Tidy or Messy Desk: Which is Best For The Mind?

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“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” —Albert Einstein

Both Albert Einstein and writer Roald Dahl famously worked at very messy desks, and it never seemed to do them any harm.

And yet the messy desk can attract smirks and even censure in the office.

So, how to solve the great messy/tidy desk debate? Who is right?

Well, new research has found that order and disorder in the environment have different psychological consequences.

In their first experiment participants were asked to fill out some questionnaires in an office (Vohs et al., 2013). Some did it while the office was clean and tidy and others did so when it was messy, with office supplies and papers strewn about.

Afterwards they had the chance to donate to charity and choose a healthy or unhealthy snack. The results showed that:

“Being in a clean room seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them. Compared with participants in the messy room, they donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar.”

So the workplace that wants compliance and good behaviour is probably right to put a premium on tidy desks.

What, though, if you want creativity?

In another experiment participants were asked to come up with loads of uses for a ping-pong ball. This is a typical creativity test that measures the ability to come up with new ideas out of the blue.

Now the messy desks did better than the clean desks:

“Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of: Creativity.”

More broadly, though:

“Orderly environments promote convention and healthy choices, which could improve life by helping people follow social norms and boosting well-being. Disorderly environments stimulated creativity, which has widespread importance for culture, business, and the arts.”

So, both the messy and untidy environments have their advantages and disadvantages and both can be used to your advantage.

At the start of the creative process, for example, you want loads of ideas, so gravitate towards messy areas.

But, as a project progresses you need to narrow them down, refine and create order from the chaos. Perhaps this is when tidy spaces come into their own.

These findings may well also apply online. The researchers have been doing follow-up tests on the internet. Their preliminary results suggest that tidy websites encourage playing it safe while more messy ones encourage creativity.

This study helps explain why:

“…many creative individuals with Nobel prizes and other ultra-prestigious awards prefer—and in fact cultivate—messy environments as an aid to their work.”

Image credit: Porro

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 7 August 2013

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License