The Case for Being Messy

7 minute read

It’s human nature to want to improve, and this means that we tend to be instinctive hill-climbers. Whether we’re trying to master a hobby, learn a language, write an essay or build a business, it’s natural to want every change to be a change for the better. But it’s easy to get stuck if we insist that we will never go downhill.

Messy disruptions will be most powerful when combined with creative skill. The disruption puts an artist, scientist or engineer in unpromising territory—a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop. But then expertise kicks in and finds ways to move upwards again: the climb finishes at a new peak, perhaps lower than the old one, but perhaps unexpectedly higher.

We’re often told that good work comes from the ability to focus, to shut out distractions. To choose from a plethora of self-help tips along these lines, a Mayo Clinic psychologist, Dr Amit Sood, advises us to focus more effectively by turning off the TV, logging out of email and taking up “attention training” to “train your brain.” An article on PsychCentral offers similar tips, counselling us to “limit distractions”—alas, on a webpage that is surrounded by sponsored links about wrinkle cream, sex addiction and ways to save money on insurance. Some people turn to methylphenidate (better known as Ritalin) to help them concentrate.

Distractibility can indeed seem like an issue, or even a curse. But that’s if we’re looking only at the hill-climbing part of the creative process. Distractible brains can also be seen as brains that have an innate tendency to make those useful random leaps. Distractibility isn’t a disadvantage at all.

A few years ago a team of researchers including Shelley Carson of Harvard tested a group of Harvard students to measure the strength of their ability to filter out unwanted stimulus. (For example, if you’re having a conversation in a busy restaurant, and you can easily filter out the other conversations going on around you and focus only on the conversation at hand, you have strong attentional filters.) Some of the students they studied had very weak filters—their thoughts were constantly being interrupted by the sounds and sights of the world around them.

You might think that this was a disadvantage. Yet these students were actually more creative on all sorts of measures. The most striking result came when the researchers looked at precociously creative students—those who had already released their first album, published their first novel, produced a stage show of sufficient prominence to be reviewed by the national press, been awarded a patent, or some similar achievement. There were 25 of these super-creatives in the study; 22 of them had weak or porous attention filters. But then, who is to say what is irrelevant?

Two leading creativity researchers, Howard Gruber and Sara Davis, have argued that the tendency to work on multiple projects is so common among the most creative people that it should be regarded as standard practice. Gruber had a particular interest in Charles Darwin, who throughout his life alternated between research in geology, zoology, psychology and botany, always with some projects in the foreground and others in the background, competing for his attention. He undertook his celebrated voyage with the Beagle with “an ample and unprofessional vagueness in his goals.”

Gruber and Davis call this pattern of different projects at different stages of fruition a “network of enterprises.” Such a network of parallel projects has four clear benefits, one of them practical and the others more psychological.

The practical benefit is that the multiple projects cross-fertilize each other. The knowledge gained in one enterprise provides the key to unlock another.

The psychological advantages may be just as important. First, a fresh context is exciting; having several projects may seem distracting, but instead the variety grabs our attention like a tourist gawping at details that a local would find mundane.

The second advantage is that while we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another—as with the cliché of inspiration striking in the shower. Some scientists believe that this unconscious processing is an important key to solving creative problems. John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, argues that daydreaming strips items of their context. That’s a powerful way to unlock fresh thoughts. And there can be few better ways to let the unconscious mind chew over a problem than to turn to a totally different project in the network of enterprises.

A third psychological benefit is that each project in the network of enterprises provides an escape from the others. In truly original work, there will always be impasses and blind alleys. Having another project to turn to can prevent a setback from turning into a crushing experience. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called this “crop rotation.” One cannot use the same field to grow the same crop indefinitely; eventually the soil must be refreshed by planting something new, or simply taking a break.

But having many projects on the go is a stressful experience that can quickly degenerate into wheelspinning. How do we prevent it from becoming psychologically overwhelming?

Here’s one practical solution, from the great American choreographer Twyla Tharp. Over the past 50 years she has won countless awards while blurring genres and dancing to the music of everyone from Mozart to Billy Joel, and somehow has found the time to write three books. “You’ve got to be all things,” she says. “Why exclude? You have to be everything.” Tharp uses the no-nonsense approach of assigning a box to every project. Into the box she tosses notes, videos, theatre programs, books, magazine cuttings, physical objects and anything else that has been a source of inspiration. If she runs out of space, she gets a second box. And if she gets stuck, the answer is simple: begin an archaeological dig into one of her boxes.

I have a related solution myself, a steel sheet on the wall of my office full of magnets and 3×5 inch cards. Each card has a single project on it—something chunky that will take me at least a day to complete. As I write this, there are more than 15 projects up there, including my next weekly column, an imminent house move, a standup comedy routine I’ve promised to try to write, two separate ideas for a series of podcasts, a television proposal, a long magazine article, and this chapter. That would potentially be overwhelming, but the solution is simple: I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top. They’re active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner. I don’t fret that I will forget them, because they’re captured on the board. But neither do I feel compelled to start working on any of them. They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.

From MESSY: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Gropu, a division of Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Tim Harford.

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