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What your workspace says about you

Whether your desk is clean or messy, both can have psychological advantages.

By Sally Wadyka Aug 6, 2013 7:46PM

When I went downstairs to my home office today, the piles of paper and other clutter on my desk were too much to deal with. So I whisked my laptop away to my perfectly clean and uncluttered dining room table to sit and write. And maybe, having those two, starkly contrasting options is actually a good thing.According to new research just published in the journal Psychological Science, there are benefits to working at a clean desk as well as to working in a total mess.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota conducted a series of experiments to look at how people functioned in different types of workspaces. The first one involved two groups of people -- one group sitting in a tidy office, the other in a messy one -- filling out questionnaires. When they were done, the participants in both groups were given a chance to make a charitable donation and they were offered a snack of either an apple or some chocolate.

The results showed that those who’d spent time in the clean room consistently gave more money to charity and chose the apple over the chocolate on their way out, compared with those who’d been in the disorderly space.

Based on that, you might think, okay, I’m going to clean up my desk right away since it will obviously make me into a more virtuous person. Well, it might, but don’t be too quick to do away with your office clutter. The researchers also conducted a second experiment to see if there were any advantages to working in a disaster zone. And it turns out, there are.

This time, the two groups of subjects (again, one group was in a clean room, the other in a messy one) were asked to generate ideas for new uses for ping pong balls. While both groups came up with about an equal number of ideas, impartial judges rated the ideas from the messy-office group as more creative and interesting.

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” said Kathleen Vohs, the lead researcher, who concluded that messy rooms inspired more creativity.

So maybe I should go back to my messy desk to get my creative juices flowing. Even if it will make me want to eat chocolate for lunch.

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Aug 7, 2013 7:58PM
And JUST what is wrong with chocolate for lunch?!?!?!?!
Aug 7, 2013 7:48PM
It has long been repeated, the old saw of,  "A cluttered desk means a cluttered mind." with the standard come-back of,  "Then, what does an empty desk mean?"
Aug 7, 2013 7:57PM
Wish I could add a picture of my desk right now.  It is about as cluttered as they come.  As a consulting engineer, that might suprise some, but I do a lot of creative designs and it seems to help me work.  Also, the only time I seem to lose stuff is right after I clean it up.
Aug 7, 2013 8:21PM
I am constantly told to clean up my office in the small family owned business I work for.  I wear 10 different hats and have many projects in the works on any one day.  It's hard to have a neat desk.  The boss's wife is always giving me grief.  I work better in a messy environment.  When I have cleaned it up, I can't find anything.
Aug 7, 2013 7:52PM
Perhaps I'll file a late discriminatory complaint based of the research findings. I was consistently negatively cited in my performance appraisals for having a cluttered desk but congratulated for my creativity and for "thinking outside of the box". 
Aug 7, 2013 9:12PM
I will take a productive mess over an idle tidiness any day!
Aug 7, 2013 8:18PM
I don't really see this being the case.  I'm a more left brain type i.e. very organized, analytical, etc and not very creative compared to my right brain friends who create music and art.  Me being at a messy desk is not going to change how I approach creativity, it's going to make me want to straighten out the desk before I can begin to think about anything else.

My 2 cents.
Aug 7, 2013 8:24PM
We were told to clean up our work space and it made me less efficient.  Material I had taped to the window of my cube was now buried in a desk drawer and when I needed it I had to waste time digging for it.  
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