How Neatness Counts at Work (Even For Creative Types)

Does your desk look like an organized, well-oiled machine? Or does it look like rats are making a nest and you’re just biding your time, waiting for them to bring you something nice? How you keep your desk can say a lot about how you operate in the workplace, and can even dictate if your brain makes healthy decisions (or not).


(Photo Credit: kaboompics via Pexels)

A Window to Your (Messy) Brain
While some earlier theories pose that “chaos breeds chaos,” recent studies by behavioral scientist Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota, show that there are definite benefits to messiness when it comes to creativity. One of her experiments, when a subject was placed in either a neat and orderly room vs. a “messy” one, showed that the participants were able to think outside the box more and come up with more varied and nontraditional thoughts. Think of the mess as a modern painting, inspiring your brain to make a tangled web of new connections, and you might be more inspired than in a sterile, cube.

Famous Messy Deskers
Many creatives cite famous “messy” thinkers like Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, or even Mark Zuckerberg as proof that a work environment doesn’t have to be neat to inspire greatness. And they’d have a certain ring of truth, according to Vohs’ research. Even Steve Jobs, whose Apple products seem like the pinnacle of order and sleek, minimalist design, was himself a messy desk-haver. (Check out some photos of the desk mess of said geniuses.)

Clean It Up for Health
When it comes to making healthy choices, however, Vohs’ studies showed that those who are surrounded by the chaos of the mess were more likely to choose something bad for them, like a candy bar, as a reward. Those around neatness and order, were more likely to pick something healthy as a treat, like an apple. To translate this to the working world: when you have to consider the impact of your actions it’s easier to see those ends when the path is clear. When we want to be more “normatively good,” we want the clean, orderly desk. When we want someone to go against the norm, we want the clutter.

But,  (Ahem) Your Boss is Watching
While Twain and Jobs may haven’t had someone from HR breathing down their necks, you may not be as lucky. A messy desk, to an untrained eye, could just be an eyesore in your office. If you can’t get away with having your desk as you like, you might keep the storm of paper, notes, and ephemera contained. Until you’re the one calling the shots, you’ll have to try to find your creative inspiration from your clever notepad doodles, not your collection of ramen packets that look like celebrities.

Tell Us What You Think

Are you Team Messy Desk or Team Tidy Desk? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.