Cluttered Desk, Cluttered Mind? Maybe Not.

The holidays are long done, and the greyness of midwinter is all around us.  Whether you are back in your office now or working from home, sitting back down to start a new year at your work desk can be daunting, especially if the same piles of files, notebooks, junk mail, and post-it notes from 2021 are still there to greet you.  A cluttered desk is a cluttered mind, right?  Behavioral Science shows that for some of us, that’s absolutely true. But, if you happen to like your personal domain just the messy way it is, don’t let the organizers of the world desk-shame you.  According to scientific studies, and the example of several famous scientists, a perfectly organized and clean desk isn’t the only way to work in a productive and creative manner.  As Albert Einstein, captain of a famously messy desk himself, said: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Albert Einstein, member of the Messy Desk Club

An organized desk is a wonderful thing, but it’s theorized that messy desks may actually allow for more creativity.  Einstein was just one of numerous scientists who had shockingly messy workspaces. If your desk is a mess then you are in the company of Steve Jobs, Alan Turing, Thomas Edison, and —  owner of a monumentally messy desk – Isaac Newton.  Psychologist Bill Crawford says that there is room in the world for both the organized and the cluttered.  According to him, the best desk is a desk that allows you to be productive and creative, no matter how it looks.   But for some people, it seems that being in the center of what looks like clutter actually allows them to see the full range of their work, remind them of projects, and, most importantly, see interconnections between everything they are working on.

Isaac Newton, member of the Messy Desk Club

People who work better from a clean desk should keep it clean and organized, because that is what’s good for them.  But there’s no need to side-eye that messy colleague.  Eric Abrahamson, author of  A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, says that: “While it might appear otherwise, a messy desk isn’t devoid of order.  What seems like a mess can actually be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system. On a messy desk, the most time sensitive projects tend to be found at the top of the pile, while the work that gets ignored tends to get relegated to the bottom.  Not having a strict system can lend itself to more innovative ideas when you least expect it.”  Some of the messiest of desks, after all,  were the birthplace of some of the greatest ideas, such as the theory of gravity and the modern computer!

Alan Turing, member of the Messy Desk Club

The clean desk vs. messy desk debate has been going on so long that there have actually been some serious scientific studies on it.  Social Psychologist and Applied Behavioral Scientist Dr. Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota explored how a clean desk versus a messy desk might affect behavior.  Does clutter really clutter the mind?  In her study, researchers had participants fill out questionnaires in both orderly and cluttered spaces.  After this activity they were asked if they wanted to donate to charity, and offered a snack of an apple or some dark chocolate.  Those who were in the clean room were more likely to opt for philanthropy and a healthy snack.  Those in the messy room took the chocolate and fewer opted to donate.  Participants in each room were also asked to come up with new ideas for the use of ping pong balls.  Participants in both spaces came up with the same number of ideas, but the messy room’s ideas were rated as more creative by judges.  

Thomas Edison, Member of the Messy Desk Club, at his Messy Desk

Vohs concluded that “disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can encourage fresh insights.”  In contrast, orderly environments appear to encourage convention and playing it safe.  No matter what your desk looks like, the science says that there is room for all preferences at the…um…desk, because all no matter if you are an organizer or a clutterer, your way of working has its advantages.  Happy National Clean Your Desk (or not) Day!

References and Further Reading:

Talk by Eric Abrahamson:

Dr. Bill Crawford: What Does Your Desk Say About You?

Successful People with Messy Desks:

The Work of Dr. Kathleen Vohs (link to article on study at bottom of page):

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