What the tidiness of your desk says about you

Those of you who have read the chapter in my Management: Theory and Practice text, Managing Priorities (Chapter 8 in the current–5th–edition) or my time management book Making Time Work for You, know that I’m in favour of tidy desks and, to coin one of my Dad’s favourite phrases, ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’

I wasn’t always a tidy desker; quite the opposite. Then I was put in charge of a team and either that had to change or I’d I knew I’d find myself looking for another job! The reason was simple: no clear follow-up systems and I couldn’t find anything on the storage space that was once my desk. I can tell you from personal experience that no one can manage effectively that way.

But a quote I’ve seen a few times, purportedly from Albert Einstein, has given me pause for thought, as have a couple of articles I’ve read saying that messy desks aren’t all that bad. Here’s the quote:

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,
of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

Einstein, Roald Dahl and my husband all work(ed) at messy desks and if messy desks are good enough for them…

But then again, most research shows that tidy desks–a tidy environment in general–leads to better performance. But I’ve just come across a study done at the end of 2012 that sheds a bit of light.

The research was in three parts. The first part showed that people placed in an orderly room chose healthier snacks and donated more money to charity than people placed in a disorderly room. The second part showed that people placed in a disorderly room were more creative than people placed in an orderly room. And the third part showed that people placed in orderly rooms preferred more traditional, classic items while people placed in disorderly rooms preferred items labelled as ‘new’.

The conclusion seems pretty clear: The state of the room you’re in, and therefore the state of your desk–orderly or disorderly–affects your decisions and level of conventionality, generosity and creativity.

This means that when you need to get your creative juices flowing, retire to a messy place. (I don’t advise messing up your office or your home–you only have to tidy it up again!). When you need to think clearly and logically, and maybe ‘tow the line’ a bit, make sure you’re working in a tidy space.