One of the most iconic photographic remnants of the great physicist Albert Einstein is not of his home, his pastimes, or even his studies, but rather of his desk. The photograph, taken by LIFE photographer Ralph Morse on April 18,1955 just hours after Einstein passed away, depicts Einstein’s workplace in all its messy glory. To this day, many believe Einstein’s desk stands as proof that disorganization is a side effect of creative intelligence. But 60 years after the scientist's death, new research suggests an organized work and living space may have as many benefits as a messy one.
Morse was certainly not the first member of the public to point out the state of Einstein’s surroundings. In fact, Einstein expressed his own feelings about his workspace when he famously said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”
It’s clear Einstein was defending his own eccentric habits with that quote, because according to a 2013 study, an organized mind is anything but empty.
For the study, a team of researchers conducted several experiments involving volunteers who were placed in either a clean, organized room or cluttered, messy room. They were asked to complete a series of tasks in these rooms, such as choosing a snack, donating money, and figuring out different uses for a ping-pong ball.
Results revealed both rooms had measurable effects on individuals’ behavior. For instance, those placed in the neat room ended up more likely to donate to charity or choose healthy snacks. Those in the messy rooms, meanwhile, tended to outperform their neater counterparts in creative tasks. When the volunteers were asked to choose between a new product and an older, well-known product, those in the cluttered room chose the new product more often, while those in the orderly room went for the classic, more reliable item.
According to lead researcher Kathleen Voh, these results suggest a neat atmosphere encouraged “convention and playing it safe,” while messy environments seemed to “inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” the NY Daily News reported.
Another 2013 study suggested this messiness-creativity association starts at a young age. In the study, children as young as 16 months old were shown to learn faster when they were allowed to explore their environment in the most childlike way — by making a mess.
“It may look like your child is playing in the high chair, throwing things on the ground. And they may be doing that, but they are getting information out of [those actions],” senior author Larissa Samuelson explained in a press release.
Messiness Is Not Without Its Pitfalls
Now, while messiness could stimulate creative intelligence, it doesn’t mean all messy people are undiscovered geniuses. Some may just be really stressed out.
A 2010 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin studied whether a people’s perceptions of their homes could affect their stress levels and mood. The researchers found that women who described their homes as more stressful because of clutter or unfinished projects were less likely to report marital satisfaction. They also found that levels of the stress hormone cortisol remained steady throughout the day, which was indicative of chronic stress. Because of this, women who believed they had messy homes also reported a higher incidence of depressed mood throughout the day.
This association between stress and a disorganized home doesn’t only apply to women, either. Around 55 percent of Americans confessed to stressing over a messy home in a recent online survey conducted by The Huffington Post.
There are other benefits to being neat than simply avoiding stress. In his book The Power of Habit, Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg says making your bed every morning correlates with a “a greater sense of wellbeing and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.” He says doing so starts a chain reaction of good decisions, Today reported.
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, went one step further, equating a neat, tidy room with increased happiness. “When I was researching my book on happiness, this (making your bed) was the number one most impactful change that people brought up over and over,” Rubin told Real Simple.
Order Is Subjective
As any teenager who cleans their room only to be told by their mother that it’s still a pigsty knows, order is subjective. According to Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, co-authors of the book A Perfect Mess, a messy desk may even be highly effective for prioritizing and accessing things we need, Mic reported. The authors argue that what others perceive as a mess might actually be the result of a system where the “more important, urgent work tends to stay close by and near the top of the clutter” and the less important papers “tends to get buried to the bottom or near the back,” CNN reported. And while making your bed may lead to more productivity during the day, one 2006 study showed it could also up your chances of getting bed mites.
Freedman pointed out to The New York Times that "almost anything looks pretty neat if it's shuffled into a pile," highlighting that being aesthetically pleasing is not always the same as being organized. Ultimately, whether it's better to be tidy or messy depends on which environment is best for your personal function, because after all, one person’s mess is another's haven.