When we’re looking to get healthier, happier, or more productive, we often turn inward:
What can I change about me that would make it easier to develop this new lifestyle?
For sure, that makes logical sense. But it might not be the most efficient route to self-improvement. Instead, research suggests that switching up your surrounding environment can also affect the way you function.
Say, for example, you’re brainstorming ideas to pitch at a team meeting next week. In this situation, you shouldn’t necessarily waste time straightening up your workspace — because a desk in slight disarray can stimulate creativity.
That’s according to a 2013 study led by researchers at the University of Minnesota. The researchers conducted a series of experiments designed to test the effects of sitting in a messy or organised room.
In one experiment, American students sat in either an orderly or a disorderly room while they came up with new uses for ping-pong balls. Sure enough, participants who’d sat in the disorderly room came up with more creative ideas — though not necessarily more ideas — as judged by an outside pair of raters.
But the environment that gets your creative juices flowing isn’t necessarily the one you want when you’re trying to display “good” behaviour — like supporting charities or making healthy food choices.
In another experiment from that 2013 study, Dutch students sat in either a tidy or messy room for 10 minutes and were given the chance to donate to a children’s charity. As participants were leaving the room, they were offered either an apple or a chocolate bar.
As it turns out, participants who’d sat in the tidy room donated more than twice as much as those who’d sat in the messy room. What’s more, participants who’d sat in the tidy room were more likely to grab the apple instead of the chocolate bar (the researchers defined the apple as the healthy food choice).
The researchers say the appearance of physical order makes us think about tradition and convention, which encourages things like healthy eating and charitable donations. The appearance of physical disorder, on the other hand, makes us think about unconventionality, which leads to greater creativity.
As for which type of environment makes you more productive and better positioned to achieve your goals, the evidence is mixed.
Another 2013 study found that undergrads sitting in an uncluttered workspace persisted longer on a cognitive task than those sitting in a cluttered room. (Unbeknownst to the participants, the task was actually impossible.)
Writing in The Harvard Business Review, the researchers say that the mess threatened participants’ sense of personal control. And dealing with that threat depleted their mental resources, which made it harder for them to stay focused on the difficult task.
Yet a 2015 study found that a messy environment can prompt goal-oriented behaviour. In one experiment featured in that study, Dutch participants saw pictures of either a disordered store environment, an orderly store environment, or something neutral.
Results showed that participants who had seen the messy store were more motivated to participants in a hypothetical rewards program in which they collected points to exchange for a specific product.
The researchers behind the 2015 study say we’re hardwired to seek order in our lives whenever possible. So when we’re faced with physical chaos, we’re motivated to create a more abstract sense of organisation by pursuing clear, well-defined goals.
Ultimately, it may come down to tweaking your surroundings — or buckling down in different workspaces — and seeing which environment suits you best.
The bottom line here is that sometimes, if you’re having trouble getting stuff done, the problem isn’t you per se, so much as the world around you. And certainly, filing some papers or scattering some pens over your desk is an easier — if temporary — fix than trying to develop more brainpower and self-control.
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