It’s Okay to Have a Messy Desk

It’s also fine to have a clean one. There are advantages to both.


Clare Kumar keeps her desktop minimal. It holds a computer equipped with two screens, a small stack of notebooks, some index cards, business cards she collected at a recent event, pens and pencils and a cup of tea. “If there was more on my desk, it would be in my way,” says the Toronto-based productivity consultant – who plans to sort and file those business cards soon. Yet she’s dealt with many clients whose work style thrives on a messy surface. “I think it’s quite personal,” she says.

Ever since the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up hit the bestseller list, clutter has become a hot topic of conversation. But a tidier desk is not always better. The evidence is mixed, showing that pristine work surfaces have value when it comes to productivity, but a little chaos may be good for triggering ideas.

When messy works

Research has shown that clutter encourages our brains to think more creatively. A 2013 study out of the University of Minnesota had people dream up new uses for Ping-Pong balls. Those who performed the task in a tidy space came up with less creative ideas than those who were doing their thinking in a messy place.

Some messiness is also necessary when our job requires us to have a lot of stuff around. For instance, Kumar has seen clients deftly move between their computer and pages of reference materials and personal notes. It’s called “process mess,” she says, “and it should be embraced.”

If you’re worried what your co-workers might think of your cluttered desk, then don’t be too concerned. A 2015 Robert Half survey found that 66 percent thought it was acceptable to have a cluttered desk, while 13 percent considered messy employees more creative.

Personal effects also help employees feel more comfortable, while colleagues appreciate tchotchkes too. “When there’s a picture of a husband or a best friend, it makes you more approachable,” says Ashleigh Brown, regional manager for Robert Half. “It opens you up to others getting to know you a bit.”

The value of clean

Some research, such as a 2011 brain-stimulus study out of Princeton University in 2011, suggests that visual clutter impacts our ability to think. And University of Minnesota researchers conducted a study that showed that people in a tidy room made more generous and healthy decisions than those surrounded by stuff.

If you want to declutter, start with assessing your sorting and filing system. Know what you can throw out, and find an organized place to file – both digitally and on paper – old projects.

One advantage to being neat is that you may fit in better with today’s work environment. Many companies are now experimenting with so-called hot-desking or hotelling, where employees are required to work at a different space every day. It helps to be neat if you don’t have a regular desk anymore, otherwise you’ll have to spend more time packing up your stuff at the end of each day.

Many companies also have “clean desk” policies to encourage productivity and protect proprietary or personal information. That means keeping computers password-protected and leaving desks paper-free when you leave for the day.

How to clean up

You’ll know you’re too messy when you don’t want to walk into your office, says Kumar. “That’s when you have a problem,” she adds. If you do want to declutter, start with assessing your sorting and filing system. Know what you can throw out, and find an organized place to file – both digitally and on paper – old projects.

Set aside a day to do the brunt of the work. Then, every three days, do a quick tidying up of your desk, she says. Then you can decide if you should be working in super-neatness or controlled messiness. Ultimately, you’ll know what kind of space you need to do your best work.

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