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Is A Messy Desk Really Better For Creativity?

Productivity experts sing the praises of organized workspaces, but is a messy desk really better for your creativity?

[Photo: Flickr user Pete]

It took the better part of a Sunday, but my office was looking great. My files were organized and my workspace was clear, except for my laptop and monitor, as well as a notebook, cup of coffee and pen. Months of feeling guilty about the state of my office were now a memory.

Then I sat down to work, and something odd happened. I had trouble focusing. I felt like I was forgetting something. It was uncomfortable for me to not see my "stuff." Before long, the papers and piles started to grow again, and I felt productive and more at ease.

While many books and articles have been written about the virtues of an organized workspace, it turns out that clutter may have its benefits for some people. A 2013 University of Minnesota study published in the journal Psychological Science found that, while tidy desks may promote healthy eating and generosity, messy desks may have their own benefits. Study participants in rooms where the desks were paper-strewn and the office was generally cluttered were found to be more creative.

But don’t go trashing your desk in search of a few new ideas. We have some fundamental misconceptions about clutter and its impact on the workplace. To create an environment that works best for you, it’s important to understand your "clutter style."

Change Your Definition Of Clutter

Brooks Palmer believes that our concept of clutter is all wrong. Creator of ClutterBusting.com and author of Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back, Palmer says that clutter isn’t necessarily piles and items that appear disorderly. Instead, clutter is made up of items we keep that do not serve us—that book you’re never going to read, the papers you think you need to hang onto because you have to, etc. If you need it and it’s giving you something positive, it’s not clutter, he says.

"When you get rid of the clutter—the things that aren’t serving you—yes, the place looks good, but you also feel better because you’re getting rid of the things that aren’t helping you," he says.

Look At The Impact

We’re all affected by our surroundings—and some people just work and feel better in a space that isn’t too orderly, says Susan Biali, M.D., life coach and author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You. For some people, clutter is very negative, making them feel disorganized and unproductive.

These people may feel a sense of being out of control when their surroundings aren’t neat. For others, "controlled clutter," where they feel more comfortable when they can see their files and projects, is a more productive environment. If you know where things are, you feel more comfortable that way, and it’s not negatively impacting your ability to work, then don’t try to meet unrealistic standards of so-called organization, she says.

Stop Kidding Yourself

Being honest about your clutter style is an important start to putting in place work systems that best suit you, says Julia Mossbridge, M.A., PhD, and visiting scholar at Northwestern University Department of Psychology. (She and Palmer are married.) If you’re not in the best environment for your work style, you’re going to waste a great deal of time working against your tendencies.

That may mean you spend too much time trying to keep everything tidy, then being distracted because you do better in a more haphazard space, or it may mean that you waste time looking for papers and other items because the environment is too chaotic and you can’t find what you need. Either way, it’s not ideal for top performance, she says.

Create Systems Around Your Style

Once you get a sense of the environment that’s best for you, Biali says you can develop your organizational style from there. If you do need files around you, try limiting them to those you’ll need within the next day or two. Create a nearby space for those items, like financial records or reference books, that you might need on a weekly basis. By creating an organizational system that still honors your personal style, you’ll be more effective, she says.

"It's really noticing and developing an awareness of how you get triggered by your environment. With respect to clutter, it is really important to help you identify what you need to change and what you optimally need to maintain things," she says.

Related: The Life-Changing Magic Of Having Marie Kondo Organize Your Office