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

What Does a Clean or Messy Work Desk Say about You?

You have a style. You just don’t know it yet.

Sure, you’ve labored over the choice of a light autumn jacket. Or maybe you’ve perused the Internet many a late night, wrapping your noggin over the quandary of which pair of work boots best expresses your taste in, well, work boots.

But as it turns out, the clutter on your desk (or lack thereof) may have just as much to say about your personality as the deepest of your consumer choices.

A number of intriguing and eye-opening studies into the world of clutter have revealed that your leftover bottle of Coke Zero or mishmash of half-completed doodles can have a powerful effect on your behavior. If you prefer a tidy desk and an ordered office, that too can spell changes in personality that even you haven’t been able to detect.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the effects of tidiness and of general messiness are not the same. They come with both advantages and disadvantages, positives and negatives—and each of these can have a major effect on your work performance.

The Tidy Style: Moral, Virtuous, and Orderly

Admit it: having a clean, newly-tidied desk is a pleasure something on par with taking a relaxing shower. You feel refreshed, reenergized, and, on a psychological level, perhaps even clear of conscience.

That’s not a coincidence. Tidying up your office and even your desk could have an effect on the tidiness of your psyche.

Tidiness and Social Order

How is that possible? It starts with our concept of what constitutes order. A 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that most people equate tidiness with border maintenance. For example: even if a piece of cheese was put away in the cupboards, if it wasn’t where “the cheese is supposed to go,” the feeling of being tidy was not preserved.

But perhaps more interesting, one respondent even reported feeling ashamed when someone else cleaned her cupboards for her, thus ending the perception of being organized. The researchers concluded that keeping one’s things in order isn’t just about cleanliness, but something with its own “cultural meaning.” As the New Republic pointed out about the study,

Tidiness, the researchers concluded, reinforces the structure of social reality and the moral order.

Washing Away More Than Dirt

Ever do something you later regretted and found that the simple act of taking a shower felt you feel a little better about yourself?

Sure, it feels physically good to be clean, but research suggests an underlying psychological effect that helps you feel spiritually clean as well. A 2006 study in “Science” found that…

Daily hygiene routines such as washing hands, as simple and benign as they might seem, can deliver a powerful antidote to threatened morality, enabling people to truly wash away their sins. 

The report found that the act of physically cleaning yourself did indeed help people deal with their perceived unethical behavior. Any threats to a moral self-image were also dealt with during the physical act of cleaning. The researchers pointed out that cleansing rituals have been part of religious ceremonies for some time—and it appears there’s good psychological reasoning behind this.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that an orderly office and an orderly desk can have similar effects on your psyche. And that’s exactly what the research is coming to suggest.

Cleanliness and Godliness: Not Just a Quote Anymore

Gandhi was famous for having said that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Perhaps some sort of deep-seated moral truth in the statement has allowed it to stick around, because researchers are finding that perceived cleanliness actually can help people make more virtuous choices.

In a report called “The Smell of Virtue,” researchers conducted an interesting experiment: they put volunteers in different rooms: one clean-scented, the other “baseline.” These subjects were then subjected to a test: they played an anonymous “trust game.”

The rules of this game were that there were to participants, a “sender” and a “receiver.” The sender could decide how much money to send the receiver, which would then be tripled. The receiver would then decide how to split the tripled money, and whether to return any of it to the sender.

In this experiment, the researchers told each subject that they were the receiver, and that they were given $4, tripled to $12. They were then asked how much to share with the sender. The interesting finding: people in a clean-scented room returned more money.

In a different experiment in the same study, participants in a room with freshly-cleaned windows also decided to send more money to charity.

Messiness: Without Virtue, or Creative Boon?

Reading all of these studies, it would be easy to conclude that keeping a tidy desk suggests that you’re a compassionate person who believes in some sort of moral order or structure.

But what if there are advantages to untidiness as well?

Advantages to Both: a University of Minnesota Study

A study by a researcher at the University of Minnesota found that people with clean bedrooms were more likely to donate to charity—something that jives well with the studies listed earlier on. But there’s more to the story: the people who kept untidy rooms were able to come up with creative solutions to hypothetical problems.

“People in the messy room are more creative,”’ says Kathleen Vohs, one of the researchers. “Cluttered minds can lead to all kinds of pathways and solutions.”

Vohs’ findings were in alignment with the idea that tidiness helps promote a sense of social order. Said Vohs: “When people are in a tidy room, they seem to perform behaviors and make decisions that go along with what’s expected.”

The Efficient Mess?

Authors Eirc Abrahamson and David H. Freeman, who wrote “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder,” believe that there are other hidden benefits to clutter. Their argument? The time spent on maintenance, cleaning, and organizing is all just arbitrary, and not worth the labor.

Considering how the first study in this article showed that concepts of cleanliness had a cultural angle to them, they may be onto something. Especially if you don’t mind a little clutter on your desk every once in a while.

Which Kind of Desk Are You?

Take a look at your desk and ask yourself where you fall on the end of the spectrum—a little outside the box, a little willing to get creative and ignore some of the rules; or someone who believes in order and efficiency, and that cleanliness is indeed next to godliness.

Your desk says more about you than you know. And if you want to change your approach, the next step may lie right in front of you.

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!

  • Mike Hind

    Years of observation underpin my belief in an inverse relationship between tidy desks & cognitive creativity. But I suspect the reason is that creative types tend toward laziness. We hate being untidy but we hate doing non-fun stuff (like tidying) even more. I speak from intimate first-hand experience :)

    • Emma Siemasko

      Mike. It takes a messy, creative person to understand what you’re talking about. I hate tidying up, mostly because I find it so profoundly un-fun, and I want to spend all of my time having fun. Thanks for reading :-)

      • ang

        My friends comment on how tidy I keep my apartment. At the same time I am at a point in my life where I need to be more creative. Maybe I should just let things go for about a week (except the dishes). I bet it would actually be a relief to know my own social order isn’t going to fall apart if I let go a little bit. Thanks for the blog!

  • mitchmistake

    I live in a happy medium. My desk is fairly tidy – scattered and unruly maybe. I try to keep it functional. My workshop however is a disaster, but time in the workshop is for building not cleaning so the mess always wins.

    • Emma Siemasko

      Ha. I am in the same boat. I try to keep my desk as functional as possible but oftentimes the clutter over-takes and there is more than one coffee cup! I live downtown in an area where there is no space for any kind of workshop. It forces me to be clean, but also means I don’t have a place to blow off some team and build stuff 😛

  • lisamanyon

    The appearance of my desk changes. When it’s a little messy, I refer to it as organized chaos. That typically only happens when I’m in the midst of a deadline and need many things visible. :)

    • Emma Siemasko

      Haha. That’s true for me, too. When I am very busy, there are more things on my desk :)

  • i’ll_die_later

    Well. At least my desk’s not filthy is all. What would that say towards the world? That said, we express ourselves subconsciously throughout life and again, this might be one of the more visible ‘tells’ about your internal cognitive priorities. So what more ‘tells’ does our personalities have?

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