There may be times when organization and disorganization can work harmoniously in your life.

I recently visited an artist friend in his creative space, a room in his house where his paintings, sketches and mixed-media musings incubate into masterpieces. My initial response was jarring to say the least.

The tools of his trade — his pens, paints, brushes, pastels, charcoals and precision-cutting implements (scalpels? I’m no expert) — were meticulously arranged in one corner of the room. Each element had its place.

Sharpened colored pencils had their nest and were organized into a perfect Roy G. Biv array. Brushes were displayed in a logical order — short to tall, tight to bushy. Rulers, levels, sandpaper, scalpels — each had a specific space perfectly designed for ergonomics, aesthetics and practicality.

And then there was the actual artwork.

Art is Chaos

The 75% of the room not dedicated to his implements was comprised of works of art in progress.

There was a canvas on an easel with only a disembodied arm painted on a bile yellow background, golf balls in a bowl of what appeared to be Thousand Island dressing and a mangled, rusty birdcage with a Nerf basketball, bottle of Scope and ball peen hammer inside.

To me, the scene was chaos.

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All the partial Picassos and disjointed Donatellos just gave me the jitters, along with a dozen other arguably grotesque and certainly unfinished creations strewn around the room. To me, the scene was chaos.

In Order to Create Chaos

As a licensed clinical psychologist, I typically help clients create order from chaos. We work to find meaning and structure in their lives with the belief that clarity leads to better decisions and lower distress.

Excess “noise,” whether audible or visual, tends to distract focus and create a sense of unease that can become overwhelming.

My own artistic interests tend toward the written word and music, which typically follow a certain structure with rules (jazz and free verse aside). I find structure and boundaries comforting. The disorder of the artwork in this room made me feel unsettled and activated, like when your coffee spills and you jump to minimize the damage. I asked my friend if he felt the same way.

“Hell, yes,” he said. “And that’s the point.” I was stunned. “I need to walk into this room and feel movement. Pieces at various levels of completion force me to step into works-in-progress, and I gravitate toward whichever project calls to me. The fact that they are partially finished motivates me to move them forward — maybe a little, maybe a lot.”

“So what about your tools?” I asked. “They’re perfectly organized.”

“Yeah,” he said. “My supplies are always in order. I need to know everything is there when I need it, or I can’t get started.”

The Organized Mess of Creativity

As it turns out, this “mess equals creativity” idea is backed up by psychological research. Karen Vohs at the University of Minnesota conducted experiments in which subjects were asked to answer questions about charity and self-care as they sat in a clean or messy room.

Surrounding yourself with disorder jump-starts the creative process.

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The experimenters found that “a clean setting leads people to do good things: not engage in crime, not litter and show more generosity,” but also found that “being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries and societies want more of: creativity.”

So it’s true — messes stimulate creativity. According to Vohs’ study: “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights.” This is exactly the idea behind my friend’s art studio — surrounding yourself with disorder jump-starts the creative process. And the opposite is apparently true as well: “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

Looking around my friend’s studio, at his yin and yang of chaos and order, it was clear that both were necessary. Without orderly tools, it wouldn’t feel safe to create.

Order Builds Creativity

There’s a long history of psychological theories that support the stability first, creativity second model. Applying this to relationships, attachment theory says that in order to achieve a healthy, creative, curious independence, we first need to establish a secure base with a caregiver.

The American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory we now refer to as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which describes how, as people, we need to have our basic biological, safety and relational needs met first before we can venture into improving our self-esteem or reaching our full potential.

Balancing Order and Chaos in Your Finances

So how does all of this relate to your finances? For most of us, money is a huge, complex and stressful part of life. Few of us are born with the talent and interest to stay on top of our finances all the time.

To keep from feeling completely overwhelmed, we can start money habits that give us a stable, orderly foundation while making room for a little unstructured indulgence. For example, you might want to calculate your flexible spending number — the amount of money you’re left with each month after paying your necessary monthly bills. You can establish the stable order first, then have more freedom in how you spend everything that’s left.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware that Payoff highly values both the stable and the creative. When it comes to financial security, you know that convention and playing it safe is what you expect from a lending institution managing your debt or savings.

But you also desire a thriving, creative environment that breaks free from the stale and stagnant and creates fresh insights instead.

Take a look at the work we’ve done on Joy, our educational and entertaining videos and the many other ways we’re re-creating your interactions with money. It’s because of our stable foundation that we’re free to think and create outside the safe deposit box.

Order or Chaos, Which is for You?

No, disorganization and chaos isn’t always a bad thing, it just has a place and time, the same as organization and order.

But when it comes to expressing the unique parts of you, take risks and view it all as a work in progress.

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I encourage you to learn the lesson I took from my artist friend. When it comes to your fundamental tools — your relationships, career, finances and self-care — maintain the level of order and structure that makes you feel safe.

But when it comes to expressing the unique parts of you, take risks and view it all as a work in progress. Remember through all the failure, revision, and trial and error — life works best when you’re working from a solid foundation, but it’s richer when you play in the chaos of exploring, expressing and creating.

Written by Dr. Ryan Howes, who is a board-certified clinical psychologist, a clinical professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology, a blogger for Psychology Today and a member of the Payoff Science Team. He creates his own chaos playing guitar in a rock band made up of psychologists.

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