Is a Cluttered Desk Such a Bad Thing?

Posted by David Hoffman in blog | November 16, 2015

Almost every office has that one person whose desk has the power to ignite the obsessive compulsive tendencies of even the most tolerant coworker.

At Matchbook, that desk happens to be mine.

Amongst the Darth Vader mask, various brightly-colored toys and the wax pig holding my pens, you can typically find a disheveled arrangement of job tickets, post-it notes and various other scribbles detailing reminders and instructions for the various projects I’m working on. Though I may never find myself the recipient of any awards for workspace organization in my lifetime, a cluttered desk, to me, is a state of creative feng shui.

Now, I understand that I’m certainly not in the majority with this way of thinking. A cluttered desk is often negatively associated with procrastination, disorganization or difficulty focusing and thinking clearly. Depending on individual personality traits, some of these assumptions may not be so far from the truth. But if individuals with cluttered desks are relatively commonplace, there has to be some kind of benefit, right?

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

Albert Einstein, widely accepted as one of the most influential theoretical physicists of all time, was not widely accepted as an expert in keeping his desk tidy. His desk, the subject of a great deal of editorial photographs, was nearly as crazy a spectacle as his iconic hairstyle. Einstein’s affinity for cluttered desks places him among the ranks of other successful cluttered desk icons such as Mark Twain, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. [1]

Don’t go spreading papers around and emptying a trash can on your desk just yet, though, because I’m not trying to make the argument that a cluttered desk makes you smarter. What it does have the potential to do, however, is influence the way you think.

In a study published last year in Psychological Science, a research team found that working at a clean desk influences people to be more conventional, more generous and to make healthier choices. In contrast, they found that a cluttered desk positively influences people’s creative thinking ability. [2]

Is this one study definitive proof that the state of your desk is directly tied to the work you do and the decisions you make? No, not quite – and possibly not even in my own case. But it does serve as an interesting insight into how our environment at least has the potential to accomplish this, and might give a deeper insight into the work habits of your coworkers.

To test the findings of this study for yourself, walk around your office and take a look at the desks of coworkers who exhibit certain observable characteristics. Does the most creative person in the office have the messiest desk? Does the person with the tidiest desk always eat healthy or have a cheerful phone voice? What about your own desk? How does its current state make you feel, and how does it usually look when you’re working on major projects? You might be surprised at what you find, and may even observe some ways in which to improve your own space to work more effectively.

Taking these observations into account, consider trying a more hands-on approach to your own space. Add or remove decorations, office supplies or other miscellaneous items to or from your immediate workspace, or change the position of your computer, phone, lamp or anything else that you use frequently. You might find that changing or frequently rearranging these elements has an impact on how you think, interact with others and manage your daily tasks at work. Or, you might instead discover that the arrangement you had at the beginning was the best option for you, which can also be helpful to know.

So, the next time you’re about to start on a big project at work, or if you’re simply suffering from a lack of creativity, start with your desk. You never know, it just might work for you.