The Messy vs Clean Desk Debate
Which type of desk should you have: A messy desk or a clean desk?
Perhaps you might be surprised that I'm actually asking this question. The answer is obvious, right? From a young age we're taught to keep things tidy and to clean up our own mess. Neatness, tidiness and order are the abiding rules of well-organised people, or so we think.
Not necessarily, especially when it comes to having a messy desk.
Here are a few interesting things to think about.
Having a messy desk can promote creativity.
Researchers have found that having a messy desk can stimulate creative thinking and help develop unconventional ideas. In contrast, people with neat desks are more likely to help the mind focus on order and expectations.
Why is this? Psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs explains:
"Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe."
Now this is not to say that we should completely disregard having a clean desk. In fact, it has been shown that people with cleaner desks tend to make better choices when compared to their messier peers and have a greater tendency to donate more to charity and eat healthier snacks.
What these findings do in fact demonstrate is that there are times in a project or during your work where perhaps having a messier desk might be more advantageous. For example, creative thinking and a disregard for convention are more preferable during the ideation stages of developing a new product.
Another highly relevant example: Writing. Personally I have found that my best writing ideas come to me when I have a messy desk. It's weird but I suppose that surrounding myself with stacks of books and post-it-notes provides stimulus material for some of my best work.
Now, you might be wondering: How do people actually get work done when their environment is cluttered?
Ultimately this comes down to personal preference. Clutter might bother some people immensely. Some people might become overwhelmed by the amount of unfinished work sitting on their desk or they might find that clutter clogs up their mental headspace. On the other hand, other people might be apathetic towards clutter and still be able to dive into whatever work they need to do.
Personally I think this is a question of personality and also a question of degree. A lot of us like having a clean environment so we can think without getting distracted by clutter surrounding us. Some of us don't care. And even for those that don't mind having clutter, there may be a threshold of 'permissible clutter' before clutter becomes too much and stifles progress.
Having a messy desk is not exactly a sign of someone being disorganised or not 'having their life together'. Yes, it may be some of those things in certain circumstances, however, bear in mind that the nature of one's desk can also reflects their personality and work preferences.
So, are you a 'messy desk person' or a 'clean desk person'? Or both?
 Vivian Giang, 'Why Having a Messy Desk Can Be A Good Thing', Business Insider (online, 8th August 2013) <https://www.businessinsider.com/benefits-of-having-a-messy-or-clean-desk-study-university-of-minnesota-2013-8#:~:text=A%20new%20study%20published%20in,focus%20on%20order%20and%20expectations.>.
 Association for Psychological Science, 'Tidy Desk or Messy Desk? Each Has Its Benefits (online, 6th August 2013) <https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/tidy-desk-or-messy-desk-each-has-its-benefits.html>.
 Cleveland Clinic, 'Is Your Desk Messy or Tidy? Find Out What It Says About You' (online, 3rd June 2020) <https://health.clevelandclinic.org/is-your-desk-messy-or-tidy-find-out-what-it-may-say-about-you/>.