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Clean vs. Messy Desks: What Does Your Style Say About You?

You try to take care of your desk. You cup your pencils, coaster your soft drinks, and pile your papers so that there’s more empty space on your desk—the same kind of empty space that leaves you free to focus and be more productive.

But as Albert Einstein said, “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk?”

In other words, is a tidy desk really all it’s cracked up to be?

Some of the research may surprise you. Yes, there are many benefits to having a free and clear workspace, but when you really sink your teeth into what the science says, you’ll realize that the notion of “clean=good,” at the least, requires further development.

Clean and Messy Both Have Powerful Effects

Conventional wisdom (think Gandhi’s “cleanliness is next to godliness”) would have you believe that a clean, minimalist workspace eliminates distractions. And without distractions, what else is there to do but be a productive, effective worker? Messy desks are bad — for the likes of little kids who spill their juice boxes– and there’s nothing else to argue.

But a study by a researcher at the University of Minnesota found that both clean and messy desks have a host of complex effects.

For instance, people with clean bedrooms were found more likely to donate to charity or eat healthier foods. Meanwhile, people with messy desks found more creative solutions to hypothetical problems posed by the researchers.

‘People in the messy room are more creative,’ says Kathleen Vohs, a psychological scientist. ‘Cluttered minds can lead to all kinds of pathways and solutions.’

These psychological effects should not be ignored. One study even found that people who kept tidy were more likely to be religious—perhaps lending credence to Gandhi’s assertion after all. But another study found that being clean can lead people to form harsher moral judgments on others!

In short, neither the clean nor the messy desk was found to be particularly “good” or “bad.” Instead, they each promoted psychological states with varying advantages—advantages that can be better for some situations than others.

Is Organization Always Worth It?

An entire industry has sprung up full of consultants and motivational speakers who can help you get more organized, but are they worth the big bucks? Many of these speakers simply want you to get more organized without providing ample evidence that you’ll be better off in the long-run for your efforts.

Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder argue that clutter is not something to be feared– it may actually be highly beneficial in a number of ways.

These guys argue that the costs of ongoing organization—time spent on regular desk maintenance, brainpower put into organizational solutions—are not worth the investment in time.

The truth about tidiness, as you’ve seen, is a little more complicated than believing in organization for organization’s sake. Evidence suggests that keeping tidy can provide different benefits than does keeping untidy—but both provide benefits. Our suggestion? Keep your desk exactly how you like it ;).

Do you believe a clean desk is the key to productivity? What’s your desk look like? Please share in the comments below!

  • Dan Par

    Sure you can have a messy desk as long as you can put your hands on that crucial file or that special tool you may need. If not you’ll just get frustrated and waste a lot of time. So be messy if you like but know your mess!

    • Emma Siemasko

      Dan, I love that line– “know your mess.” If you’re so disorganized that you misplace important files or tools, you probably need a cleaning. I always say that messy is ok as long as it’s not dirty :)

  • J. Wayne Collingsworth

    Thanks for the interesting article. There are some excellent points made. Our company policy is that any area that our clients visit or an area that affects productivity has to be maintained in an orderly manner. Our personal workspaces are somewhat left to our own designs (since we are in the interior design trade). Judging by the information in this article, our staff is split about 50/50 in the ” clean versus orderly” desk philosophy. I think it might boil down to creativity versus discipline (or “focus” as it’s known today).

    • Emma Siemasko

      Thanks for the comment. We actually have an office cleaning in two weeks because we’ve gotten a bit too messy. You don’t want to see my desk– I’m definitely one of the messy onces.

      We aren’t customer-facing– we usually see our customers over the internet like how we’re seeing you– so sometimes things get a little messier than we like. Our team does an awesome job of keeping public areas like the kitchen clean though :)

    • theFreelanceDesigner

      Do you see any difference in the work produced by both groups? Just curious.

      • Emma Siemasko

        Hm. I’m not sure what the difference is. I know that as a creative person I feel more at home in an environment with a tiny bit of clutter. It would be interesting to give people the same task and see how they completed it in messy and clean areas.

  • Christine Conway

    I for one appreciate the perspective of this article. I’m a Feng Shui and Energy Coach and I always stress to do what makes you feel good. And in Feng Shui I often share that too much clutter or too much time spent worrying about everything being perfectly clean … is equally as draining to your energy. Loved the article and just shared with my list.

    • Emma Siemasko

      Thanks for the comment, Christine! I love that you’re a Feng Shui coach and recommend doing what’s comfortable for you, as opposed to what other people say you should do. I’m curious about what the desk of a Feng Shui coach looks like!