A messy desk might change your life or at least inspire a novel thought or two. New research from the University of Minnesota suggests a cluttered workspace might promote innovation. In a study likely to make Martha Stewart sob into her three-hole punch, study participants were asked to sit in either tidy or unkempt offices then brainstorm different ways to use ping pong balls. Those sitting amidst the debris generated more novel uses (i.e. ice cube trays).

True, this particular study didn't solve global warming or infant mortality but the virtues of a disheveled life don't get much praise or even attention. They certainly haven't gotten their own cable show and as far as I know there is no national organization or accreditation process for Personal Disorganizers.

So slobs of the world, this is your moment. If you can find your coffee mug, lift it and cheer. Before slipping into unbridled disorderliness, however, be warned. Too much mishmash might adversely effect your waistline. People sitting in those messy offices were less likely to choose apples and other healthy snacks. If there'd been a treadmill in the room they would snubbed it. They also were less likely to donate money. Selfish gluttons.

Now some might interpret this mess-induced impropriety in terms of conscientiousness, a personality trait characterized by responsible, orderly and otherwise polite behavior and no surprise it’s been linked to all sorts of positive outcomes in life. In fact it's one of the Big Five personality traits and at some point most adults have been assessed on it either by an employer, ex-spouse or the psychologist waiting behind you in the grocery check-out line.

In the interest of conscientiousness, I must point out much of the messy desk headlines could have used more conscientiousness.

Even the New York Times blew it with their choice, What A Messy Desk Says About You. This headlines suggests a boss, simply by peering into an employee’s cubicle, could predict whether the person will finish an assignment on time, swipe office supplies or get caught sexting the new intern. It suggests a desk is not merely a place to stash breath mints, but a window into an employee’s possibly twisted brain

The headline also suggests a completely different study. In the actual study, researchers manipulated the office environment to see the potential effects of tidiness on creativity. The hypothetical botched headline study, in contrast, is observational. Participants would complete surveys assessing their creativity and personality. Someone would go inspect a bunch of desks. Then a few grad students would enter all the data and run analyses to figure out if they could accurately judge creativity or conscientiousness based on the appearance of a desk. Then the university would send out a press release announcing creative people are more likely to have messy offices. 

So what’s the big deal? The actual study implies even an uninspired dolt might squeak out a bright new idea given enough discarded food containers and newspapers. It also suggests picking up offers rewards too. The hypothetical study offers no such hope. It assumes you are your desk, for better or worse. As a parent interested in encouraging creativity, generosity and a healthy lifestyle I find the actual study more appealing.

I’d be remiss not to mention a few headlines that got it right or at least not so wrong.

Before You Straighten Up Your Desk, Read This  No too bad. No claims. No empty promises.

Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity  Wake me up when it's over.

Then there are the other headlines...

Can a Messy Desk Make You Creative?  It also made me eat that Kit Kat, roll through the stop sign and forget soccer practice. Officer, it was the desk, not me, I swear.

Your Messy Desk Is Evidence of the Indomitable Creativity of Your Soul Totally unfounded but definite points for snark.  

Messy Desk, Creative Mind? Study Says Yes The study speaketh? What did it say other than yes?

Messy Office a Fertile Ground for Creative Mind Messy offices and fertility? Are creative women more likely to get pregnant in a messy office?

How a Messy Desk May Predict—and Even Shorten—Your Lifespan Caution! That desk may be killing you.

I don't know about lethal office furnture, but those last few headlines win on creativity. Accuracy not so much. I wonder if the messy desk phenomenon applies not only to ping pong balls but headlines too? 

About the Author

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D., is a former research psychologist and founder of Momma Data, a non-profit organization that tracks and fact-checks parenting media.

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