[View Point] In praise of a messy desk!

Columns - View Point

January 28, 2014
Dan Moreland

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never trusted colleagues in the office with meticulous workspaces. I can accept orderly. I can even put up with neat. But meticulous — not a single paper out of place; freshly sharpened pencils strategically positioned in a readily accessible desk “cozy”; the smell of lemon-scented Lysol Disinfectant Wipes wafting through the air — makes me question not only their competence, but their sanity! Who has the time, or energy for that matter, to live out the Gospel according to Martha Stewart: “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

My desk, on the other hand, looks like something out of one of those Hollywood thrillers about the CIA, where a hostile power is about to overrun our embassy (think Ben Affleck in “Argo”) and everyone is frantically rifling through their files to destroy our country’s most sensitive documents, dozens of folders lying on the floor, papers strewn about throughout the office in a sea of white; in short, controlled chaos! It makes for a great movie, but it’s not nearly as compelling in real life, just ask my co-workers. And it’s not because I don’t look anything like Ben Affleck or, despite dedicating my career to the written word, failed to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Damn that Ben Affleck!

That’s why my heart skipped a beat recently when I came across a story in the Sept. 22nd edition of The Sunday New York Times Magazine that highlighted groundbreaking research out of the University of Minnesota trumpeting the benefits of a messy desk. (I found the article, not surprisingly, under a pile of file folders and a half-eaten bag of Fritos in the corner of my workspace. Ironic huh?!?)

Titled “Clean Up Your Desk!” by Gretchen Reynolds, the article chronicles three different experiments that shed light on the pros and cons of orderly environments vs. disorderly ones. In the first experiment, a research team led by Kathleen Vohs, Land O’Lakes professor of excellence in marketing at the University of Minnesota, randomly selected college-age students who spent time in adjacent offices, “one of which was exquisitely neat, the other wildly cluttered with papers and other work-related detritus,” according to Reynolds. “The students spent their time filling out questionnaires unrelated to the study. After 10 minutes, they were told they could leave and were offered an apple or a chocolate bar as they exited. Those students who sat in the orderly office were twice as likely to chooose the apple than those who sat amid the mess.” Hence, an orderly office promotes healthy eating apparently. Who knew?

In a second experiment, however, 48 students were asked to come up with creative new uses for ping-pong balls, with participants completing this rather daunting task in either an orderly or disorderly room. “Those in messy spaces generated ideas that were signficantly more creative, according to two independent judges, than those plugging away in offices where stacks of papers and other objects were neatly aligned,” Reynolds reported.

“Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries and societies want more of: creativity,” Vohls said in a press release from the Association for Psychological Science, which published her findings in its journal Psychological Science. “The researchers also found that when participants were given a choice between a new product and an established one, those in the messy room were more likely to prefer the novel one — a signal that being in a disorderly environment stimulates a release from conventionality. Whereas participants in a tidy room preferred the established product over the new one.”

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” according to Vohs and her fellow researchers. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

It’s nice to know there are at least some benefits to a messy desk. It makes all those years of searching for that article I misplaced or that note that went missing somehow worthwhile, validating my workplace habits, while nurturing my creativity and “out-of-the-box” thinking skills. And no less an authority than Albert Einstein agrees. He once famously said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

I rest my case!


The author is publisher of PCT magazine.