messy office desk
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The trend towards paperless workspaces, hot-desking and decluttering means a tidy desk is prized over a messy one. Some organisations implement a clear-desk policy. But are there benefits to a bit of clutter?

Messiness can nudge people into becoming more creative. Eric Abrahamson, co-author of A Perfect Mess, says “a moderately messy desk has the advantage of juxtaposing different things in ways that make it possible to see new, creative connections”.

Not tidying may have other advantages. The time spent tidying a desk when you could have been doing something more productive outweighs any benefit, he says.

Counterintuitively, one study he conducted even suggested that people with more organised desks spent more time searching for things. “Presumably [that was] because they could not remember where they put them,” he says.

Of the little research into the area, says Professor Abrahamson, of Columbia Business School, studies have suggested that people who prefer order tend to be rule-followers and are less likely to be open to new experiences.

“People with these personality traits tend to spend more time organising their desk than benefits them. Their opposites spend too little.” Yet most sane people, he says, can work out when they need to clean up a bit. “For most people, trial and error works just fine, unless they live under the illusion that order is costless and that more order is always better.”

Personally, Prof Abrahamson avoids paper on his desk. “I organise my desk when I need an excuse to procrastinate,” he says. “Were I to spend even one more second getting organised, I would be commensurately less productive.” His advice on desk organisation is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Jeremy Myerson, author of Life of Work, argues that piles of paper left on a desk, like reams of unread emails, can be stress generating. He arranges the few items he has on his desk to create a calm, ordered environment that will help him to think better. Aside from notebooks and pencils, he will have something inspiring to look at, such as a brightly coloured paperweight. He puts all his clutter on a large ledge hidden beneath the desktop.

However, Prof Myerson says that a rule to keep office desks completely clear is one of the worst aspects of modern office life. “I feel sorry for messy people forced into having an empty desk,” he says. In this case, Prof Abrahamson advises messy offenders to hide their clutter in drawers.

Conversely, a tidy person having to cope with the encroaching mess of a hoarding colleague could put small planters with micro-gardens along their desk edge to mark territory and keep the mess away, says Prof Myerson. It was an idea he tested successfully.

Yet what matters most to him is not the desk, but the view from it. “What is the point of having a gorgeous desk in a dingy basement?” To work at our best, we need to have natural light, and to see the sky and the grass, he says.

workingsmarter@ft.com

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