Clutter can kill creativity and innovation

With all the talk on our site recently about willpower, I wanted to bring in career expert and author Jonathan Fields to write about the connection between order and workplace productivity, creativity, and innovation. You may remember him from when we reviewed his first book Career Renegade, and he has recently published a second book on how to channel fear into career success in Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance. Thank you, Jonathan, for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your advice with the Unclutterer community.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a strong connection between the state of my physical space and my ability to do high-level creative work. When my space is in disarray, my thoughts are generally also in disarray. I can still function, I can come up with ideas, write decent-enough content and solve-problems. But, I always know that I’m not operating anywhere near my true potential.

And it’s also not about cleanliness, or complying with someone else’s idea of order. It’s really about having some level of logic to the state of my physical space that works for me, even if nobody else can see it.

Turns out, there may well be a neuroscience basis for this.

Without organizational systems, your brain has to work harder to hold virtual organizational structures in its circuitry, relying on greater levels of working memory. This taxes a part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC).

The PFC is also responsible for willpower and it is one of the parts of the brain that keeps anxiety, impulse and fear in check. Problem is, it’s easily overwhelmed and it’s energy is quickly depleted.

When the PFC fatigues, you’re far more likely to both give in to impulse, distraction and resistance and pull away from the work needed to create great art, experiences, ideas and businesses. A depleted PFC is also less effective at tamping down the anxiety and fear that often rides along with taking action in the face of uncertainty, a touchstone of creativity and innovation.

So, what’s the takeaway?

If you’re looking to cultivate an optimal mindset for creativity and innovation, explore shifting some of the organizational/working-memory workload from your brain to more other-than-human organizational systems. Especially ones that allow you to regularly download and capture information and ideas that would normally be held in working memory.

A simple place to start is a voice-capture app for your smart phone or tablet, coupled with something like Evernote to then easily download the recording (Evernote’s app now includes a voice recording feature), to categorize and store your ideas. Or, a pocket moleskine works well for analog types who want to record their thoughts. These simple shifts can change the neuroscience and psychology of the creative process in very subtle, yet impactful ways.

17 Comments for “Clutter can kill creativity and innovation”

  1. posted by Michael A. Robson on

    Book cover is absolutely genius. 😀

  2. posted by Laurence on

    In that case I have a very messy internal logic. Or maybe it depends a lot on what kind of creativity one is in need of. But I know that my most creative projects in art school were a direct consequence of my mess.

    My paint mixed with pastels and charcoal and suddenly new textures appeared because something had rubbed in a my bag.

    Now my yarns are thrown in big bags and seeing them mixed like that together like a real life kaleidoscope inspires me to pair some together that I would normally never have done!

  3. posted by Karen on

    Makes sense to me. When things are messy, I waste more time being distracted and thinking “I need to clean that up sometime” than I actually spend cleaning it up.

    I find writing stuff down in a moleskine to be very helpful. Here’s how I keep the pen with the moleskine:

  4. posted by pashtsmom on

    Having everything tidied away stifles my creativity. When designing a quilt I need the fabric and trial patterns all around me. Tidiness is serene, but creativity is not, for me.

  5. posted by MT Nickerson on

    I like the point of the article- optimal organization for the individual, which, as I read the article, allows for personal choice in how things are ordered and does not limit a person by saying everything needs to be spotless.

    My desk is cluttered, but I know where it all is for when I need to use a particular item. When I reach for a pen, a book or whatnot and I can’t find what I’m looking for, then it is time to unclutter my clutter.

  6. posted by Sabrina on

    When you take action, the completion of the action will release you and allow you to move on to something else. Like Nike advertises…’Just Do It’! =)Love the topic! I tell clients all the time, stop thinking and just make a decision and take action. It is so important.

  7. posted by jodi on

    I have been intrigued about evernote so I went to the website today at the library and watched the video on how it works…my blood pressure went up just watching the tutorial video! Can the faithful evernote users explain how they find it helpful? It seems to me its just an electronic way to store lots of random information without thought to whether or not the info is valuable because it is “searchable”…but what do you do when you have so much you don’t remember what you need to search for? Is it truly any different than just an electronic version of boxes filled with mostly needless paper?

    I am truly confused why anyone would want to use it after seeing the video, but I read soo much positive I don’t want to dismiss it and miss a possibly good tool!

