Tips & Stories

Change Your Desk, Change Your Life?

Change Your Desk, Change Your Life?

Posted by Valerie Bisharat on 12 Jul 2017

Posted by Valerie Bisharat on 12 Jul 2017

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The idea that orderliness breeds success reigns supreme. But what if messiness, especially a messy desk, offers its own rewards? What if we could eat healthier, be more generous, or better solve creative conundrums by curating our workspace differently, by making them either tidier or messier?

Messy creatives: let’s start with you

Clutter gets a bad rap. But relatively new research from the University of Minnesota affirms the common justification that messiness encourages creativity. Kathleen Vohs, the scientist and professor who spearheaded the study, first noticed that desk tidiness influences outcomes when she moved office buildings during her Ph.D. studies. Vohs suspected that the new environment was influencing her test subjects, and ended up discovering through research that her hypothesis held weight.

To gauge relative creativity in tidy versus cluttered environments, Vohs and her team of researchers asked 48 participants in both clean and messy rooms to come up with as many uses for ping pong balls as possible. The result? Those in the messy room generated five times as many highly creative ideas compared with their counterparts.

“Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of: creativity,” Vohs shared. She elaborated, “Cluttered minds can lead to all kinds of pathways and solutions.” It should be noted that the study was small, so we shouldn’t take the findings as gospel.

 “Cluttered minds can lead to all kinds of pathways and solutions.” — Dr. Kathleen Vohs

Some of history’s foremost innovators built miraculous order from messy workspaces. Upon Albert Einstein’s passing, journalist Ralph Morse visited Einstein’s office at the Institute of Advanced Studies and discovered his desk littered with stacks of paper. Einstein had once said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Toby Hsieh have also all been known to work from cluttered desks, and Mark Twain is said to have cleaned up minimally.

Of course, heightened creativity is the result of more than just having papers strewn across your desk. Recent neuroscientific research shows that in creative-minded people, the areas of the brain that create imagination are especially well-connected. While letting your workspace run a little wild might augment creativity, the link is not necessarily causal.

Clean your workspace to clean up your diet?

On the flip side, according to Vohs’ research, having a clean desk might offer some unexpected benefits: namely, a greater likelihood of making healthier food choices. In the same study, researchers asked 34 participants in the clean and messy rooms to fill out a questionnaire. Upon leaving, the participants were offered either a candy bar or an apple. 67 percent of the tidy room participants chose the apple, while only 20 percent of the cluttered room ones did.

“When people are in a tidy room, they seem to perform behaviors and make decisions that go along with what’s expected,” Vohs explained.

In that same vein, when asked after finishing the questionnaire whether they’d like to donate to charity, 82 percent of the clean room participants said yes, as compared to 47 percent of cluttered room participants. Vohs and her team suggest, then, that orderliness produces generosity too. These results may or may not be representative of human nature, however, due to the tiny size of the study.

The link between organization and stress

In his book The Organized Mind, cognitive psychologist Daniel J. Levitin explores the evolution of the human brain. He examines how we can organize our minds and lives in the age of information overload.

Of the process of organizing, Levitin shares, “Many successful people report that they experience mental benefits from organizing or reorganizing their closets or drawers when they’re stressed. And we now understand the neurological substrates: this activity allows our brains to explore new connections among the things that clutter our living spaces while simultaneously allowing the mind-wandering mode to recontextualize and re-categorize those objects’ relationships to one another and our relationship to them.”

In other words, for some of us, the very act of organizing our spaces reduces stress. And that, in turn, has the power to make us more productive. When we feel stressed and pulled in different directions – perhaps by the clutter on our desks — taking a couple minutes to organize it might help us sort our thoughts.

Should you keep your desk tidy or messy?

Rather than curating your desk in one way or another indefinitely, consider simply changing your workspace to see how it influences your experience.

If you’re typically a more tidy person, what might you learn if you let clutter accumulate for a couple of days?

If you consider yourself to be more of a messier person, what benefit might come from organizing your desk?

Perhaps by stretching our boundaries, we can experience more of the flavors life has to offer.

Leave us a comment: do you keep a tidy or messy desk and why? We’d love to hear from you.

