Long Live the Messy Desk

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My desk is a bubbling cauldron of entropy. In the crevices between my computer, books, and monitors, you'll find Metrocards, half-used tubes of orange-flavored Airbornes, empty water bottles and ink-smeared notepads. And guess what, I'm getting more creative by the minute. This sentence is actually dripping with more creativity than if a neat-freak wrote it ... or that's what a study from the University of Minnesota says. "Whereas prior research on physical settings has shown that orderly settings encourage better behavior than disorderly ones, the current research tells a nuanced story of how different environments suit different outcomes," the study's abstract explains. 

In plain English, that means messy deskers are not terrible people. They've just been misunderstood. While the positives of neat desks, like better behavior, have been measured, the positives of messy desks haven't. And what the researchers at the University of Minnesota found is that messy desks bring out creativity. The New York Times explains the experiment: 

college students were placed in a messy or a neat office and asked to dream up new uses for Ping-Pong balls. Those in messy spaces generated ideas that were significantly more creative, according to two independent judges, than those plugging away in offices where stacks of papers and other objects were neatly aligned.

Don't be surprised if the next great Ping-Pong ball entrepreneur has a messy desk. What the study also found is that messy deskers aren't afraid to try new things. People with neat desks, are more steadfast in their choices:

In the final portion of the study, adults were given the choice of adding a health "boost" to their lunchtime smoothie that was labeled either "new" or "classic." The volunteers in the messy space were far more likely to choose the new one; those in the tidy office generally opted for the classic version.

Those reassurances are nice for messy deskers who harbor guilt. But they could be used by people looking to get any advantage they can when it comes to work. Say a project calls for out creative thinking and you are a neat desker. Letting that stack of papers get a little crooked could be good. And messy deskers tasked with a project that is more about tradition and convention could benefit from sprucing up their grubby work spaces. And, well, treadmill deskers, you are still freaks.

Note: The images are not of the writer's desk. They belong to the Atlantic Wire's culture editor, who is a slob the Wire's most creative thinker. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.