A Messy Desk Is a Sign of Genius, According to Science

Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs had messy desks, just like most other geniuses.

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BY Geoffrey James - 10 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The desk was invented around 1,200 AD and while the technology upon it has evolved, the desk itself has remained the same: a flat-surfaced work area accompanied by drawers and cubbies for storage.

Today's efficiency experts insist that people are more productive when their desk is uncluttered, with "a place for everything and everything in its place." That's the thinking behind Inbox/Outbox bins and, more recently, the silly idea of a "Zero Inbox."

However, the notion that a clean desk makes you more productive is absurd twaddle. Researchers at the University of Minnesota, recently tested how well students thought of new idea when working in orderly vs disorderly work areas. The study showed:

"Participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses as their clean-room counterparts. But their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges."

This connection between a messy desk and productivity is often missed because few people consider the cost of neatness, according to Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman authors of A Perfect Mess:

"That messiness and disorder can be so useful wouldn't seem such a counterintuitive notion if it weren't for the bias towards neatness programmed into most of us. Specifically, people tend to ignore the cost of neatness, discount the possibility that messiness can't always be excised no matter how hard it's fought, and trust the idea that mess can work better than neatness."

What few people realize is that the obsession with a clean desk is an artifact of the mid-20th century. Historically, geniuses were always pictured with cluttered desk, as in this 19th century portrait of 18th century uber-pundit Samuel Johnson:

A cluttered desk was a sign of industriousness and breadth of learning. By contrast, a clean desk would have been considered a sign of sloth or laziness. Mark Twain, for example, chose to leave his desk messy whenever he was photographed in it:

Similarly, Thomas Edison had a famously messy desk as did Albert Einstein. who remarked that "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?" More recently, the desk of Steve Jobs was a rat's nest.

So if you're somebody who's work area, like mine, is usually a mess, it's time to stop apologizing to the neat-freaks and stop feeling guilty. While our cluttered desks may not prove we're brilliant, at least they shows we might be geniuses.

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