Are you a neat person or a messy person? It’s usually the case that you fall into one of two categories. Personally, I can’t think clearly unless everything is in its place, and everything is neat an in order. I didn’t used to be like this. When I was a teenager I was quite happy to live in squalor, but as I’ve grown up I find my life simply runs more efficiently if I know where to find my car keys, where last month’s electricity bill is and where I’ve filed that last budget report.
Not everyone is like this. I knew a very important and impressive company lawyer who worked for one of Sydney’s top AM radio stations. He was always neat-looking and well put together but when I ventured into his office I was amazed (and appalled) to find he had dozens and dozens of loose manila folders and files littering his desk. In all seriousness, they stretched from one end of the room to the other, often three or four deep.
When I questioned him on this, he told me that if he “put something away” it meant to him that it was done, finished, completed and not to be thought about again. So keeping all these files “within vision” helped him to prioritise his day – or something.
Messy environments can lead to valuable outcomes & increased creativity
It seems that he may be right. Some new studies and statistics point out that a messy environment can indeed be more productive. A famous quote often trotted out in these studies is from Albert Einstein, who said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
Psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs does research at the University of Minnesota and was part of a study published in Psychological Science.
She found that, “Prior work noted that a clean setting leads people to do good things: Not engage in crime, not litter, and show more generosity” she explained. But the story does not end there. “We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting.”
Surprising? The researcher continued to say that “being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of…. Creativity.”
“We used 6 different locations in our paper — the specifics of the rooms were not important. Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a whopping difference in people’s behaviour,” says Vohs.
There are different levels of organisation – from general to extreme
Another recent study called Home Sweet Messy Home: Managing Symbolic Pollution researched by the Journal of Consumer Research asked people “to break tidiness rules on specific occasions.” This was done because “the danger-beliefs associated with transgression are context-dependent.”
They wanted to look at the cultural meaning of ordering your possessions, and how this affects us, including our productivity. The results indicated that people create tidiness “rules” using “classification systems” that allow them deal with things that arrive at and move around their home
The researchers looked at how we order things. Some people have a one-level order system and other have a two-level or even three-level system. For example, some people would put all stationery into a drawer, others would break it down by type or even colour or use, getting more ordered and specific.
They said, “To cope with disruptions to their classification systems, people react by either modifying the rules or tolerating the transgressions. Being aware of these rules and coping mechanisms can help us better deal with adversity.” Something that we all need!
Sometimes neat is better, sometimes messy works too
The science is not cut and dry: messy environments are sometimes more productive, and sometimes being in neat and ordered surroundings is better.
Another study called Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity found “whereas prior research on physical settings has shown that orderly settings encourage better behaviour than disorderly ones, the current research tells a nuanced story of how different environments suit different outcomes.”
The scientists did a variety of different experiments to test out their points. The first experiment revealed that compared with people in a disorderly room, participants in an orderly room chose healthier snacks and donated more money to those in need.
In the second experiment, participants in a disorderly room were shown to be much more creative than people that were placed in an orderly room. This could be beneficial to “left of centre” thinking, the scientists supposed.
In the third experiment, there was a “crossover effect.” People in an orderly room tended towards options that were more “classic” and “traditional”, while those in the messy room tended towards options that they felt were “new” and “innovative”. Having a messy desk at work could mean that not only are you more open to creative ideas, but your brain may be thinking in a more fresh and innovative way – worth a try!
Can a neat and ordered desk make you feel safer and more conventional?
Rachel Feltman, reporter for Quartz who focuses on health, science and technology, talks about the broken windows theory. This suggests that if an area of space is allowed to fall into disrepair, it is more likely to produce an atmosphere of depression and lawlessness – more windows will be broken and things become more dilapidated more quickly.
She says that “orderly environments encourage convention and playing it safe. Such tendencies can imply good, bad, or simply neutral consequences depending on the context.” Canadian journalist, bestselling author, and speaker Malcolm Gladwell agrees with this, saying, “The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world.” A clean desk might help workers simply start from scratch – and begin afresh each day.
However, social researcher Hugh Mackay said, “Nothing is perfect. Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational.”
So, there are definitely arguments on both sides regarding clean vs. messy desks at work. One of the takeaways from this is to simply do what works for you – and not be made to feel ashamed if you don’t have the neatest desk or more organised stationery drawer – this could indicate genius!