A look at the psychology of organization

Mehek Kapur and Jessica Luo

From the tidiness of a desk to the placement of day-to-day objects, organization is an integral part of many lifestyles, impacting the quality of one’s work and overall performance. Different methods of organization can produce vastly different effects on a person’s life, from mental health to academic performance.

Psychologically, one’s level of tidiness can affect stress level; a study conducted by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin concluded that women who described their living environment as “cluttered” had a tendency to be more depressed, fatigued and reported having higher levels of stress compared to women who described their living environments as “restful” or “restorative.”

Having a number of objects strewn in a messy environment limits the brain’s ability to focus. While clutter may not be the focus of an individual’s attention while working, the items are detectable through peripheral vision and are liable to severely wear down mental resources. Researchers from the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute discovered that objects in the visual field compete for neural attention, forcing the individual to constantly and consciously refocus on the task at hand with great effort, cutting down productivity.

“I personally can’t stay focused in a messy environment because I get distracted by objects out of place or random things,“ said freshman Larry Peng. “I believe that the less organized you are, the more stressed you’ll be because it leaves you more unsure of how you’ll spend your time doing tasks and more unsure of what you’re doing.”

According to a survey from the Huffington Post in 2013, 84 percent of Americans who labeled themselves as “recently stressed” say they worry that their home is not clean enough, and of those, 54 percent say it was a source of recent stress. Additionally, research from the National Sleep Foundation indicates that individuals who make their beds and keep clean and tidy sheets are more likely to report having a better night’s sleep. The human brain subconsciously associates messiness with the task of having to clean, and automatically releases stress-inducing hormones such as cortisol upon acknowledging clutter.

“When I see a messy room I feel lazy and sluggish, so it makes me want to slack off,” said senior Megan Deng. “Because there’s so much stuff around [me], I feel like it clutters my mind too.”

Other studies have shown inconsistencies regarding the effects of organization–some claim that keeping a work area neat tends to lead to productivity, but keeping a work area slightly messy can lead to higher levels of creativity. The Association for Psychological Science performed an experiment in which they placed participants in one of two rooms–a messy one or a clean one–and asked them to identify new uses for ping pong balls. Overall, the same number of ideas were generated from both rooms, but when ranked by judges, the ideas produced from the messier room were shown to be more creative. Later, participants in the study were given a choice between using a well-established product to complete a task, or an unknown product. The participants in the messy room were proven far more likely to prefer the newer product, showing that the disorderly environment they were in may have inspired choosing the less conventional route.

“When you see [objects] in your environment that are organized and so on, it primes you to think in a linear or organized way,” said Dr. Gregory Feist, a creativity researcher and psychology professor at San Jose State University. “When your environment is a little bit out of order, that primes you to think a little bit differently about things and not so linearly.”

Companies such as Google pride themselves on fostering creativity, provided through highly customizable and interactive workspaces. Each Google location is stocked with creative outlets; for example, some locations have giant building blocks, stackable lights and walls of Etch a Sketch’s. Employees are encouraged to personalize their offices, and the mindset behind this environment is that by being creative with their surroundings, they will be innovative with their work. By placing objects that would not be commonly associated together, the brain begins to think of unusual combinations of ideas that in turn spur creativity. In 2016, Google was ranked the second most innovative company in the world; additionally, according to Glassdoor, a job research site, Google was rated as the top company in America for employee satisfaction in 2014.

Whether or not a more cluttered environment stimulates creativity depends on the individual. Those who are generally predisposed to unorthodox thinking are more likely to find disorganization helpful in generating new ideas, but those who have careers in fields that call for more repetition are likely to find the same disorganization distracting instead. Productivity and creativity are not mutually exclusive, but often limit each other in a messy environment.

“There’s a fine line between creative clutter and disorganized distraction,” said Dr. Feist. “I do think that highly creative people are more prone to having a lot of disorder and finding their own order in that disorder.”