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4 Reasons Your Messy Desk May Be a Sign of Genius

It isn't a mess, but controlled chaos.


New year, new you, right? Well, if one of your goals is to tame a messy desk -- whether of your own volition or thanks to some colleague side-eye -- you might want to pause for a minute. After all, that cluttered workspace might actually be illustrative of a creative mindset.

Before you trade in those artfully arranged paper piles for a more seemingly streamlined filing process, read on for four reasons why disorganization could actually lead to your next great idea.

Related: How to Create Productive Workspaces for Your Company

You’re in good company.

There are a few notable folks who were notoriously messy. Modern and historical game-changers such as Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, Alan Turing, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein were all famous for having cluttered desks, and that didn’t stop them from churning out ideas and inventions that shape the way we interact with the world. Even Sir Isaac Newton, the man who literally wrote the book on gravity, wasn’t really one for organized affairs. He didn’t write a last will and testament, but instead, after he died, he left his family a body of work, correspondence and manuscripts that add up to roughly 10 million words or nearly 150 novel sized tomes.

You’re more efficient than you might think.

According to Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, the authors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, while it might appear otherwise, a messy desk isn’t devoid of order. What seems like a mess can actually be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system. On a messy desk, the most important, time-sensitive projects tend to be found at the top of the pile, while the work that can get ignored tends to get relegated to the bottom. And not having a strict system can lend itself to more innovative ideas when you least expect it.

You do the unexpected.

A University of Minnesota study explored how working in a clean vs. messy room would affect behavior. The researchers had the study participants fill out questionnaires in orderly and cluttered spaces. After this activity, they were asked if they wanted to donate to charity and offered the option of a snack -- an apple or some chocolate. Those who were in the clean room were more likely to opt for the philanthropy and healthy food choice.

The researchers found that participants in both spaces came up with the same number of ideas when they were asked for new uses for ping pong balls, but the messy room ideas were rated more creative by judges. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” said author Kathleen Vohs in a summary of the findings. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

You’re ahead of the cosmic curve.

Clearly, we live in a world that is already pretty chaotic, but to hear astrophysicist Adam Frank tell it, that disorganization is pretty inevitable, so instead of fighting it, you actually might get more done by simply leaning into it. “Yes, your efforts to tidy up that desk are doomed to a kind of ultimate failure. But what you can see now is the very act of trying is what defines being alive. Even more, it's that act of trying that makes life -- your life, in particular -- a cosmic victory,” Frank told NPR. “Life, you see, is the triumph of order over chaos. Life is order hammered out if only for a time. And with that effort, something new, something wonderful appears in the universe: creativity.”