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44 Comments RSS

  • Jim Dvorak

    Here is a shot of my desk (https://goo.gl/g3upWx). I should be über creative.

  • Tracey Smith

    I keep a tidy desk as it actually HELPS me be more creative, however, it certainly does NOT mean I make better food choices as sadly I don’t.

  • Brian Bojan Dordevic

    The debate on the clean versus tidy desk reminds me of a diet debate. Some people are taking this way to far, and defeating the purpose of the conversation.

    When it comes to determining the productivity of your desk, it is highly individual experience. Some people can easily tolerate the mess, and as such, for them it is truly an utter waste of time to spend time organizing something that doesn’t really bother them, nor hinder them.

    On the other hand, people that are easily distracted, might suffer diminishing returns from mess. But we have to keep front and center, that these two modus of operation are individual, and what works for one person, as said in the article, might not work for the other.

    Tendency to keep things neat and ordered is nice, but not 100% necessary.

    • Emery St. Cyr

      When I was much younger (I’m 82 Now) I worked for a school supply House and I was in charge of all the small items like pencils etc. I put away all of the items as they came in and filed all the orders and packed them up for shipping. I got to the point that because of my orderliness I could look at my order and no that if had an item or not, which saved me time. I could also answer questions from the sales people when they needed to know if we had something and where they could find it if they needed it right away. Having things organized helped me to be more efficient and an asset to my employer.

    • Colin

      The only time a messy desk impacts me is when I’m approaching it to do work. If it is messy I feel the urge to stop and tidy it up, so I often get distracted from what I had intended to do. That’s why I tidy my work space before I leave it.

  • Thomas Glenroy

    I keep my desk at work relatively free from clutter, while my home workspace / writing nook is a disaster. But I still know where everything is.

  • Mark Gilvey

    I can’t work in a messy environment because there are too many distractions. Plain, flat, clean and my brain can focus on something and work it out. That said, after reading this, perhaps the clean environment allows me to focus on finding solutions to challenges only. Perhaps I need the cluttered environment for idea generation. Perhaps you won’t be able to make creative ideas when switching to a messy environment until you work past your need to organize it. There must be some fog to go through I might think. Having said that, I’m sitting in a room that is more/less clean. It’s someone elses organization and definition of clean, what then does that give me?

    • Kassandra Powers

      The Need To Make It Your Own…Have It Your Way…

  • Laura Leader

    I consider myself very creative and I have an extremely cluttered desk. I don’t think the clutter makes me creative though, I think I just don’t notice, and therefore obliviously create, clutter because my mind is busy focusing on thoughts and ideas, not my surroundings.

  • Bob Ewell

    As a math/stat guy, I’d like to reinforce what was casually mentioned in the article: it’s possible that whatever causes creativity also lends itself to a messy desk. So for neatniks to clutter their desks won’t necessarily cause them to be more creative.

  • Dani

    At work, I tend to create piles of work behind me on my credenza and then I forget what’s in those piles. But having a clear desk in front of me helps me focus on the task at hand and I feel I get more done. I can certainly identify with the people who say that organizing their desk or closet helps with stress because sorting through the work in those credenza piles helps me reprioritize and reassures me that I’ve gotten all the high priority stuff at the top. I really need to learn to eat the frog.

  • Suzanne Fluhr

    Interesting. I’m a recovering lawyer. Having a messy desk was definitely counterproductive when I was doing legal work. However, I’m now also a Zentangle enthusiast. Zentangle is a meditative art form. When I’m doing that, it doesn’t seem to matter how messy my work area is — unless it’s sooo bad I can’t find my work materials. Been there. Done that.

  • Ken

    It should be noted that the study was small, so we shouldn’t take the findings as gospel.
    or on the other hand… you’ve given reasons that both GENERAL styles may be better. sorry Evernote marketing but this is just more look-at-us marketing dross. there are many types of messy/cluttered and many types of “tidy”. these are meaningless measures of any one human’s thought value. like, was Einstein’s sometime messy hair something one can copy and be instantly more effective in high-order thought?

