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September 20, 2013

If your desk is a mess, you must be a genius

I have the distinction of sitting next to an exquisitely tidy coworker. The surface of her desk gleams like the skin of an apple (or the inside of an Apple store); a single dictionary, its binding kissing the leftmost edge of a tissue box, keeps watch over an immaculately polished laptop. Occasionally a book will materialize somewhere between the telephone and the cheerful plant in its bright green ceramic. The edges of this idyllic work zone are marked by a translucent partition, a kind of Great Wall beyond which the barbarian forces (me) gather.

Which is why I was excited to read a piece in The New York Times on the unsung virtues of the messy workspace.

Or at least, that is one interpretation of the article, which summarizes three experiments recently published in Psychological Science by researchers from the University of Missouri. (Another takeaway is that people plopped into orderly environments are more likely to make healthful choices and donate money to charity than those hemmed in by squalor.) But what we messy deskers lack in conscientiousness and kindness we apparently make up for in freewheeling zest for the new! And, I'd argue, we have more time to look for the things we've inevitably misplaced because we aren't so busy cleaning.

In the first experiment, one group of college students was asked to complete questionnaires in a cluttered, messy office. A second group received the same task but was stationed in a pristine office. When they finished after 10 minutes, the students were offered the choice of a chocolate bar or an apple. They were also given the opportunity to donate to charity. The participants who had completed the survey in a neat room were twice as likely to opt for the apple over the chocolate and also contributed more money on average. The paper's authors suggest that the organized climes inspired a sense of discipline and ethical uprightness.

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