Unstructured Organization Can Empower Your Creativity and Productivity

People spend their whole lives chasing the right formula, the right combination of tasks, or the right organizing tools to give them a leg up. If only we could follow some formula, conform our approach to“proven” steps, would we finally achieve our full potential.

What if by trying to rigidly organize the way we think we are actually constraining our thinking and reducing our potential?

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, and his desk. Image source: Complex

What looks to others as a disorganized mess may in fact be your brain’s way of unlocking your creativity and lowering inhibitions.

In the September issue of Psychological Science, Kathleen Vohs, PhD, of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, found that working in a tidy room encourages people to do socially responsible, normatively “good” things like eat healthfully and give to charity. But working in a messy room tends to help them try new things and come up with creative ideas.

What we can conclude is there are benefits to be found at both ends of the spectrum between minimalism and chaos. Our challenge is to discover the unique sweetspot along that spectrum that puts our own creativity and productivity into harmony. Where do we fall on that spectrum.

Chaos is often in the eye of the beholder. What looks to me like a mess might be a very intricately organized environment that makes logical sense to your brain. Just like your own desk, everything has its place and you probably pile, group and put down items in pretty much the same pattern everyday. But if you were to look at your co-worker’s desk, it may look like pure chaos. Odds are, they keep the same organization day after day and it doesn’t change much, even if the content does, and it works well for them. Walk around your office and you’ll find, like snowflakes, no two desks are ever organized the same way.

What makes a “messy” desk a productive desk? We can identify some underlying laws that govern our productivity at our desk while also nurturing our creativity.

Natural Constraints

First, we need to recognize the natural constraints built in. A desk has a limited amount of surface space to place your resources. Because of this constraint, it forces us to prioritize what sits on the surface of the desk. We put resources we want quick access to, resources that are really important, and resources we use multiple times a day. Everything else goes in drawers, filing cabinets and bookshelves.

Dennis Crowley, Foursquare founder and CEO. Image source: Complex

Resources we keep on our desk tend to be:

Important — Tools we use to accomplish our task at hand. Notepads, pens and pencils, calculators, tablets, computers and phones.
Relevant — To the day or week’s tasks we want to accomplish.
Inspirational — Stuff that reminds us of why we are doing the things we do (think of a photo of your family or a 6 month gantt chart).

Resource Proximity and the law of Seven

Studies have shown that your brain gets overwhelmed when it sees a list of 7 options or more; it wants to shut down. For this reason, we tend to stack, group and list resources that are used for common tasks and goals. Each stack and grouping on our desks is a macro approach to organization that allows our brains to focus on what to expect to find in that pile of resources.

These groupings, when less than 7 resources, are highly effective to our ability to identify relevancy. But these groupings aren’t in a vacuum. They are often part of a larger effort. We can then take a macro view by placing these group closer or father apart, using proximity as another indicator of relevancy and importance.

An organized desk using proximity and grouping. Image Source: The papery.

Take a look at your desk right now. You may have your keys, pens and pencils, and even a purse or wallet grouped close together, but in the far corner of your desk. Then, side by side, there might be your notepad, a pen, then your keyboard, mouse and computer. These are right in front of you. Then between your notepad and your keys, you probably have some sticky notes or a project plan. You are using proximity to help you navigate your resources and be more productive.

Visual Cues

A picture is worth a 1000 words isn’t just a cute metaphor. We use a resources shape, color, and pattern to identify what it is long before we read the title or description associated with it. Just look at these three examples of a document.

Before you even read the content, you could probably figure out that one is a letter, one is a flyer, and one is a report. Even though they are all portrait, white backgrounded documents. These visual cues are a huge tool we use in identifying a currently relevant resource without having to spend too much time and reduce our productivity.

Closing Thoughts

If we want to find our sweetspot on the spectrum between the benefit of chaos and minimalism, understanding the constraints of the space we work in, the way we group our resources, and the visual ques those resources tell us, is essential. Only then can we begin to calibrate our most productive and creative intersection.

How Middlespot Was Designed Around These Concepts

When we designed middlespot, we focused on unlocking this unique, chaotic approach to organization that empowers so much creativity. How could we unleash this organizational approach people take to their desks and apply it to their digital lives. We built in three key principles necessary in designing the underlying framework of the middlespot platform:

Categorization by Proximity

Because middlespot uses a borderless desktop, the principles of Cartesian mapping come into effect. Our users can place resources anywhere they want on their desktop. Instead of forcing you into grids of rows and columns, you can group related stuff into virtual piles. This provides the unstructured freedom to group resources together in a way that makes sense to you. The desktop default visible space is enough to effectively view 5–7 resources at a time.

Because these groupings aren’t in a vacuum, it’s important that you see these groupings in context to other groupings. By zooming out to a higher view (like stepping back and looking at your entire desk), you can see these groupings. The proximity of these groupings at scale lets you navigate quickly and effectively to engage with specific resources.

Prioritization through Visual Cues

We deliberately used image representations of your resources to improve your ability to quickly identify your next action. Files are represented with actual thumbnails of the document (not a generic icon with a description), weblinks are displayed as real screenshots of their page, not just a hyperlink address, and plugins are formatted to fit and work with their active data in a space no more than 1/5th of the average browser window.

All of this makes you much more productive in the speed at which you can move to your next action.

Minimized Distraction

Our goal was to put in just enough underlying framework to actually encourage you to interact with your stuff in a way that works best for you, and make the tools of middlespot fade into the background. The focus is around categorizing and prioritizing your everyday assets, in a visually comforting display.

All activity on middlespot is as flat as possible, reducing screen reloads and keeping everything within a click to complete the action. The tools can be hidden away to keep your focus solely on your resources, while the navigation can be done using your mousewheel, keyboard keys, and fingers. Even our colors are selected to help spur different feelings of engagement. Blue to relax you when using our help pages to reduce anxiety, while pink helps drive more positive excitement and energy when viewing your content.

We hope you’ll give middlespot.com a go and see if it helps you manage your everyday, productive online life.