  • GRACE LIM

    I have been using the free version of Evernote to put down all my notes during trainings, sermons, etc. Obviously, found it excellent. Seriously considering going Premium now. But I noted that whenever I use the Evernote Camera to take photos of projected slides whilst in training, I can’t ever edit the image to crop out the background & projector screen on the sides.
    Will the Premium version allow for photo editing.

  • Bernard Armstrong

    I tend to work off of a organized desk with most things out of sight

  • Joe

    For me it depends on the kind of work I’m trying to do. My writing desk looks a lot like Ray Bradbury’s, full of odd items that have a way of jogging something loose in my imagination at just the right moment. I don’t edit at that desk, instead choosing a completely clear dining room table, papers in neat stacks, and a deadline to get it out of the way for dinner. I write loosely and edit logically, and each work space reflects the job it’s used for.

  • moja

    well, whether one has a tidy or chaotic desks — one good gauge would be is that “if you still have a job?” So if you have, maybe its working whatever kind of clutter is around you.

  • Fabio

    I agree with Brian, you will probably find that most people are Hybrids. A blend of both that works for them.

  • Pushkar

    My work desk is usually very organised and my home desk is usually cluttered and I am most comfortable with both situations!

  • Trevor

    “Einstein had once had once said” he had a stutter?

    • Pamela Rosen

      Trevor, No, but apparently we did. I’ve fixed the error. Thank you for helping to make a more perfect blog. I’m impressed by your grammar hawk eyes! -Pam R

  • Peter Bakker

    I was thinking that your blog was going to take us from the physical desk to our Evernote “desk”. As we move physical paper out of our lives and go paperless, one could argue that Evernote is our new desk. It certainly is true that with the incredibly amount of emails, blogs, websites and other social media, the amount of stacks of “paper” is exponentially growing these days. Our desks (=life) is getting so much more cluttered…. How to organise that using Evernote is the real question….

  • Monica Pham

    I like to think that I work best in the middle. Everything in my study room has a place but I’m not too particularly fussed over its presentation.

  • Michael Hoffman

    Why would anyone want clutter? Are you really more creative when you are pushing things to the side because you don’t have room to move your elbows? Is it really advantageous to not find that paper, book, magazine article, pen, show tickets, phone number, when you need it desperately? The least amount of objects on a desk brings out the most amount of creativity because there is less distraction. You can take your “uses for ping-pong balls test” and file it away. I’m not buying any of that. I have never worked with an executive who went back to being a slob after helping them build the habit of only keeping what they need on their desk. Never.

  • Carol Schwaner

    Fascinating. Thank you for sharing.

  • Brittany

    Wow! This is so true. I keep my desk spotless with very little on top at both home and at work. This helps me to focus on my responsibilities and not get distracted. I have found when I have “let my desk go”, I can’t seem to focus on what I’m currently doing. And what’s funny, is my boyfriend is the very opposite. We often joke about our differences.

    I can also relate with the organizing and reorganizing when stressed. I actually do this quite often, and find very refreshing.

  • Marc Bourassa

    To my mind the mess is often a sign of many works-in-progress. Perhaps the clean-desk folks tend to have a bit more order in their lives generally? Such as balanced checkbooks and the like. Having a handle on your finances frees you up to make donations knowing that you are not causing other problems for yourself.

  • Dee Gupta

    I am currently on summer break and it’s customary for me to clean, declutter files and piles of papers that somehow take over my room. I cannot tell you how wonderful it feels. It’s like all this stress is slipping away. I actually I will be more productive, happier and creative after decluttering. Started a new organizing system. Hope it works!

  • José Vólquez

    Interesante artículo. Mucho tiempo pensé que era mejor ser una persona organizada, principalmente por temas de creatividad. Pero como menciona, el balance es la opción correcta.

  • Mel

    I also have observed that the tidy vs messy desk issue is highly individualized. For my part, I am a “visual” person and tend to get distracted easily; have been for most of my 72 years. And, I like to work on multiple projects at the same time, each of which generates its own “stack” of clutter. So, some years ago I adopted a method of keeping my desk uncluttered (read, nothing on it but what I am working on right this minute) while keeping my precious “stacks” on a table behind me, out of sight. Each individual needs to find his/her individual solution. It’s great to share and to read other approaches.

