By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff

It doesn’t matter if it’s summer or the middle of February, at some point a parent stands before her child’s messy room and has to make a decision. And 9 times out of 10, the solution is simple: close the door.

From the hall, the mess is gone.

To clean or not to clean, is not really the question. The question is how the child finds a matching pair of socks, her homework, and earbuds beneath the upper layer of clothes, books, and unidentified objects.

I do have one confession, however. My own desk is a mess. My office? Pretty clean, in the sense that a small toddler could be let loose on the floor and not be in risk of inhaling small objects. But my desk is a tiny square wooded table with my laptop, a glass of water, and lots of papers with notes scribbled across them. And yet, I know how to find what I need. And I am not distracted by the clutter.

Now, let’s say I was distracted and the mess contributed to my multi-tasking at the expense of focus and productivity. That’s when Nancy and company might suggest some strategies to get rid the untidiness.

But, a messy workplace, in and of itself, should not be looked at as the impediment to creativity. In fact, according to Kathleen D. Vohs, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, it might help foster it.

Vohs’ op-ed in the New York Times (It’s Not “Mess.” It’s Creativity. September 13, 2013) explains the process by which she and her colleagues tested the hypothesis that mess allows for creativity. A full account was published in the journal Psychological Science, but she summarizes an experiment in which 48 participants were individually assigned to either messy or tidy rooms at her lab. They were asked to imagine new uses for Ping-Pong balls for a factory that made them.

“We had independent judges rate the subjects’ answers for degree of creativity, which can be done reliably. …When we analyzed the responses, we found that the subjects in both types of rooms came up with about the same number of ideas, which meant they put about the same effort into the task. Nonetheless, the messy room subjects were more creative, as we expected. Not only were their ideas 28 percent more creative on average, but when we analyzed the ideas that judges scored as “highly creative,” we found a remarkable boost from being in the messy room — these subjects came up with almost five times the number of highly creative responses as did their tidy-room counterparts.”

Vohs writes of the implications of this study in terms of how companies design their workspaces, with the current trend toward less mess, and more “minimalist” design. At the same time our business leaders wonder what can be done to foster creativity.

Another point she makes, and one that speaks to parenting, is that many employees don’t even have their own private workspace, or office, in which to make that “mess” their own.

If your creative (and productive) child has a messy room, maybe the best answer really is to take a deep breath and close the door.

A messy closet? Somehow, I have less patience for that. Especially at 7:15 in the morning.


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Don’t miss Nancy’s blog post in TEACHERS WITH APPS,Curse of the Gifted Class.







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