Your Messy Desk Could Actually Be Making You More Productive

man in cluttered office

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It’s time to stop feeling guilty about your messy desk. Those piles of papers and stray coffee cups might actually be making you more productive. That’s because people exposed to disordered environments are more likely to be motivated to set clear goals, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Bob Fennis and Jacob Wiebenga asked random people they approached on the street to answer a brief survey about rewards programs offered by stores, Pacific Standard reported. People were asked to express how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statements “I prefer to participate in a program that clearly indicates the total number of points required to redeem for a reward” and “I get an unpleasant feeling from the crowdedness” of the shopping district where they were interviewed. The people who expressed more dislike for the crowded city street also said they would prefer a program that clearly explained how to acquire rewards.

The researchers also conducted a second experiment, where people were again asked questions about a reward program. A different group of participants were shown a grayed out background image that either depicted a neatly organized store, a disorganized store, or neutral images. People were told they had collected half of the points they needed to receive a reward from a retailer, and then were asked how motivated they were to take steps to earn more points and get the reward.

The people who’d been shown the images of the messy and disorganized store were more likely to say that they’d do whatever they needed to do to get the gift. “[D]isordered environments increase people’s preference for clear goals,” the researchers concluded.

Our desire to create order out of chaos helps explains the results, according to the researchers. “[W]hen environmental cues trigger an experience of disorder, or when people have a chronic need for order, and hence when they are motivated to restore perceptions of order, people are more attracted to clear, well-defined goals and motivated to attain them,” wrote authors of the study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

messy desk

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Not only could being exposed to a little bit of disorder encourage goal-setting, but there’s also evidence messy environments can make us more creative and open to new ideas. That’s what researchers at the University of Minnesota discovered when they conducted a series of experiments to gauge how people responded to both orderly and disorderly environments.

The results, which were published in Psychological Science, found people in disorganized spaces were more creative than those in organized spaces. When presented with two choices, they were also more likely to favor the one labeled as new over the one labeled classic. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” wrote researcher Kathleen Vohs. (Two points in favor of neatness: people in orderly spaces made healthier food choices and were more generous.)

Both studies suggest it might be time to rethink the common assumption that clean desks and uncluttered rooms somehow lead to more virtuous behavior.

“Prior work has tended to characterize disorderly environments as capable of producing wild, harmful, or bad behavior, and orderly environments as evoking honesty, prosociality, and goodness. The results of our experiments suggest that the effects of physical orderliness are broader and more nuanced than that,” the University of Minnesota researchers concluded.

Tell that to you boss the next time he hassles you about your messy desk.

Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS

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