Does untidiness really help your creativity?

When people cast a condescending eye over my untidy office, I always  remind myself of Einstein’s question…

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

To back up my slovenliness, researchers from Minnesota University concluded in 2013 that messy environments encourage creativity, breaking with tradition and taking risks, whilst tidiness appears to encourage people to conform and be less creative. But before you empty your rubbish bin out into your (already?) untidy workspace, I’d like to tell you a cautionary tale…

Yesterday, as I tried to print a document, an orange light flashed on my printer. I straightened the paper in the tray, but still the orange light flashed.


I opened the printer, pulled out the cartridge and checked for jammed paper…

No jammed paper.

I switched it off then on.

Green and orange lights flashed.

Go on! I urged. ‘Orange light stop.’

The green light stopped. The orange light continued to flash. I cancelled the printing and tried to print again, but still the orange light flashed.

Gritting my teeth, I opened the printer, rummaged inside, turned it on and off, cancelled the printing and tried again, but still the orange light flashed.

Again and again and again I rummaged, swore, switched off and on, cancelled and tried to print again. But no matter how many times I did, the orange light continued to wink like an arrogant eye telling me there was a problem, but refusing to even hint at what it was.


Muttering furiously about inbuilt obsolescence – I’ve only had the printer just over a year – I dug out the manual…

‘Orange flashing light’ said the manual, ‘means non-fatal error caused by lack of paper, paper jam or missing ink cartridge.’


I shouted.


 I pulled open the printer, yanked out the cartridge and glared at its guts.

Oh crap!


Peeking out from behind the roller-bit (I’m sure it’s got a more technical term than that) was the tiniest edge of a tissue that must have got pulled in when I last printed. This was all my own fault for having such an untidy desk!

With a little gentle tugging and tweezing the tissue was out and I couldn’t see any more inside. I put the cartridge back, closed the printer and switched on…

Green and orange lights flashed.

 Go on. Orange light stop flashing.

 The green light stopped. The orange light flashed.


I tweezed, I shook, I peered I prodded, but the orange light continued to wink knowingly, and now I could almost hear it laughing and chanting,

Ha! Ha! You’re going to have to buy a new printer!

And it’s all your own stupid fault!’

But I wasn’t going to let a printer beat me. I turned it over and saw a small purple panel behind the roller.


I unscrewed it to discover the roller was still hidden, behind black plastic, but I could stick the screwdriver underneath…

Huzzah! The tiniest piece of tissue slipped out. I prodded once more for good measure then vacuumed inside to be sure.

Having reassembled my printer, I switched it on…

Green and orange lights flashed.

‘Please, orange light stop.’

The printer whirred as if sucking in paper


Green and orange lights flashed.


I held my breath.

Orange light stopped. Green light stayed on.



But how much time had I wasted? How much uncreative negativity and frustration had I felt? And not just yesterday. How much time have I wasted in the past rummaging for scraps of paper I’ve written ideas on, looking for lost reels of lost thread, spilling tea on my desk because I’ve balanced it precariously on a pile of papers? And all the time I did these things, how often did I let my calm creative mind become overwhelmed by irritation and frustration and reduce my creative output?

So what do you think?

Are you a tidy or a messy creative?

Do you have any mess-induced time consuming or creativity destroying anecdotes?

How does order or lack of order impact on your creativity?

Does chaos really support you creative endeavours?

10 thoughts on “Does untidiness really help your creativity?

    1. You’re not lazy at all, tidying up as you go takes time and you have so much to do. But I agree, all the mess does your head in.


  1. That is an all too familiar scenario, printers are frustrating at times we need better light indicators! Well done you for finding the tissue. I have had my share of tantrums…. my mac upgraded to the latest platform and seems to take twice as long (it feels like 100 times) to do anything I think I was shouting at it this afternoon.

    My first question is what defines tidy?
    Does tidy mean absolutely nothing around – in which case clinical comes to mind. Or does tidy mean everything is in some form of order… I have a pile of library books under a chair, a basket of knitting nearby, and my to do pile of papers on my open bureau. To me that feels in some sort of order…. does tidy mean you can find things easily if you need them rather than clutter free minimalist? Tidy means I can get to bed without needing to step between piles of clothes… and if I do then I can always pick them up in the morning.

    I have learnt over time to put particular things that cause frustration – keys are a good example – in an easy, accessible place to compensate for my laziness. I walk in with the key and need to put it somewhere so there it goes in a box two steps from the door to the left of the coat rack.

    I love boxing things up in pretty boxes, (they hide quite a few piles of clutter) but clearly label what is in them…. (sometimes I have to go through a few). I often find tidying my studio helps me with my creative process before I start working on something, thankfully my flat is not huge so it doesn’t really take long… and having a big loft space helps to contain anything that I am not currently working on.. but stuff creeps down in the night I am certain of it!

    The difference happens when I am doing a project, the last one I really got hooked into was the Art Nouveau Poem I drew – 9 took me two solid weeks. I have the capacity to be single minded to the point of not eating or drinking for hours… I have been told a bomb could go off in the same room and I will not even hear it when I am working on something.

    For me the key is to avoid all the critical thoughts racing in my head that things should be different from what they are.. I should be tidier… I should be more organised… instead I try to just …

    Thanks Bekki, that feels like therapy! 😉 xx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad you’re enjoying the therapy 😉 What defines tidy is a brilliant question! That obviously is going to vary for different people, so how did the psychologists in the study define it? And how did their subjects define tidy? And how did that affect their reactions? I like your thinking. I too get quite single-minded – and savage 😉 – when I really get focussed on a project. For me it’s the only way to do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha ha, my printer has done that with a small bit of printer paper that got torn off when I was trying to remove some paper it had eaten – so, tidyness cannot always save you!

    I’m quite untidy, no scratch that, I’m very untidy, but I have been trying to get more organised recently. 4 untidy people in the house is a bit much, we need to claw back some order!


    1. I’ve had those little bits of paper too – printers could be so much better designed for fishing such things out. Dragons’ Den here I come 😉


    1. Great to hear you know where to find things – I feel a little envious, although I do know where to find most things. My biggest problem is that sometimes things sink out of sight that I should be paying attention to. I do agree about things looking messy to other people but not to us and I don’t really mind what others think, it’s when they start trying to help me sort it out – a bit like Sherlock Holmes with Mrs Hudson.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Haha! Enjoyed the post. 🙂 I like my creative work space to be well organized, so that I can find things and have space,but it is a loose, flexible, evolving kind of organization. Also, I like plants, as well as meaningful clutter in my studio: interesting books, keepsakes that I’ve accumulated through life. It’s authentic and relaxing and energizing for me. I know some people like a total clutter free, distraction free creative space, but that is just not how I roll! Thanks for sharing.


    1. Sounds as if you’ve designed space for yourself that is very conducive to creativity. Clutter free is far too clinical for me, although unfortunately I’m heading far too far in the other direction at the moment.


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