How important is a clean desk?

25 February 2012

During my time at CMI I was hectored numerous times for the general untidiness of my desk.  My protestations that it was merely a reflection of an active mind went unheralded and we eventually attempted an office wide clean desk policy.  I appreciate that saying "I told you so" isn't particularly dignified, but this blog is for all of you out there that are quite comfortable with a bit of clutter.

For you see there is now research showing unequivocally that far from being evidence of cluttered thinking, a messy desk in fact shows the opposite, that the owner of said desk can call upon clearer and more organised thinking.

The study, conducted by Jia Liu from the University of Groningen, also went as far as suggesting that this clarity of thought is not consigned merely to the owner of the messy desk.  Oh no, their team suggested that it spreads to neighbouring colleagues as well.

Liu and her colleagues conducted several experiments to determine how people respond to clutter in their professional lives.  Participants were asked to sit at a messy desk, a tidy desk and one that was a bit of both.  They were then given a tricky mental test to perform after having previously given their personal preferences for general order and simplicity in life.

The results showed that those sitting at the messy desks produced much simpler solutions to the test than those sat at a tidy desk.  The messy desk inhabitants were also found to value simplicity more than their tidy colleagues.

Liu and her colleagues concluded: “Opposite to conventional wisdom, we found that participants working at a messy desk displayed simpler cognitions. This is because messiness induces a need for simplicity.”

The study suggests that someone else’s mess might do just as well to spark a need for simplicity. “Other people’s messy desks may indeed help us to organize things simply, as in our experiment the mess was not generated by the participants,” Liu says. “They were placed in a messy environment.”

Now obviously an environment that encourages simplicity of thought is not always desirable, but in an age where information floods forth in ever greater quantities a messy desk is perhaps no bad thing.

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