I wrote this column for the Northwest Missourian, originally posted here. This is my strongest opinion piece of the year.
My mom’s first observation when she visited me was the tidiness of my room, or rather the lack of it. My unmade bed and paper-littered desk stood no match against my roommate’s folded blankets and perfectly stacked textbooks.
“Kayla’s side of the room is cleaner than yours,” she said immediately.
With the top shelf covered in decorative knick-knacks and half of my desk used as storage space for notebooks I never use and books I have yet to read, my workspace becomes messy quickly.
Having a mess on my desk isn’t the end of the world. Actually, I am better off with the clutter.
Several psychological studies have shown some benefits in keeping a disorderly work area.
Researchers at University of Minnesota found that the participants in their study produced the same number of ideas regardless of the work environment. However, the participants who stayed in a messy room generated ideas that were rated more interesting and innovative than the people who worked in clean rooms.
Historically, highly intelligent and creative people were pictured with a messy desk because a clean desk was considered a sign of laziness before the 20th century. Mark Twain, for example, chose to leave his desk cluttered whenever someone took a photo of him.
Albert Einstein also kept a messy desk. He preferred the disorganization in his work environment.
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Einstein said.
I like my messy room. It may just look like a pile of papers and books, but I know where everything is placed.
However, people may choose to keep a clean work area for other advantages, like improved health habits. According to the American Psychological Association, a study consisting of multiple experiments by Kathleen Vohs found working in a tidy room encourages people to eat healthfully, sleep better and give to charity more often.
Professionals in the decluttering business say their clients typically experience less stress and anxiety, feel more self-confident and have stronger decision-making skills after cleaning their home and work areas.
On the contrary, Columbia Business School professor Eric Abrahamson wrote “A Perfect Mess” to discuss the rewards of disorder. He said people often fail to recognize the opportunity costs of keeping a tidy work area. For example, devoting specific time to maintain an orderly environment means having less time to spend on projects.
A messy work area is better for college students because the increased creativity will only help develop problem-solving skills which will be important when students enter the workforce.
With jam-packed schedules filled with classes, study sessions, meal breaks, extracurriculars and sleep, students shouldn’t worry about taking the time to organize their desk. Every extra minute spent on assignments can add up to the 0.3 percent that differentiates an A from a B grade.
A 10-minute nap is more beneficial than decluttering one’s work area because it boosts focus and productivity. The messy environment correlates with breaking free from conventional thinking and thus the ability to create new concepts.
Our society needs more people with diverse ideas. Everyone should leave their messy desks alone and use the extra time for brainstorming instead.