Service of Keeping a Messy Desk

November 11th, 2013

Categories: Health, Messy, Neat, Office

messy desk

Whether I’m frantically busy or not, my desk is a mess [though not as bad as the one pictured above]. I’ve written before about pilers or filers and admitted I’m of the former school. As soon as I put away work, it might as well be in someone else’s file as it can take me ages to find what I need. Sort through the piles on my desk and voila! I find the information in a snap.

The thought of filing everything on the cloud in a paperless office gives me the shivers.

I’ve gotten better at being methodical about selecting file names in my computer but when rushed, I often type the first thing that comes to mind which subsequently doesn’t ring any bells.

So I’m drawn to any study that shows the benefits of being messy.

Gretchen Reynolds reported on what she called a well known fact that organized, predictable people live longer because typically they eat better. She noted that “they also tend to have immaculate offices.”

neat deskOops! I wonder if life insurance companies ask for photos of a person’s office. By the way, I eat just fine thank you. And I’m organized.

In the article “Clean Up Your Desk! But not if you’re looking to be creative” in The New York Times Magazine, Reynolds covered results of University of Minnesota experiments that she read about in Psychological Science. College student choices after answering questionnaires in neat or messy environments were predictable: Offered an apple or chocolate when they were done, more of those in the former chose the fruit and those in the latter, the candy.

However in a second experiment under similar neat/messy circumstances, the students in chaos “were significantly more creative” when asked to propose new uses for Ping-Pong balls. According to Reynolds, Kathleen D. Vohs, a behavioral scientist at the university, was surprised by these findings because “few previous studies found much virtue in disarray.” My bet is that Dr. Vohs’ office is neat as a pin.

smoothieIn the last example, when offered a classic or new health boost in a smoothie, more adults in the messy office chose to experiment than those in the orderly one. Wrote Reynolds: “’Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,’ conclude Dr. Vohs and her co-authors, “which can produce fresh insights.’”

Dr. Vohs advises: To “think outside the box let the clutter rise.” Best neaten up if your goal is to eat well or exercise. “By doing this, the naturally messy can acquire some of the discipline of the conscientious.”

Do you agree with Dr. Vohs that being messy means you are neither industrious nor diligent? Is your desk naturally neat or messy?


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10 Responses to “Service of Keeping a Messy Desk”

  1. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    Years ago, my wife’s uncle complained that when he visited his daughters’ homes, there was no place where he could sit and spread out. “One son-in-law was so neat that I didn’t dare to put anything on his desk. The other was so sloppy there was no room on his desk for me to put my note pad.”

    Each of these sons-in-law were highly successful, by the way, but each had a very specific way of working. One needed to have everything of consequence out and in view—though only he could find what he needed to work with. The other son-in-law could not function in anything but a spare environment—everything in its place and anything of no immediate importance had to be put away.

    Each situation came down to issues of style, personality and comfort. There were no rights or wrongs. To some, “clean” might be forbidding; to others “messy” might be inappropriate—because for some, desktop clutter represents a very sophisticated style of organization.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    If my desk gets too messy, then I must stop and sort or even I go nuts.

    I like to keep my home neat. If magazine piles grow too tall, I wholesale toss knowing that regardless of intention, I’ll never get to read them as they keep coming. [There was a time I subscribed to tons more than I do now and piles could be a hazard.] Inviting over friends and/or family inspires me as does the fact that I like coming home to a neat place.

  3. Peter T. Said:

    I’m a confusion. I dread disorder, and compulsively spend far too much time attempting to both pile and file sequentially, yet my desk is nearly always a mess. I’m not particularly creative, yet I work best if the papers I’m working with are in plain sight somewhere around me.

    This is especially true when I’m cooking. I’m permanently conflicted because my pots and pans are usually squirrelled away down underneath some counter where I can’t find them, but, at the same time, fully realize that sanity (and good cooking) requires an uncluttered work area.

    I’m not sure I buy Dr. Vohs’ arguments about chaos and creativity. Rather, I think our work habits are rather more the consequence of childhood training and personality. What “bright ideas” I do have come to me intuitively in no apparent order or environment, and I suspect the same is true for most people.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree with your last paragraph. When I was a magazine editor some of my best titles came to me in the shower and I always thought that was because something was pounding my head. I often solve problems while walking to work.

    I’ve written about this ex boss before: He would follow his wife around the kitchen and wash a spoon she’d used to stir a pot and put on the counter or a spatula after she’d flipped a burger. Too much.

    Sounds like you need a huge kitchen and doubles on everything including the sink. You could use pan A, place it across the room in a deep sink when done with it and move on to the next chore with pan B while pan A soaked out of sight.

  5. Lisa McGee Said:

    I’m afraid I keep a pretty messy desk. But somehow I keep going – it is especially messy when I’m finalizing an issue and doing final edits but then I do a big tidy and start fresh. It goes through phases but i’m slowly making new systems and would prefer to be far more organized!

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You are one of the most creative people I know. I wonder how many, like you, who found and run magazines and businesses does Dr. V meet and work with in the course of a day or year?

  7. JBS Said:

    I can’t bear anything messy. My spouse says I’m nuts over it but I kept my office neat when I was working and now that I’m retired, I keep my house neat and my desk. (At least it looks that way, I do have a couple junk drawers hidden anyway.)

    Our son and daughter are the opposite, perhaps because I’m so neat. I can’t bear to look in his room, now that he lives with us as our caregiver, but I told him he couldn’t mess up the rest of the house, and our daughter’s apartment is far from neat. I guess they get the benefits of being messy and I didn’t. On the other hand, I got a lot done at work because I had everything organized, and I get a lot done at home for the same reason.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    My mother wasn’t the neatest person I’ve met and at the same time she was organized and diligent. I like to think that I’m a bit like her. [She volunteered at the AARP in NYC doing tax returns for free until her late 80s proving she had an organized mind.]

    As I worked with you for a few years, JBS, I can attest that you worked at warp speed and never missed a deadline and that you had armloads of good ideas.

  9. Lucrezia Said:

    Right now, I’m writing from clutter, and not giving a holy hoot about what some anal sounding pundit says. I strongly suspect the less one listens to so called authorities, the less one is stressed. Longevity depends on a variety of factors, few, if any having to do with ordinary mess. It’s a crying shame anyone should be influenced by whimsical nostrums, many of which do more harm than good, and go a long way towards creating unease, if not downright unhappiness.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Such experiments and studies always fascinate me. I take them a little more seriously than a positive horoscope. Others must enjoy reading about them as well as they have generated ink for as long as I can remember.

    Like you I felt that the professor showed her hand by her conclusions. I suppose to conduct valid experiments and studies it’s best to be consistent and not creative or the results won’t be acceptable to the academic community. So she’s in the right job with her neat desk and you and I at our messy ones doing what we do.

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