Your desk is strewn with papers. Post it notes are affixed to the edge of your computer screen like some yellow fungus. A coffee mug sits insolently among the stationary, along with a half empty bottle of water. Signs of someone working hard, working intensely, and being productive? You might think so, but some recent research indicates that the mess is more of a hindrance, something that is actually preventing you from working hard and intensely.
Researchers have found that those people with messy desks are actually not very efficient, not persistent in their efforts, and more frustrated with their work.
But those with messy desks may counter – with the amount of work that needs to be done, it’s almost impossible to keep an immaculate desk, and besides, it’s an organized mess, I really know just where everything is.
But experiments show otherwise. In one example, more than one hundred people were exposed to one of two environments. The first was a messy office – where papers and other materials were scattered everywhere. In the second environment, the office was neat and orderly. Then each group was asked to solve a difficult problem involving abstract reasoning. The group who had been first exposed to the neat office stuck with the task about 50 percent longer than the group first exposed to the messy office. Other experiments showed the same result.
The researchers surmised that the messy environment was the cause of the difference in effort because it led to a depletion in the subjects’ mental energy. Sticking with a task requires self-discipline, which in turn requires mental energy. But the messy office depleted subjects’ mental energy because it threatened their sense of control, and dealing with this threat in turn depleted their mental energy and self-discipline.
What’s more, the researchers speculate that a mess you make yourself, rather than like the experiment where the mess was created by others, has an even more deleterious effect on your productivity because it is evidence that you cannot control your environment. Dealing with this unwelcome fact leads to an even greater expenditure of mental energy, and corresponding lack of self-discipline.
So, while you may feel comfortable surrounded by your mess, evidence seems to show that is can become a real hindrance when you actually try and do something.
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