The Messy Myth: Is Being Organized Really Always Best?

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Let's talk about messiness. What's your threshold for disorder? Just how many socks can pile up on the floor before you reach your boiling point? Would it cool your jets a bit to know that a messy brain may be a more creative and efficient one?

First, a bit of background on these musings: I'm tidy, not crazy-person clean, just normal, everyday, surfaces-clear-dishes-washed neat. My live-in boyfriend is not. He's much more, well, relaxed than I am about basic household chores. He doesn't mind dirty dishes in the sink or clothes on the floor. Actually, it's more than just not minding — he truly does not see the problem. He looks at a mess the same way I look at any inanimate object: he acknowledges its existence and is totally fine with it. I look at a mess and grit my teeth.

So I got to wondering: how is his brain so different from mine, and what creates our opposite reactions to the same situation? Surprisingly, I found very little information. Of course, we've covered messiness here at Apartment Therapy. We're full of suggestions to fix your messy desk, accept a messy entryway and even figure out if you're chronically disorganized.

But what I really want to know is why some people are just messier than others. And for that matter, what's so wrong with it? The New York Times argues that it's nature, not nurture, that makes us slobs; messiness is a trait that we're born with, not a habit that's developed. That makes sense. I've yet to meet anyone who grew messier with age, and I can easily see how a messy person who does clean up his act may actually be working against his nature in order to fit in with the demands of society or (more likely) his neater significant other.

It occurs to me that suggestions and tips about organizing and de-cluttering always imply that being messy isn't the ideal state. But for my boyfriend it is. He's perfectly able to relax in a messy room, work at a messy desk and cook in a messy kitchen, all things I could never dream of doing. We (the organizers of the world) assume that everyone wants to be organized, but they just don't know how (hence the plethora of tips). I'm not so sure that's accurate.

Author Roald Dahl at his messy (and productive) desk.
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Take a messy desk, for example. Einstein famously had one. So did Roald Dahl. They both accomplished a lot. Traditional thinking tells us that a clean, organized desk leads to more productivity and efficiency. But this Daily Mail article says it's just the opposite. A messy desk creates more creativity and better problem-solving. Their description of clutter sounds a lot like the concept of white noise: it blurs distractions and allows the brain to focus on one task and make clear choices.

Then there's the controversy about "clean desk" policies in some offices, which imply that there's a right and wrong way for employees to work. With the vast array of ways that creative people think of and develop ideas, limiting how they choose to do that work seems counterintuitive to the idea of hiring creatives in the first place.

You know what? My messy boyfriend is extremely creative (for a living) and, while I have to pause to clean up before I can accomplish anything, he's productive whenever and wherever he chooses to be. Will all this make me less exasperated with socks on the floor? Probably not — I'm pretty set in my ways. But my way, it seems, isn't the only right way to be.

- Re-edited from a post originally published June 6, 2013 - DF