Random Asides

Brilliant Clutter

Some of the most brilliant, productive people I know have the most cluttered offices and homes. For instance, my advisor’s office is a mess, though he always knows where to find things. Similarly, my hero James Randi’s office is full of clutter. Randi doesn’t know where to find things, generally, but his cluttered office doesn’t keep him from doing brilliant work.

Is there a link between clutter and brilliance? Are brilliant, productive people just less concerned with details of keeping house than with their work? Does the lack of time spent tidying up translate into more time for doing more interesting work?

Of course, I am generalizing. There are plenty of brilliant, productive people who keep their offices and homes immaculate. One could argue, just as easily perhaps, that there’s a link between obsessive compulsive disorder and brilliance. However, looking around the halls of MIT, I see clutter, mess, and brilliant work everywhere. Is the scientific mind, the mind of an engineer perhaps, prone to clutter? Or at least prone to not worry about clutter and keeping up appearances?

Personally, I fall somewhere in-between extreme clutter and extreme neatness. Growing up, my room was certainly a mess. I cluttered my room with rocks, books, and sporting equipment. I rarely dusted my bookshelves or made my bed. I shoved large quantities of artwork, shoes, books, and stuffed animals underneath my bed in my infrequent cleaning attempts. My parents rarely lectured me to clean my room, which was great. The forts I built out of sheets and pillows could stay up for weeks (along with the “No Boys or Little Sisters Allowed” signs), and I was free to organize and re-organize my rock collection, laying out various pieces all over my room. The time and freedom I gained by having a messy room far outweighed the benefits of keeping up appearances with a clean room, though I did have to tidy up whenever my grandmothers came to visit.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve become more tidy. I still have far too many rocks, books, and sports equipment items in my apartment, but now I make my bed most mornings and vacuum and dust on a regular basis. I find that I think and write better, often, in a somewhat neater space. Cleaning can also be relaxing, at times. Sometimes, I clean when I want to think about something but also want to feel productive.

However, I still allow myself to be somewhat cluttered, especially if I’m organizing something or working on an intense project. And if I end up becoming a working mom, my house is undoubtedly going to be somewhat cluttered. Why? I want my kids to have the freedom to live in their house without worrying about being perfectly clean. Also, I don’t want to feel that I need to keep things spotless when I have a big deadline at work or a distant volcanic expedition to plan. If my husband wants to clean up or hire a housekeeper, fine with me.

My desk is still a cluttered mess, most days, but that’s okay. After all, as Albert Einstein said, “If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Besides, clutter is more fun. Who wants to clean up their desk or room, anyway?


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. Not I, for one. Though I can't claim my unmotivated housekeeping style is linked to any particular brilliance or gifts.

    The odd thing, which so many family and friends have remarked on, is that when I was sharing a house, I was fairly conscientious about keeping my room and the common areas clean. Living on my own, I'm a slob.

  2. I'd guess that this is one example of a more general theme: High (and low) intelligence is associated with an assortment of other neurological "variations", notably learning disabilities and other mental disorders. A goodly number of these can lead people to extreme clutter — ADD comes to mind. On the flip side,

    a number of conditions can lead someone to be particularly neat, including OCD and variants, stimulant abuse, sensory filtering or threshold problems, or just intelligent compensations for their natural messiness.

  3. It occurs to me you'd also have to be particularly intelligent to actually pull off the "physical random access" method of filing…. ;-)

  4. I'm a serial clutterer. I let things get bad enough where they start to be a problem, and then I clean it all up in one fell swoop. I think this results in less cleaning effort overall, but it's a lot of work when I hit that point in the cycle.

  5. One of the annoying things: Whenever my mother cleaned my room, I could never find anything. She'd put vital paperwork and reminders in places that I never accessed, and never tell me what she did.

    Sorry, mom, but my organizational method involves the concept that when you put an inanimate object somewhere, it stays there. I can't have things randomly jumping around.

  6. My room and cubicle are both quite cluttered. The only reason they aren't more cluttered than the are is that I've developed a strict "Seriously, don't get anything you don't need, 'cause you don't have the space for it" policy. It seems to work.

    Anyway, the point is that I'm clearly a super-genius.

  7. Can computers add additional dimensions to this mess/tidiness? I work surrounded by fairly random piles of paper and books, but my notes on computer are organised, databased (sp?) etc. relatively neatly.

