Messy Desks and Creativity

From the Web

The Telegraph, UK, reports about a new study that compared messy desks with tidy desks.

As a young secretary at IBM, my desk stood in an open area, close to the room my boss resided in. Those were the sixties, the days when open spaces and cubicles began to appear in offices. The décor in the presently popular TV series Madmen looks almost exactly as my environs back then. To have a cluttered desk was an absolute no-no. The filing cabinet that stood close by showed neatly labelled folders and hanging files – no unruly piece of paper stuck out to liven up the scene. Of course my outer appearance mirrored this smoothness and perfection and I excelled in finding any document within seconds.

And why would we question Einstein?
Would we question Einstein?

At home, I lived in a mess; my wardrobe was stuffed with clothing, drawers held a jumble of sweaters, underwear, nylons with and without ladders (no pantyhose back then), dainty handkerchiefs and gloves. Makeup and cosmetics in the bathroom cabinet displayed a similar chaos. But it took precisely such disarray to balance the high maintenance and polished look at work!

The press office building in Pune 1 was a bamboo shed and held only minimal office furniture. A small table with the typewriter had just one drawer with a couple of pencils, whiteout, typing- and carbon paper. None of us had many ‘things’ to clutter our work spaces with, yet creativity was at a high peak in all quarters. Rajneeshpuram provided more comfortable furnishings with more potential to clutter – yet I remember when the pencil patrol would stealthily show up and confiscate any surplus items they could find. Yet also here, creativeness blossomed in many ways of expression.

And cleanliness was next to godliness.

Fast forward – I am sitting at a large comfortable desk with a collection of decorations I enjoy seeing there. The drawers hold a variety of work items (yes, also more than two pencils) some of which I haven’t used in years but I know that they are there – in case. I feel comfortable even when papers are strewn about, notes pile up, coloured post-its remind me of things to do and an empty coffee cup vies for space with a glass of water; sometimes I have to dig out the phone from under research materials. Yet creativity blossoms amid the disorder because I am aware where everything is. There’s one trick that I have learned in the communes – in the evening I clean up the mess to start afresh the next day.

Now a new scientific study shows that working at a messy desk may actually help you think more creatively. The Telegraph reported that psychological scientist Professor Kathleen Vohs and fellow researchers at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, found that being surrounded by clutter can promote creative thinking and stimulate new ideas.

In contrast, working at a clean and prim desk may promote healthy eating, generosity and conventionality.

The group mapped the behaviour of people working on messy and clean desks running a series of experiments. For example, participants in the study were given a choice between a new product and an established one.

Those in the messy room were more likely to prefer the novel one – a signal that being in a disorderly environment prompts a release from conventionality. Professor Vohs stated: “Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of – creativity. Previous research has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things, such as not engaging in crime, litter and showing more generosity.”

So messiness has its virtues while tidiness has its merits too!

In an alternative experiment, participants were asked to come up with new uses for ping pong balls. Overall, participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses as their clean-room counterparts. But their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges. According to Professor Vohs, “Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a massive difference in people’s behavior.”

The researchers are continuing to investigate whether these effects might even transfer to the internet. Preliminary findings suggest that the tidiness of a webpage predicts the same kind of behaviour.

Professor Vohs added: “We are all exposed to various kinds of settings, such as in our office space, our homes, our cars, even on the Internet. Whether you have control over the tidiness of the environment or not, you are exposed to it and our research shows it can affect you.”

Well, I am as happy as a pig in the mud sitting at my muddled desk, elbowing some CD’s I haven’t gotten around to copy out of the way, while lustily typing up this article.


The Telegraph: Having a messy desk makes you ‘more creative’


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