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.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Porro
The Psychology of Work
→ This post is part of a series on the psychology of work:
- 10 Psychological Techniques to Help You Get a New Job
- 10 Psychological Keys to Job Satisfaction
- Why Career Planning Is Time Wasted
- Ten Powerful Steps to Negotiating a Higher Salary
- Can You Get Things Done Without Making People Hate You?
- 7 Ways Work Can Make You Physically Sick
- The Problem With Narcissistic Leaders
- 7 Reasons Leaders Fail
- Top 5 Career Regrets
- The New Science of ‘The Meeting’
- 10 Keys to Building Great Teams
- Which Professions Have The Most Psychopaths?
- 4 Qualities of Truly Horrible Managers
- Tidy or Messy Desk: Which is Best For The Mind?
- How To Set Better Goals: Avoid Four Common Mistakes