In a previous job working for a newspaper, I never ceased to be appalled by some of my colleagues’ untidy desks. Some were shrines to clutter, with empty or half-empty cups left strewn around the desk, slowly advancing on the keyboard. Post-Its dangled from the sides of their monitors for weeks. Books would rest precariously on top of one another gathering dust, unlikely ever to be touched by a human hand. Were the occupants embarrassed by the squalor around them? Heck, no. While I and others whose desks were models of orderliness looked on with horror, they seemed to revel in their disorderliness. The worst thing to my mind was that they seemed to be just as productive and even more creative than me! As it happens, my desk is a model of cleanliness. As I write my phone sits silently to my left, while, to my right, a notebook lies open with a pen, ready to jot down notes or ideas. Apart from the laptop and second computer screen, plus mouse, the only other object visible is my fob, so I can get in and out of the building. But am I missing something? Should people be ashamed of their untidy desks and are they more creative than me? According to Michio Kaku, “It’s pointless to have a clean desk because it means you’re doing nothing.” Albert Einstein put it more forcefully: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Ouch!

Clutter Works Its Creative Magic

Does my penchant for tidiness make me a better, more creative worker? Do I function more effectively than people with untidy desks? The answer seems to be no. In a 2013 study by psychological scientist Professor Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota, participants were asked to fill in questionnaires in tidy and untidy rooms with the following results: Those in the cleaner room tended to

  • Donate more to charity

  • Choose healthier snacks

All of which is very well, but when they asked people to come up with uses for a ping-pong ball they found that while both groups came up with the same numbers, those in the untidy room proved to be more creative. Interestingly, when researchers asked the groups to pick a new product or a novel one, the messy crew opted for the latter. So, what does all this mean? According to Vohs, “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.” Vohs added that they changed the locations six times, yet, “Making that environment tidy or unkempt made a whopping difference in people’s behavior.” A second study also backs that up. According to a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research by a team from the University of Groningen (PDF download), the “problem-solving approaches they [messy desks] seem to cause can boost efficiency or enhance employees’ creativity in problem solving.” One of the researchers, Jia Liu, said that “business and government managers often promote ‘clean desk’ policies to avoid disorganized offices and messy desks for the purpose of boosting efficiency and productivity.” Are messy desks a small price to pay to get those creative juices flowing? They may indeed be nothing to be ashamed of.

Messy desks that build on success

While tidy desks may look aesthetically pleasing, some really successful people don’t seem to mind crowded spaces.

  1. Al Gore has three computer screens perched on his desk, and barely enough room to accommodate a keyboard. Behind him is an even larger desk brimming with papers and books.

  2. A photo taken on the day Albert Einstein died shows sheets of paper and a few books filling all available space on his desk. Just behind his seat is his drawing board where his theories were sketched.

  3. Will Self also operates with a busy desk, surrounded by walls festooned with Post-It notes. Well, they work for him.

 

Takeaway

That untidy desk over there may be harboring the next Einstein or Steve Jobs, which is why the occupant deserves a little more latitude than the rest of us. Me? I may just add a little more clutter to my desk.