Does It Matter If You Have A Messy Desk?

If you walk into the office of a friend of mine, he has project folders covering his desk. But that’s not all; his window sills have piles of paper on them. His archives are in stacks on his floor. Ironically, he has file cabinets, although I have no idea if they are full, empty, or if that’s where he keeps his lunch. If you never walked into his office, his “filing system” would surprise you. He is a consummate professional, loved by his clients, and very successful.

If you told me I had to work in that environment, my heart would start racing, and I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable. The only files you will ever see on my desk are the ones I’m working with. It’s just the way I work. I’m not judgmental over the way anyone organizes, as long as they have a system that works for them.

What does your desk look like?

Peter Walsh, the author of “Its All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living A Richer Life With Less Stuff, says he thinks of his desk like a car. Everything you need most immediately—the steering wheel, radio, ignition, indicators, door handle—is at arm’s length. Things that are needed but not used regularly are two-arms’ lengths away, such as in the glove compartment, and the things used infrequently are in the trunk.”  He says that your desk is a workstation, not a storage facility. On his desk, you will find, his computer and keyboard, a charging station for his phone, and vertical files that hold active projects.

Fast Company got a glimpse of “Getting Things Done” author David Allen’s desk, “A tour of his desk includes a box of facial tissue; a container that holds a letter opener, Exacto knife, fountain pen, three felt pens, a ballpoint pen, and scissors; and a standing file rack he personally designed that holds about 20 labeled file folders with current projects and client work. He also has a MacBook Pro on a vertical stand that connects to a large screen, a blue-tooth keyboard, and a mouse pad. Allen also keeps two paper notepads in different sizes, and a pen at the ready. “Both are for capturing God knows what,” he says.”

My friend, with the messy desk, would probably be very uncomfortable if forced to work in either Allen’s or Walsh’s offices.

But, whether you like it or not, people judge you by the way you keep your workspace. according to a University of Michigan- Flint study

Researcher Terrence Hogan notes, “When there are cues related to less cleanliness, order, organization and more clutter in an owner’s primary territory, perceivers’ ascribe lower conscientiousness to the owner, whether that owner is a worker in the real world (office), a job-seeker (apartment), a student (bedroom) or a researcher at a university (lab office),”

In another study, nearly three out of four bosses said a messy office is a sign of a disorganized worker. And one in 10 admit the piles of clutter would be reason enough not to promote a staff member.

Yet, there might be an upside if you feel better in a cluttered environment.  Kathleen Vohs, a University of Minnesota psychological scientist, said her research shows that some people view a messy office or a desk as a sign of creativity. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” Vohs said. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

Feel free to cite that research the next time the boss or colleagues complain about your messy desk. 

As for me, I have to clear my desk that I’ve now finished this article. 

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