  • Kassandra Powers

    Sometimes when our lives are very busy and we don’t have time to organize, that brings about the need to spend time alone with our thoughts to be able to organize. It is much like having a play date for some of us. It is very therapeutic to clean and organize, but how can we do that when all we have is a clean desk? After all it is mind over matter. Messy equals our need and want for cleanliness and organization. Think About It. Talk To You Soon. Now you can smile, it’s okay.

  • BCM

    When I organize I lose things. If I don’t organize I remember EXACTLY what I was thinking when I last used an item and I can always find it.

  • Terry McCutcheon

    Isn’t it entirely possible that this social scientist is trying to make a “symptom” of a creative mind a conscious act? I suspect some creative people are naturally messy and others are naturally tidy. Creativity is not a learned trait – I believe it is an inherent talent and a messy work space is probably just a symptom not something you can change and hope it improves your creativity.

  • Jamie Miles

    Right now my desk is such a mess it turns me away. I’ve been so busy, I’ve just dropped things off thinking I need to sort through this. When school and routine comes, first priority is making my desk pleasantly cluttered again. Not catastrophic levels.

  • Vanessa M Shinmoto

    I am not completely sold on these studies linking creativity with clutter and mess because the results suggest a correlation that does not necessarily mean causation. As a formerly practicing fine artist who once worked in a studio, messiness and clutter indicated my immersion in the wondrous process of painting. However, at office day jobs, I cannot tolerate any hint of clutter on my desk. I hate 8 x 11 paper and hate how difficult it is to find that one document in a messy pile of papers and documents. I had to quit one job because the manager insisted on passing out printed copies of memos and on saving every draft on a printed hard copy. I felt like I spent half my day digging through piles just to find what I needed and it stressed me out too much. I find it much easier to organize digital documents using naming conventions that I can then search in Windows. One interesting tidbit of note: I am a healthy eater. I think messy v. tidy is more about personal preference and personality than creativity.

  • Alison

    “For some of us, the very act of organizing our spaces reduces stress.” YES. I periodically get so stressed out by the clutter on my desk that I feel as if I can’t do *anything* remotely productive until I clear it off. The process is painful to begin but always feels cathartic. Inevitably, clutter begins to amass immediately and then a few days (or weeks) later the process begins again. I guess my right and left brains can’t figure out which one is boss.

  • James

    taking time (up front) in keeping things organized (clothes, business papers, reports, etc), saves time & stress at the end of the day.

  • Nikki Crawford

    Yes, how we experience clutter is very individualistic. Some people feel a great sense of relief after they sort and stow, others seem to have no need for that. Paying attention to how you feel in your setting seems to be key…if you feel more creative and clear minded after you tidy-up, then that’s what works for you.

  • Damien Morgan

    A colleague of mine used to sneer at people with tidy workspaces claiming they could never experience the thrill and joy of finding a document thought lost.

  • Naomi

    I get a lot of teasing at work for my messy desk. My friend jokingly blackmails me for Tim Tams – she threatens to report me for having a messy workspace unless I bring chocolate biscuits to work! I can’t work in a neat environment though – my job involves training content development and I thrive on different ideas flying around everywhere, captured on bright pink post-it notes, in articles and notebooks, and on random pieces of paper.

  • Pille Kapetanakis

    I love when my desk is clean and in order. I find I’m much more productive that way. When papers start piling up all over the desk, I get worried there may be something that I’m forgetting to do. So I end up tidying up often to save my sanity 🙂

  • Tisha

    I agree big time that a de-cluttered work area & home creates a de-cluttered mind. I had a both and the flow of creativity is drastically different. You may feel your mess is an organized one and I did the same but the difference was unreal.

  • Uli Schackermann

    On the more tongue in cheek side: Orderly desks are kept by those you are to lazy to search for a document.

    Do what suits you best then that will also work best for you.

  • Paul Hsieh

    By the last paragraph in my reading, I tend to agree with what’s mostly been written in the article. I practice tidiness and cleanliness in my life. Yes, I feel more productive and my mind is clear when I live and work in a tidy environment. I tend to also agree that messiness could lead to creativity. But personally, the messiness is only limited to the ‘project’ at hand and tidiness is restored afterwards.