  8. posted by Another Deb on

    At one time I worked in a clean room environment in a microchip factory. We were all in the total-coverage “bunny suits”, no paper, no pencils, nothing that could collect dust. It was 12 hours of tending machines that made silicon wafers and I have never been so creative in my life!

    In that sterile environment, the silicon wafers seemed to bloom like butterfly wings, the white noise became roaring rivers of sound and my thought processes flowed down those rivers in lots of great new ways. Problem was, no paper to record any ideas, and by the time I got back to the car, the best of it was usually gone.

  9. posted by mdfloyd on

    Jodi: I’m with you. Evernote seems like an electronic version of a clutter magnet.

  10. posted by Andy M on

    I agree that Evernote can be a bottomless pit of clutter. To be used effectively, you may need to put a structure on it and review added info regularly. That’s too much effort for me. A lot of people do seem to love it, though.

  11. posted by Jodi on

    I wonder if there is anyone using evernote from a minimalist-type perspective, and what limits they put on it. The video I sw used the example of keeping website pics (etc.) of ideas you like for building a house. Good thing my hubby (who watched with me) was also overwhelmed by the overall evernote concept. Otherwise, I could just hear him justifying his boxes, bins and bookshelves full of years of “dream house” inspiration because its no different than evernote.

    I mean, a dedicated clutterer could take pictures of all their stuff before boxing it up, label its location in evernote, and justify keeping it all because its all scanned, searchable and able to be located easily…

    I am just genuinely confused how someone trying to UNCLUTTER would use it effeciently. Or maybe its the rebellious clutterbug in all of us having that final fling with clutter before finally breaking free?

    Evernote fans…help me understand! I may never convert, but I want to be more sure than I am now I am not missing out on an excellent resource due to not understanding…

  12. posted by Justin on

    I have ADHD, witch means I have an under functioning PFC. The planning it takes to orginize and the will power to stick to that system all happen in the PFC. That means I have to keep things simple or I can’t stick to it.

    Evernote does that for me. It has great text recognition for printed and hand written stuff. That allows me to search and find things faster then if I have piles of paper around me. All I need is my snapscan, hazel (Mac app), a shredder, and Evernote to rid myself of piles of papers I may need but don’t know what to d with.

    Now I only have to keep the really important papers and the rest goes into Evernote. So for me it may be a virtual pile, but it is one I can search by keywords.

    But I don’t think it should be used for task related info. Think of it as a file cabinet.

  13. posted by Vic on

    Being messy really just comes down to being distracted. Clutter also kills motivation. If your space is in disharmony, you wont want to do much of anything.

    If you really don’t feel like cleaning up, a quick tip would be to move into a different, clutter free environment (like the library.) Thanks Jonathan!

  14. posted by Xandy Peters on

    I get that some people find cluttered desks to be disorganized and distracting. For me, a clean space means that I’m not working in it.

    When I start a project, I take out everything I think I’ll need so time isn’t wasted constantly getting things from across the room. Having a lot of things on my desk helps me get things done because I can see all of my tools and resources. I don’t clean up scraps from model making and sketching until I’m finished, otherwise I’d never get a work rhythm going.

    It just kind of bothers me when people see a full desk as a sign of disorganization because it makes me look bad. Sometimes the clutter is a necessary part of the process.

  15. posted by TMj on

    It unclutters in the sense that all your information (anything that can be digutalized) is in one virtual space. This means

    1) you know you have it
    2) you know where it is, you can find it quickly if you tag it
    3) you know where to put it
    4) it doesnt occupy space
    5) its available everywhere

    Admittedly it’s a matter of habit…and you may have to become a digitalization and Evernote fundamentalist for it to work. And you need a smartphone.

  16. posted by Jesper Lindgren on

    A really interesting post, especially the introduction of Evernote, Im doing a project called and evernote seems like the perfect supporting tool for me to get a 1000 ideas within the next year or so.

  17. posted by Gary Bloom on

    I suppose _can_ is enough of a fudge, but don’t take this idea too seriously. Photos of the desks of the likes of Einstein, W. Eugene Smith, Gregory Bateson, and (even) Steve Jobs shows that messiness is often part of creativity. Creativity _did_ exist before computers, before the Web, before digital photos and music, that make a sparse environment possible.

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