Is it Good to Have a Messy Desk?

Julie Shenkman
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Is a messy desk truly the sign of a cluttered mind, as some have opined? Or is it an indication that there's creative work going on, even if it's hard to find amid all the piles of stuff? The answer may depend on what field you work in, what image you intend to put forth at work and what you need to accomplish on a daily basis.

What a Messy Desk Says to Others

While recent studies show that more than two-thirds of human resources managers think it's okay for an employee to have a messy desk, a significant number of managers think a messy desk sends a message that says the employee is disorganized and ineffective. If people see your clutter and get the impression that you're unprofessional, it could affect your ability to rise within the company or snag the clients or projects you most want to be working with. When you're surrounded by physical clutter, it's often true that your mind becomes cluttered as well, forcing you into a mental state where distractions take priority over the truly vital tasks on which you should be focusing.

When to Leave Your Desk Messy

However, being surrounded by clutter often leads to creative, divergent thinking, as new studies are starting to reveal. If you're in a position that calls for out-of-the-box insights and radical approaches to problems, removing clutter could actually be counterproductive. An orderly work environment, it appears, encourages employees to think conventionally and may hinder creativity. If you thrive amid clutter, perhaps it's your mind trying to find a way to break down some doors and discover new solutions to workplace problems.

How to Bring Clutter Under Control

To remove clutter and bring your workplace under control, make sure you have the organizational supplies you need to keep necessary files close at hand. Add baskets, vertical files or boxes to help categorize your paperwork and bring small items under control. Be ruthless about throwing out papers you no longer have use for, or scan them to get them off your desk and onto your computer screen. Even if you thrive in the midst of clutter, don't allow plates, food wrappers or water bottles to accumulate in your work space, limiting your clutter to that which makes you more productive and creative. Use cubbies or stacked trays to create designated spaces for certain projects or tasks to make it easier to find what you need. Bring cables and charging stations under control or remove them from your desk completely to create a cleaner look. Set a timer and spend three or four minutes at the end of each day clearing away just a little of the clutter so your messy desk doesn't get out of hand.

One solution may be to take a step back and see what part of your brain needs the most encouragement on any given project. If you need to focus on high productivity on well-known tasks, tidy up that desk. However, your messy desk may be just what's needed during those seasons when your creativity is called on the most. Be ready to alternate depending on the task at hand.


Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at



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