to see a movie” can be less fun than going out, painting the town red, and seeing where the night takes you. As a result, researchers suggest scheduling a general time frame for relaxing, rather than strictly scheduling all of your so-called free time.

So if organization just isn’t your forte, you might be alright. A little mess and chaos in your life might just be doing you some favors. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

And a special thank you to our patrons for making episodes like this possible. You all are part of an amazing community helping make education free on the internet, and we couldn’t do it without you. If you’re interested in being part of this community, you can find out more at patreon.com/scishow. [♪ OUTRO].