Is A Messy Desk a Sign of Intelligence?

You’re a hard worker, and the proof is all around you. Files are stacked in dizzying piles all around your desk, decorated with the occasional pen, paperclip, sticky-note, and even a long-forgotten cup of coffee from the morning before. You struggle to find a place to fit your current coffee mug, so you opt to hold it in one hand while the other is busy at the keyboard. It’s a bit of a disaster, but that’s not a bad thing, is it? Is a messy desk a sign of intelligence?

Experts in efficiency and ergonomics insist on a neat and organized workspace to maximize your focus and work ability, but science disagrees. According to a research study done by students at the University of Minnesota, your messy desk is a sign of intelligence and creativity.

Now, put that intelligence to work and find a place for your coffee cup; you’re going to need both hands at the keyboard when your next breakthrough strikes.


Where did the idea that a desk should be well kept and tidy come from, anyway?

Looking back at classic paintings of renaissance thinkers, inventors, and all around geniuses, you are sure to find those great minds working at a desk covered in books, pens, tools, and everything else one needed to change the world.

Back then, a clean desk was actually seen as a sign of laziness because it meant you were wasting your time tidying up your workspace when you could be getting valuable work done. A quick Google search of Mark Twain’s desk will reveal a long table overflowing with papers, which isn’t too different from yours really.

Even Thomas Jefferson was said to have a messy desk! By keeping your workspace cluttered and busy, you’re simply working the way the greatest minds of the time did when they were coming up with their revolutionary ideas.

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” – Albert Einstein

To quote Albert Einstein, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

In their study of whether or not a messy desk is a sign of intelligence, students at the University of Minnesota asked subjects to do a number of tasks for them, some at a perfectly clean desk and others in a messy workspace, one of these being coming up with new uses for a ping pong ball.

Both groups managed to come up with around the same amount of ideas to solve this problem, but guess which group came up with the most interesting and creative answers? That’s right, the messy desk kids!

The researchers suggest that working in a disorganized space releases the brain from tradition and inspires new, unconventional ideas while the neat desk encourages workers to stay inside the lines and do what is expected of them. It makes the brain want to play it safe and go with more traditional or conventional ideas.

In a similar case, don’t be surprised if you feel more productive and creative while working in your favorite coffee shop; the low, bustling sound is just enough to distract your mind and allow for abstract thoughts to come forward. If you value creativity as much as you do smarts, then your messy desk is a sign of intelligence for sure.

On the flip side, what does having a clean desk say about you?

The students at the University of Minnesota also discovered in their research that keeping a clean and tidy desk encourages people to do the right thing and be generous.

When the people working at these tests during research were finished with their tasks, they were offered a chance to donate to charity and a choice between an apple and a bar of chocolate as a snack on their way out.

Fascinatingly, it was the clean desk group that ended up donating more of their own money on average to charity. The clean deskers also chose the apple over the chocolate more often than the messy folk when it came time to leave the test.

“Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: not engage in crime, not litter and show more generosity,” – Kathleen Vohs

“Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: not engage in crime, not litter and show more generosity,” said Kathleen Vohs, one of the researchers at the University of Minnesota involved in running this study.

“We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting.” Huh, so there are benefits to having a clean space as well. What can we do to bring the best of both worlds into our daily workspaces?


How Can You Keep Your Desk Look Messy?

One way to keep the chaos of a messy desk while also cleaning up your space a little bit is to use organizing containers that are clear or transparent. If you keep a designated mason jar or similar clear container on your desk for pens, you’ll still have the visual of the different colored pens and pencils that used to be scattered around your workspace while knowing exactly where to find one when you need to write something down.

If that’s still a bit too clean for you, try setting out a bigger bucket or bowl that you can toss anything you want into while you work. Where does this stapler go? In the bucket. Where were those sticky notes I was using earlier?

Probably also in the bucket. The outside of this container is also a great way to tape notes or Post-Its for later without losing them in the sea of papers covering the rest of your desk.

Another way to keep the cluttered look while also conserving space is shifting some of that mess up and out. No doubt you have a picture frame or two of your lovely family and dog somewhere on this surface.

If you keep your desk near a window, prop those photos up on the window sill. You can also do this with small knick knacks like action figures, collectibles, toys, souvenirs, and more. Now they’ll still be in eyesight when you need them without taking up space on your desk that could be used for a mess of a different kind.

This tactic also works with shelves on the walls around your desk or workspace. Just a couple of light, stick-on, plastic shelves can do wonders for your space management without taking anything out of your work zone.

Shelves are also great if you have a job that requires you to use tools over and over again, like a ruler or calculator. Sure, you could open the drawer, pull out your straight edge, do your work, put it back in the drawer, and close it up again, but that’s a lot of work; especially when you know that you’re going to do it all over again in a half an hour.

You could also leave your ruler on the desk, but it can easily get lost in there in a matter of seconds. This is where new shelves are going to be a lifesaver.

Just like the toss basket we told you about earlier, a handy shelf right in arm’s reach is a great place to plop down a tool for whenever you need it again. After a few days of work, don’t be surprised if you can reach up and grab that stapler you keep using without even looking at it!

Who says efficiency and disorganization can’t go hand in hand? Everything you need to do your job is still right there, but now you don’t have to search through all your files whenever you need a protractor.


The Dilemma – Keeping Your Desk Clean Or Messy?

What does this mean for your desk at work or in the home office? A messy desk is a sign of intelligence, that’s for sure, but a clean desk also offers benefits to the people who work at it.

If you’re not sure which direction you should take your workspace to increase your productivity and creativity in the future, first take a step back and examine your own work habits.

Are you a visual person who likes to see all of their ideas out on sticky notes before they can make a decision? Do you find yourself quickly getting distracted when you have to search your desk for your headphones mid-thought?

Maybe you feel and do your best in your current messy set up and don’t want to change a single thing. Remember, the most important part of this equation is you.

Your desk, clean or messy, can’t do work all by itself! Personalizing your work area to best suit the way you work and think is the key aspect to maximizing your creativity, even if the research says that most people think differently.

No two people think the same way, so go ahead and try out those desk organization tips you saw online if you like; you can keep them if you like them or put your desk right back to normal if you don’t.

Either way, you can work in confidence at your messy desk knowing, in the back of your head, that your messy desk is a sign of just how intelligent you are.