Clutter keeps the creative juices flowing

Journalists are infamous for the state of their desks, which, more often than not, resemble rubbish tips.

I think that noun could be aptly used to describe the state of my work desk.

It is not just that it is stacked high with precarious towers of notebooks, loose papers, piles of namecards or newspapers from a decade ago - which is run-of-the-mill in the newsroom.

No, I have outdone my colleagues with the array of unlikely items that have sneaked their way into the jumble: Several dead plants, a deflated basketball, earphones tangled into balls of tumbleweed, plastic spoons, a jar of honey, a heart-shaped bottle of deodorant, a miniature sack of rice, earplugs and a dusty array of stuffed toys.


These objects lie around until I decide that the space is in dire need of purgation - usually around the time I find myself unearthing my laptop consumed by the mess.

Then the cycle repeats itself.

I wish I could dismiss my slovenly habit as an occupational hazard. But sadly, I was messy way before I became a newshound.

My unkempt ways peaked when I was in college. In a rock-bottom moment of desperation, instead of tackling the mound of dirty dishes stacked up in the sink, I opted to wrap a clean piece of aluminium foil around a grimy bowl to make it usable.

And embarassingly, rummaging through my drawer to find a clean pair of socks one day, I had a brainwave and turned a dirty pair inside out instead.

My father once remarked that my messy room could be an art exhibit, around the same time my mother dismissed me as unmarriageable.

I've improved since. But my unfortunate husband is often irked by wet towels that he says I leave in a heap on the floor all the time (I swear I don't).

It's that time of year when people resolve to do this and that (my Facebook timeline is peppered with annoying "New Year, New Life" proclamations).

I've personally resolved never to make resolutions I cannot keep - meaning to say that I don't make any. Apart from not going to the gym and continuing to stuff my face, I am also not going to get any neater.

For too many people, neatness is a virtue in and of itself.

The powerful businessmen who make it on the glossy covers of magazines gaze out from their worlds sporting perfectly coiffed hairdos, leaning against impeccably tidy desks. Not one action figure or coffee stain ring in sight.

Some Singaporean employees go to the extent of hiring professional organisers to keep their work desks neat and tidy. And real-estate giant CBRE Singapore is among many firms here with a formal Clean Desk Policy - which specifies that staff should leave their working space uncluttered before going home each day.

Other offices here have strange rules such as no soft toys, photos or decorations on desks.

The current trend of open-plan, minimalist office spaces - where even the wire cables sticking out from the back of desktop computers seem jarring - harnesses the power of peer pressure and judgment to encourage tidiness.

Cleanliness is next to godliness, as the saying goes. But why? Is clutter really all that bad?

After all, if Alexander Fleming was not a slob, medical science might not be where it is today.

In 1928, the British bacteriologist discovered penicillin, the world's most used antibiotic, when he did not clean up before going on a two-week holiday. When he returned, he found that the bacteria cultures in the petri dishes he was studying had grown mouldy.

But in one dish, the penicillin had killed the bacteria. The rest, as they say, is history.

In a 2013 study, psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota, asked participants to fill out questionnaires in either a neat or a cluttered office.

They were then given the chance to donate to charity, offered chocolate or an apple and instructed to come up with new uses for ping pong balls.

Those who completed the questionnaire in the neat room gave more of their money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar.

But participants in the messy room generated more creative ideas for new uses for the balls when evaluated by impartial judges.

The researchers also discovered that when participants were asked to choose between a new product and an established one, those in the messy room were more likely to select the novel one - a sign that being in a disorganised environment stimulates a release from conventionality.

And come on, admit it: Mess is practical too. For one thing, it frees me up to focus on more pressing things other than arranging paper clips into neat piles.

And surprisingly, as a mother, I've realised that my natural inclination has been more of a boon than a bane.

I do not blow a fuse when my toddler tips her plateful of food onto the floor. I don't reach for the hand-sanitiser each time she touches a dirty surface or go crazy when she goes crazy with crayons.

I don't gag at vomit or oodles of saliva and poo doesn't freak me out one bit.

Instead, we pick up snails in the garden to inspect them, stomp in muddy puddles and have a messy time with flour.

And if you still aren't convinced that messy is better, just ask Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Apple founder Steve Jobs, author Mark Twain or scientist Albert Einstein - each of them known for having chaotic work spaces.

After all, Einstein, in a retort about the state of his desk, said: "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'Clutter keeps the creative juices flowing'. Print Edition | Subscribe