What do I have in common with Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg?
No, it’s not that I’m a genius, though it’s very kind of you to suggest it.
You’ll never guess so I’ll tell you: we all have messy desks. Or in the case of Albert and Steve, had messy desks. There’s a lot of evidence, especially when you google ‘geniuses have messy desks’, to suggest that a messy desk is not only indicative of a creative mind, but it also enhances creativity and productivity – particularly for authors, as we spend so much time at our desks.
The Clean Desk Mafia may well snort in derision, but there are perfectly logical reasons why this is so:
1. Because tidy is the societal norm (or at least the goal we’re told we should aspire to), those with untidy desks tend to be more unconventional and imaginative in their thinking. The creative process is not necessarily a neat, structured process that responds to law and order and a tidy desk, but is often jump-started by chaos. Research has shown that clutter can force us to focus and think more clearly.
2. Too much time and energy is taken up keeping your work area neat, when it could be used for creative purposes. Except when you’re procrastinating – that is the perfect time to tidy your desk, even though you know it’s pointless, because it will be messy again before the day is out.
3. There is method in the madness of a messy desk – a system which ergonomist Mark Lander calls the volcano. In the middle is a relatively clear area where all the work is done and around it things pile up in order of importance – the urgent and commonly used stuff is close by, then fans out to the less important stuff, which is further away and/or buried at the bottom of the pile. Instant filing – no need for an in-tray or a filing cabinet. Nick Earls, a fellow messy author, elaborates in his blog post On The Efficacy of Mess.
As you can see from the image of my desk above, I subscribe to the volcano theory, and also to the school of post-it-note prompts.
4. A cluttered desk is more efficient than a tidy desk. David Freedman, author of A Perfect Mess (which is definitely on my to-read list) says, 'A survey found that people who had messy desks spent less time hunting for things than people who had very neat desks. That makes a lot of sense, because when you have a messy desk, you're arranging things in a way that's customized to the way you think and work.'
We’ve all had the experience of having a tidying up blitz and not being able to remember where we’ve put something. If that ‘something’ lives permanently on your desk, you always know its approximate location.
5. Having a messy desk teaches you to deal with criticism, because invariably the Clean Desk Mafia will make snide comments, or come right out with something really original, such as, 'It looks as if a bomb has gone off here.’
And you have to learn to shrug it off and smile enigmatically, as if you know the secret of the universe, and afterwards send them a copy of your best-selling book with a note: ‘This book was written at an extremely messy desk.’
That’s my fantasy anyway, you can make up your own.
The last word belongs to Einstein who said, ‘If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?’
What are your thoughts? Are you a messy or clean desk supporter? I'd love to hear your comments (and justification of your status) in the comments box below.
Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.