5 Reasons Creative Geniuses Like Einstein, Twain and Zuckerberg Had Messy Desks – And Why You Should Too

On the day Einstein died, Time photographer Ralph Morse eschewed the crowds of reporters and other photojournalists gathered at Princeton Hospital, and instead found his way to Einstein’s office at the Institute of Advanced Studies.

He snapped a single picture of the legacy of the world’s greatest mind.

What that picture (below) shows is chaos. Not an inch of Einstein’s desk is free of paper. Books, manuscripts, magazines, and envelopes are everywhere (alone with what looks like a cookie jar). The same goes for the shelves. One shelf holds neatly arrayed journals, but elsewhere are piles and piles of papers.

It’s a mess, and he liked it that way. When asked about his messy desk, Einstein remarked “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”

Empty desks are all the rage.

Minimalist, paper-free offices are the current trend with a place for everything and everything in its place.

But for creative minds this might be the worst possible way to work. The combination of recent studies and evidence from the world’s foremost creatives show that just the right amount of mess on your desk can help you achieve greater creativity, defy convention, and even be more productive.

01. You get a creative boost from a messy desk

Psychologist Kathleen Vohs, from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, was interested in whether there was any social purpose to messiness. As a society, we seem to strongly prefer people to keep clean than be dirty – “cleanliness is next to godliness” and all that. But we are happy to tolerate a bit of messiness in others. She predicted that being tidy is associated with ‘upholding societal standards’ and being messy is all about turning away from socials conventions and trying out something new.

She and her group set out to test this hypothesis. First they wanted to see of messiness did make people rebel against the norm. Her researchers organized one room in their laboratory tidely, with papers stacked neatly and books put away properly. Then then organized, or rather disorganized, another, with all the papers and books strewn all across the room. The participants in the study were then randomly assigned to one of the rooms and told they were going to undergo a consumer-choice study.

They were then given a smoothie menu and asked to choose from one of three options – health, wellness, or a vitamin boost. On half the menus the health option was described as ‘classic’, and on the other half it was described as ‘new’. The participants in the tidy room chose the healthy option with the word ‘classic’ twice as often as when it was described as new. The opposite was true in the messy room, with the subjects choosing the ‘new’ version over the ‘classic’ version twice as much.

Therefore the people surrounded my tidiness were choosing convention, whereas the people surrounded by messiness were choosing novelty.

Vohs’ group then moved on to creativity. Using the same tidy room/messy room paradigm, they asked participants to think up as many uses for ping pong balls as they could in the allotted time. The found that people in both rooms came up with about the same number of alternative uses for ping pong balls, but the people in the messy room were far more creative in their odd uses.

Researchers at Northwestern University tried the same thing, and found similar results.

They found that people in messy rooms drew more creativity and were quicker at solving creative problems.

So it may be that having a little bit of mess around reminds us that the world is not an ordered and structured thing, but something that contains chaos and unknowns. This jumpstarts our brains into creativity mode and makes us remember that it is OK to be a little bit unconventional and think creatively.

This should show you that you shouldn’t really care too much about tidying your desk, your office, or your room and instead see if there is any creative inspiration there. Whereas being nice and neat and tidy is a good idea for some things – you probably wouldn’t want to have surgery in an operating room with instruments strewn about – for tasks that require significant creativity you should feel free to leave post-its everywhere, books open, and a coffee cup or two lying around.

02. The best were messy

Einstein definitely was not alone in finding a messy desk was a productive desk. There are plenty of examples of creative talents choosing to be a bit light on the housework.

Here is Einstein’s desk, from Morse’s photo on the day Einstein died:

Einstein’s desk the day he died. Ralph Morse / Time
Einstein’s desk the day he died. Ralph Morse / Time

As I said – messy. To Einstein though everything was where it needed to be, and he had his own system for organization.

Mark Twain was another that chose to tidy up as little as possible. Like Einstein’s Twain’s desk is one that is literally littered with paper and books. It might be easier nowadays to have a paper-free, clutter-free lifestyle, but having such disorganization around them never did the creative giants of Einstein and Twain any harm.

Mark Twain at his desk
Mark Twain at his desk

Bringing it more up-to-date, Steve Jobs was, ironically, one for plenty of mess. The man that has done more to streamline and declutter our workspaces than any other, but he himself was in fact someone who was more than happy to wallow in a little bit of filth. Steve Jobs’ desk was one with plenty of paper on it, and the shelves of his home office were heaving with books at all angles:

Steve Job’s home office
Steve Job’s home office

The tech leaders of today have obviously chosen to follow in Jobs’ footsteps.

In our imagination, the offices and desks of Silicon Valley’s tech giants are sparse, clean things, all polished aluminum and Macs.

While the Macs are definitely there, a lot of the founders of the big tech companies eschew that more corporate ideal in favor of slumming it with their co-workers.

This is Mark Zuckerberg’s desk:

Mark Zuckerberg’s desk with the rest of the Facebook employees.

While it isn’t quite on the scale of extravagant chaos as Einstein’s, it isn’t what you imagine for someone worth $35 Billion. It does look like the desk of a 31-year old though, and his surroundings show that he is more interested in the work than the status.

Finally, let’s look at a true master of chaos, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos:

Tony Hsieh’s very chaotic desk
Tony Hsieh’s very chaotic desk

Einstein would have been proud.

