How to be creative: keep an untidy desk
Let’s face it, my study is a mess. Lots of computers surrounded by piles of paper — magazines, books, letters, drafts etc. My wife (a supremely tidy, organised administrator) despairs of me. When people come to stay (or even come to dinner) I have to ‘tidy’ my study, which basically means sweeping all the piles into containers and placing them out of sight. This of course is a disaster for me because the act of sweeping the piles into boxes scrambles what is in fact a sophisticated filing system.
But now comes a marvellous New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell (yes, he of The Tipping Point) arguing that there are very good reasons why creative people are great pilers of paper. Excerpt:
‘Why do we pile documents instead of filing them? Because piles represent the process of active, ongoing thinking. The psychologist Alison Kidd, whose research Sellen and Harper refer to extensively, argues that “knowledge workers” use the physical space of the desktop to hold “ideas which they cannot yet categorize or even decide how they might use.” The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity: those who deal with many unresolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desks, because they haven’t yet sorted and filed the ideas in their head. Kidd writes that many of the people she talked to use the papers on their desks as contextual cues to “recover a complex set of threads without difficulty and delay” when they come in on a Monday morning, or after their work has been interrupted by a phone call. What we see when we look at the piles on our desks is, in a sense, the contents of our brains.’
So there! Why I feel six inches taller already.