Messy People Have Clearer Minds, Psychologists Somehow Conclude

The end of the 'to do' list?

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you stopped striving for inbox zero?

According to the latest developments in cognitive science, it could make you more creative and in tune with the world. Oh and also: chores aren’t a way of managing life: they are a way of avoiding it.

In Edward Slingerland’s book, The Art of Science and Spontaneity, he asks: “Why is it always hard to fall asleep the night before an important meeting? Or be charming and relaxed on a first date? What is it about a politician who seems wooden or a comedian whose jokes fall flat or an athlete who chokes?”

Slingerland, Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia, believes that in all these cases our built-in human desire to “control everything” is counter productive. And according to him, “If you can figure out how to shut that tendency down and open yourself up, then the world will carry you along” (Quartz).

More important than labelling tupperware is to make your mind, “Empty and tenuous”. To make the case, he cites the ancient Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, who warned us of the evils of organisation more than two millennia ago.

To Zhuangzi a regimented life doesn’t reflect a sense of duty so much as a desire to control personal circumstances (which becomes stronger the more insecure you are). In his book, Slingerland says this is a problem, because, “If we invest sensibly and have zeroed inboxes and clean houses, then we can kid ourselves that our careers will progress smoothly and we won’t be rocked by unexpected twists.”

“They are consumed with anxiety over trivial matters but remain arrogantly oblivious to the things truly worth fearing” (Zhuangzi).

Of course, “While it’s healthy to accept some disarray, embracing it entirely can be harmful both to yourself and others, and can be another way of eschewing meaning in life” (Quartz). So the key is balance (i.e. don’t feel obliged to do your dishes straight away, but at least put them in the sink to soak).

“There’s a balance between obsessing over organisation and descending into chaos.”

Guy Claxton, a Psychology professor at the University of Bristol, backs this claim up in his book, How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. Drawing from the latest research in cognitive science, he argues, “Patience and confusion—rather than rigor and certainty—are the essential precursors of wisdom.”

If you find yourself getting a bit OCD when stressed, remember this: our minds work best when we trust our unconscious. Aside from giving you the perfect excuse to be lazy less analytical, under the guise of “letting creativity have free rein”, this has two implications.

Firstly: Chill out. If your irritatingly ambitious #LinkedIn friends really are more organised than you; life will punish them accordingly.

Secondly: Don’t worry if your style of organisation, to the untrained eye, looks like junk-mountain. As Daniel Levitin, a McGill University professor of behavioural neuroscience, told The Washington Post:

“People have different styles: Some are filers and some are pilers. The people who pile things often know exactly where things are, and they’re often just as organised as the people who file things.”

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