Of course, if this article was all about how creativity stems from order, I am sure I could find some examples of creative greats that had Spartan desks and working environments. The science does suggest that a bit of disorder can help invigorate the mind, but you shouldn’t go chucking your papers all over your desk in order to gain insight, especially if you are someone who likes a tidy pile.

Instead, this should show that the best don’t really care about what their desks look like, and instead get on with the work.

03. Minimalism might be killing your creativity

Though it’s cool to look at the lifestyles and desks of the rich and famous, there is an important lesson to be learned from these examples, particularly for designers and architects. A clean, modern, efficient office might look great on paper, but it can have negative side-effects when thrust into the real world.

If your company requires any type of creativity, and nearly all companies and sectors do, then by restraining employees within their work environments might be having a detrimental effect on the company.

Initially these minimalist office environments might seem like a great idea.

Something like ‘hot-desking’, where employees can jump from desk to desk daily as needed look very efficient and helpful on the surface, but leave employees with a non-existent footprint on the office – nowhere to call their own, nowhere to keep their things, nowhere to make a mess.

For creative individuals, it could be that your push for productivity is actually hampering your creativity. A clean desk looks so inviting. It feels like you are ready for work and your mind is focused and on the task ahead. But by removing any semblance of self from your working environment you are stopping your brain from wandering and making the connections required for creativity. The chaos required to jumpstart ideas isn’t there and you can find that you might be more productive, but not on anything creative.

The right balance is one that works for you. Some people are neat by design and others love a mess. Don’t clean your workspace because you think it needs to be done, and certainly not to ‘clear your mind’. Your mind needs those little ideas floating in the periphery so that it can find the random, complicated, creative answers for your work.

04. You are wasting your precious time and energy

An opportunity cost is when doing one thing means you can’t do another: You could go to the movies tonight, but that means you can’t go a party; you can buy a coffee right now, but that money then isn’t available to buy a beer later. You have to decide which it is that you want.

The same is true here. If there is a standing order in an organization to keep a workspace clean then that means physical and mental energy has to then be spent on that task, as well as time.

That is time and energy that you then cannot use on any creative tasks.

This may seem small in themselves, but these small acts of tidying can add up, and, from the scientific evidence, for nothing.

Though it can be difficult to rebel against a boss that wants their office to look spic and span, you should at least always have the ‘tidying up’ far down your to-do list (for me, if my desk is too clean, it is an obvious sign of procrastination – I should be spending that time and energy on creative tasks, but… [insert excuse here].)

There is also the emotional energy you can waste. As Vohs said, we are conditioned to consider order, cleanliness and tidiness as ‘good’ things, and disorder and mess as ‘bad’. This is ingrained in us from an early age – ‘Go tidy your room!’ is something all of us will have heard as teenagers. Therefore we feel bad if we are messy and our desks are untidy, and instinctively want to please people by tidying up after ourselves.

Again, this could actually be damaging your creative process. You are not ‘bad’ for enjoying a little bit of mess (if there is mold in your coffee cup then I am not entirely sure that is creative. Unless you are Alexander Fleming, inventor of Penicillin, who was notoriously messy and has saved millions of lives because of it!).

Don’t worry about what other think of your desk, and instead thrive on the mess to try and stay more creative.

If your messiness is starting to become a problem at work or at home, then try and set boundaries for family or coworkers – you cannot make a mess on the dining room table, but they cannot complain about the mess on your personal desk.

05. Find the tipping point for true messy creativity

Some of the more messy fold reading this will think it’s Christmas. Their desks will never see a clean-wipe, or sunlight, again. But a word of caution. At some point your creativity is going to come up against the real world. It might be great that you have found creative inspiration in your messy desk, but if you can’t then find the invoice for your client, you haven’t really progressed. Almost every creative has at one time or other written a great idea down on a post-it, only for that note to be lost people piles of papers, stuck to some trash, or pushed down the back of the desk.

There has to be a happy medium between creativity and productivity.

Just enough mess that it keeps your brain engaged, but not enough that once your eureka moment comes you spend five minutes looking for your pencil and then forget what you were going to do in the first place (I have done that).

If you choose to go the ‘whole hog’ then you might come across negative opinions from others, and you will have to decide whether you are getting true creativity out of the mess, or you are just messy because you are lazy. Don’t confuse the two. Even on the desks of the greats above, they know where everything is, and the mess has a purpose – to excel creatively. IF you messiness allows you to do that, then don’t worry about the odd remark or weird look.

Achieve the perfect mess

So what is the ‘perfect mess’? It is that mess that helps you creatively, but doesn’t stifle your productivity. It will be different for everyone. What the research on messiness should show you is that organization and order are overblown concepts, and if you are spending too much time on them, you are hurting yourself, particularly creatively. Allow the mess to pile up a bit and spend that time constructively on creative tasks instead.

You might become overwhelmed by the disorder, in which that is the time to cut back, but if you are trying to achieve a perfectly clean desk, with no clutter, no mementos, no tchotchkes, no personality, you are also creating an environment with no creativity.

Allow your inner messiness to show itself and you might find your brain starts to have a whole lot of better ideas.

Do you agree? How do you like to work? Leave your thoughts in the comments below?

Andrew Tate is a freelance writer and neuroscientist who has worked on understanding the brain and how it learns in the UK, Switzerland, and the US. His interest in design stems from a passion for proper presentation, especially of data, his love of doodling, and his inability to draw anything more sophisticated than a stick figure (and his awe at anyone that can).