The desk was invented around 1200 CE, and while the technology upon it has evolved, the desk itself has remained the same: a flat-surfaced work area accompanied by drawers and cubbies for storage.

Today's efficiency experts insist that people are more productive when their desk is uncluttered, with "a place for everything and everything in its place." That's the thinking behind in- and outboxes.

However, the notion that a clean desk makes you more productive is absurd twaddle. Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently tested how well students came up with new ideas when working in orderly versus disorderly work areas. The study showed:

"Participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses as their clean-room counterparts. But their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges."

This connection between a messy desk and productivity is often missed because few people consider the cost of neatness, according to Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess:

"That messiness and disorder can be so useful wouldn't seem such a counterintuitive notion if it weren't for the bias towards neatness programmed into most of us. Specifically, people tend to ignore the cost of neatness, discount the possibility that messiness can't always be excised no matter how hard it's fought, and trust the idea that mess can work better than neatness."

Indeed, as I pointed out in a previous column, there are people who obsess about "Inbox Zero." Geniuses have something better to do than futzing around with filing systems, electronic or otherwise.

The notion that a clean desk means a productive worker is an artifact of the mid-20th century. Historically, geniuses were always pictured with a cluttered desk, as in this 19th-century portrait of 18th-century über-pundit Samuel Johnson:

Back in the day, a clean desk was considered a sign of slothful laziness. Busy people, and smart people didn't have time to straighten up. Mark Twain, for example, chose to leave his desk cluttered whenever he was photographed:

Albert Einstein famously pointed out that "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?" Thomas Edison, who had a famously messy desk, must have agreed. And Steve Jobs. (Click on the names for proof.)

So if your work area, like mine, is usually a mess, it's time to stop apologizing to the neat-freaks and start feeling good about our ability to prioritize. While our cluttered desks may not prove we're brilliant, they do show that we might be geniuses.

Published on: Jul 9, 2017
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.