Change Your Desk, Change Your Life?

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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