Clutter: Is it a Sign of Creativity or Just a Mess?

Your work day has ended and you can’t wait to get home. The car finally reaches the driveway and all you can think about is plopping on the sofa for a few minutes before your “Mommy Shift” begins.  After turning off the ignition and grabbing the milk that you picked up from the grocery store on the way home, you head to your front door. When you finally enter your safe haven, you glance around and realize that it’s exactly the way it always looks. Your home is a complete mess.  You wonder to yourself, “is this normal?

Rest assured, most American families have walked into a messy house a time or two, or even three or four. With the busy lifestyles of today’s families, it’s difficult to always have an immaculate house.  Also, if you find that your home is messy on chronic basis, instead of berating yourself, you might want to check in on your cognitive style. According to an article in Psychology Today, neat people tend to use “to-do” lists to help them focus, while less organized people rely on their environment to prompt their behavior. In other words, “messy” people use stacks of paper and piles of items to remind them of what they have already accomplished and the things that they need to finish up. Also, looking through those piles often spurs neural connections and can give you bouts of insight and creativity.

But wait a second! I know this information may sound like music to your ears, but before you throw all caution to the wind and proudly announce to your family and colleagues that you’re okay with being messy because it’s your cognitive style, there is more that you want to know.  Although being a little messy can help you focus, being a lot messy generally has the opposite effect.  An article in The Journal of Neuroscience indicates that a cluttered environment restricts your brain’s ability to focus and process information. A messy environment can be quite distracting which makes it difficult to get tasks done. In other words, clutter competes for your attention in the same way that your children and spouse might compete for your attention. Imagine that your daughter is asking you to help her find her soccer shoes, your toddler is having an emotional meltdown, and your spouse is reminding you about an important errand that needs to be done – all at the exact same time.

You are probably aware of everyone’s needs, but in that moment, it’s pretty difficult to focus on any one particular thing. In addition, the competing demands probably wear you down and create a lot of frustration. It’s the same with clutter in your home. Research has found that more organized homes usually result in less irritability and more productivity.

Although a little mess may spur creativity and help remind you of tasks that need to be finished, chronic disorganization can impact both your mood and your ability to process information. Also, there is a difference between being “messy” and experiencing the excessive compulsive anxiety that results in hoarding. According to The Mayo Clinic, here are some signs that indicate that you need a professional to help you organize:

  • You experience difficulty parting with any possession, regardless of its value
  • You experience excessive discomfort letting others touch or borrow your items or extreme distress at the idea of letting an item go
  • Living spaces are cluttered, making areas of your home unusable for the intended purpose. For example, you may not be able to cook in the kitchen or use the bathroom to take a shower
  • You keep stacks of newspapers, magazines or junk mail and food or trash often builds up to unsanitary levels
  • You acquire unneeded items such as trash or napkins from a restaurant
  • There’s difficulty managing daily activities because of procrastination and trouble making decisions
  • You find yourself moving items from one pile to another, without discarding anything
  • You experience difficulty organizing items and sometimes important items get lost in the clutter
  • You experience shame or embarrassment and as a result have limited or no social interactions

If you think that you or a loved one is experiencing this disorder, although it may be hard, you should seek help immediately. Neatness and messiness are on a continuum and in its extreme, both can be harmful. However, a little messiness can reflect a creative streak – as long as it’s in moderation.

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