    Not to do with intelligence so much as short attention span, but my hard copy notes, books etc. do tend to work on a fairly random access system: I normally find something else interesting to read way before I find what I'm looking for… My essay structures are much stranger if I'm working from paper notes, rather than using my computer's RAM ;)

  8. What do you mean by intelligence though? As an umbrella concept, it's not something that can be measured on a single axis. People can be intelligent in various ways, so it seems to me that finding a correlation to their perceived degree of orderliness is going to lie somewhere between difficult and impossible. That said, I agree with the comment above that someone who can pull off the "random-access" trick in what appears to an observer like clutter certainly must be highly functional in at least some respect. Whether this is in the form of photographic memory versus some highly complex personal sorting system (or some combination thereof), and whether both of these count equally as "intelligent" is open for debate.

  9. I can't remember the source now (I think it was some airline magazine, actually), but I read somewhere that different kinds of people organize their desks differently: there are the filers, whose desks look spotless because everything is neatly tucked away in a labeled folder; there are the pilers (that would be me), who have very "messy" looking desks because everything is piled everywhere, but they can usually find tings; and then there are the trashers whose filing method of choice involves File 13. The main reason I remember the article is that for each organizational method, it listed a few professions whose members tend to lean one way or the other; unsurprisingly, "PhDs" tend to be pilers.

  10. I think this makes sense… I'm a fairly smart person, and while I do think better in an organized place, I have trouble keeping it that way. I, too, am a "serial clutterer" – I'll let things get horribly bad, and then go on a massive cleaning spree… I can usually maintain it for a while, but as soon as I start spending time on more important things, it all falls apart and starts the cycle all over again.

    I do wish I was cleaner… I just don't have time/energy to spend on it.

  11. I think it's not so much that there's a link between clutter and brilliance, but that there's a link between clutter and being a) actively aquiring information, b) interested in many things, or very interested in one, and c) not bothering much with organising and tidying up. And the most important point here is c).

    I have a cluttered desk, and home, and I'm in no way brilliant, I just don't bother tidying up unless I have company coming over and even then it's often a case of moving the clutter around, since organising and uncluttering it would take too long.

    It's possible that there's a correlation between being a neat-freak and being slightly dim, but the few extra brilliant people among the clutterers drown among the multitude of us average people.

    (Which reminds me, I gotta get round to getting my "IQ meassured" one of these days.)

  12. I do most of my writing in very clean environment, but thats largely because I check email, tidy, do the washing, and finish any other menial task I can find before I can get started on writing. In fact, I'm supposed to be doing a report right now!

  13. I think intelligent people tend to focus on the task at hand. Really neat people are able to clean as they do a job. But they aren't giving the task 100% of their attention. I find myself being very focused on what I am doing at a given time, not seeing the details of clutter. My one neighbor admits she has to have everything clean and perfect or..as she put it, "I go nuts!". She once even alphabetized the magnetic letters on my fridge. She has to live in a clutter free way, or her brain just can't handle it. (she has admitted she has a problem!). People with less self esteem may also think, "what will people THINK?" More intelligent people are more interested in what they are doing, or what will people think about this cool project I am doing.

    This goes for artists also. Many artists are complete slobs. I am of the "one fell swoop" method of cleaning also.

    One report said that women spend as much time cleaning their houses NOW as they did over 100 years ago! It's just that standards of clean have risen. The carpet beating twice a year has been replaced by the vaccuum claning whenever there is a mess.

  14. "I think it’s not so much that there’s a link between clutter and brilliance, but that there’s a link between clutter and being a) actively aquiring information, b) interested in many things, or very interested in one, and c) not bothering much with organising and tidying up. And the most important point here is c)."

    I think the larger point here is that if you generate clutter, you are actually doing something. Total slackers can be messy and dirty…and they often are…but there is a limit to the actual clutter they generate since they are not doing anything. Now this clutter by no means indicates that what you are spending your time doing is worthwhile in any way…I know a lot of what I do is total BS…but it makes sense that the "brilliant" would sometimes come from this pool of people.

  15. "One report said that women spend as much time cleaning their houses NOW as they did over 100 years ago! It’s just that standards of clean have risen. The carpet beating twice a year has been replaced by the vaccuum claning whenever there is a mess."

    I can buy that. I believe that the major savings in household chores time has come from greater ease in cooking and laundry, two very time consuming tasks a century ago.

    That said, I really don't get people who vacuum more than once a month. I mean, is this really necessary? Why?

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