1. Get the Job
  2. Get Ahead
  3. Office Life
  4. Work-Life Balance
  5. Home Office
We are here for your business - COVID-19 resources >
Product and service reviews are conducted independently by our editorial team, but we sometimes make money when you click on links. Learn more.
Build Your Career Office Life

What a Messy (or Neat) Desk Reveals About You

image for Messy desk image via  Shutterstock Messy desk image via Shutterstock
  • No matter what your desk looks like, it says something about your personality.
  • Those who are messy are often thought to be dirty as well, which is not correct.
  • People who are in a clean environment feel encouraged to do good things.  

Got a messy desk? Don't worry; it likely just means you're creative and full of new ideas.

A clean desk, by contrast, suggests generosity and conventionality. Either way, there's room for both kinds of desks in most offices, research has shown.

The study found that workers with desks in varying states of organization and cleanliness may have various skills to offer employers and fellow workers.

"Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: not engage in crime, not litter and show more generosity," said Kathleen Vohs, a University of Minnesota psychological scientist and one of the researchers who conducted the study. "We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting."

In the first of several experiments, participants were asked to fill out some questionnaires in an office. Some completed the task in a clean and orderly office, while others did so in an unkempt one; papers were strewn about, and office supplies cluttered the area.

Afterward, the participants were presented with the opportunity to donate to a charity, and they were allowed to take a snack of chocolate or an apple on their way out.

Being in a clean room seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them, Vohs said. Compared with the participants in the messy room, the participants in the clean room donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar.

But the researchers hypothesized that messiness might have its virtues as well. In another experiment, the participants were asked to come up with new uses for ping-pong balls.

Overall, the participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses for the balls as their clean-room counterparts did, but their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges.

"Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries and societies want more of: creativity," Vohs said.

The researchers also found that when participants were given a choice between a new product and an established one, those in the messy room were more likely to prefer the novel one – a signal that being in a disorderly environment stimulates a release from conventionality – whereas the participants in a tidy room preferred the established product over the new one.

"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."

Surprisingly, the specific physical location didn't seem to matter.

"We used six different locations in our paper; the specifics of the rooms were not important," Vohs said. "Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a whopping difference in people's behavior."

The researchers are continuing to investigate whether these effects might transfer to a virtual environment. Preliminary findings suggest that the tidiness of a web page predicts the same kinds of behaviors. These preliminary data, coupled with the findings, are especially intriguing because of their broad relevance.

"We are all exposed to various kinds of settings, such as in our office space, our homes, our cars, even on the internet," Vohs said. "Whether you have control over the tidiness of the environment or not, you are exposed to it, and our research shows it can affect you."

The research is published  in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

According to Elite Daily, it is fairly easy to identify messy people; all you have to do is look at them and their environment. A messy person rarely puts anything back where it belongs. When a messy person is "organizing," all they do is move items around. 

It is important for a messy person to find a balance between the mess that is comfortable to them and what is acceptable to others. There should be rules about maintaining a clean desk. You may not be able to get the messy person to keep their workspace neat, but perhaps you can have them focus on keeping it clean. Create rules about not having old food, dirty dishes or open food containers on their desk, to avoid attracting bugs. 

Business Insider took pictures of desks and analyzed them. According to the findings, people with messy desks tended to be more extroverted and welcoming to others. A messy desk indicates a creative mind but not much in the way of follow-through. A messy desk tends to indicate that the person is busy and that is why they have not cleaned up their desk.

The desk pictures also showed that a messy desk indicates that the person is busy and that is why they have not cleaned up their desk. Messy people tend to get bored easily and need to be stimulated. People with messy desks usually do not see any problem with the way their desks look; they believe it to be controlled chaos, as they can find whatever they need. They often think they do not have the time or the desire to put things away neatly, so they put them where ever there is room.  

Business News Daily Editor

Business News Daily was founded in 2010 as a resource for small business owners at all stages of their entrepreneurial journey. Our site is focused exclusively on giving small business advice, tutorials and insider insights. Business News Daily is owned by Business.com.