Does a Messy Desk Make you More Creative?

Does a Messy Desk Make you More Creative?

A tidy desk shows a tidy mind - or so we are schooled to believe. Keeping your work space neat, organized, with a designated place for everything, from business critical documents to the packet of post its, has long been considered a sign of a well organised and ambitious individual set for greater things. But this is not necessarily true according to recent research.

Conventionally clear of clutter

The research, carried out by Kathleen Voch, a psychological scientist, and researchers from the University of Minnesota, focused on how a neat or cluttered environment might impact our decision making. Volunteers were asked to complete a simple task, with different groups being placed in different locations to do so. Some went into a neat and tidy office, whilst others were led to a muddled and unkempt desk, with documents and the usual sorts of office debris strewn around.

After completing the task volunteers were asked if they would like to donate money to charity, and offered a choice of snacks to take when leaving. The researchers found that those in the tidy offices tended strongly towards the decisions which might be more socially acceptable - offering to donate money and choosing the healthy snack option in this case. The inference is that the neat environment encourages conventional and socially responsible decision making - which might, after all, be precisely why tidy desks have traditionally been encouraged by bosses.

Mess makes more creativity

The researchers didn’t stop there, however, but repeated the experiment, this time with a more creative task - asking groups to come up with as many different uses for a ping pong ball that they could, as opposed to the original experiment which simply asked participants to complete a questionnaire. The results were surprising.

Although both the ’messy desk’ and the ’tidy desk’ groups came up with similarly long lists of used for a ping pong ball, those who had worked at a messy desk produced more creative answers when assessed by an impartial observer. Whilst the mind boggles at quite how creative one can be with a ping pong ball, this certainly sounds like good news for those of us who tend to have more organic systems of desk organisation. Perhaps the chaos actually fuels our creative juices.

Manage your space for success

The experiment was repeated to check how different environments change behaviour, and the results remain similar - the environment that surrounds you has a material impact on how you behave, whether that be a messy desk, car or room. This research, which was published in the Association for Psychological Science journal, ’Psychological Science’, might do more than give you an excuse to put off sorting your in tray for another week - if you’re working on a creative project then you can proactively change your environment to give you more inspiration.

It seems intuitive that certain items might inspire you to do more creative work- as though they are the prompts for thinking outside of the box. And given that modern working requires creativity more often than it requires the following of convention, perhaps it is time that the accepted wisdom about tidy desks being best is consigned to history.

So go ahead and artfully arrange your filing, stick some inspirational images on your wall, and don’t worry too much about the drawer you have full of spare ’bits’ - clutter might just be the secret ingredient to help you unlock your best creative self.


Image: istock