Before You Straighten Up Your Desk, Read This

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In the dystopian future, there will only be two tribes: those with messy desks and those with orderly ones. The messy desk people will live unhealthy and inefficient lives but come up with interesting new ideas. The organized desk people will be fit and get all their work done. At least, that’s one possibility if the results of a new study hold up.

The research, which was published in the journal Psychological Science in August, set out to examine how messy desks affect people. The scientists, fully aware that entire management businesses have have been built around the desktop disarray vs. table tidiness wars, wanted to analyze how people react to the mess around them, not whether they were inherently messy people.

So in a series of experiments, the researchers plopped a set of volunteers down in front of messy desks and a different set in front of tidy ones and tested how they behaved. In one trial, participants had to do some busy-work, then choose between a chocolate bar and an apple when they left. In another they had to devise new uses for a ping pong ball. In a third, they had to look at a menu and choose whether they wanted a vitamin boost in their smoothie, and whether that boost should be “classic” or “new.”

It seems that the desk made a difference. The tidies were twice as likely to pick up the apple on the way out as the messies—their office environment seemed to instill more discipline (to eat healthy, at least) in them. Those faced with shambolic desks, however, seemed to come up with more innovative ideas for how to re-use a ping-pong ball. (It might be salient here to gaze upon a picture of Einstein’s desk. Or Mark Twain’s—although, really, who could keep a desk that small tidy?)

It could be, suggests lead author and behavioral scientist Kathleen D. Vohs from Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, that messy desks lead to novelty seeking, which tends to favor creativity and innovation. It’s easier to think outside the box, perhaps, when you can’t actually find the box. This is supported by the results of her third experiment, in which the untidy tribe chose the “new” flavor vitamin boost much more often than the “classic.”

Certainly there are some people who need to keep their workspace spic and span, including, say, chiefs of internal security at the Justice department. And there are those who can’t do it that way, like perhaps the former Vice President of the free world. We know whose side he’ll be on if those two desk-tribes ever go to war.