In a world that is hyper-focused on productivity, you find all manner of curious academic studies into what promotes it. And today, I’m going to focus on some studies on the art of desk management, and how your office desk can change the way that you think.


I’ve been inspired by a great podcast episode called Cluttered Desks, Cluttered Minds and Toddler Hands, from the interesting people at Stuff To Blow Your Mind. In the show, they discuss a (now, not so recent) study done at the University of Minnesota to test the impact of both clutter and cleanliness. The study performed three experiments.

Experiment 1: Where Disorder Demands a Chocolate

In this experiment, 24 participants were randomly placed in one of the two following offices:

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 9.58.24 AM

The subjects were asked to fill out some generic questionnaires that would basically keep them busy for 10 minutes. Once done, the participants were asked if they would like to make a donation to a children’s charity. And then, as they left, the participants were allowed to choose between an apple or a chocolate bar at the door.

The results:

  • the participants that spent time in the orderly office donated twice as much to charity, and they did it almost twice as often (82% of the orderly room folk donated, only 47% donated from the disorderly room).
  • the orderly room participants chose the apple over the chocolate bar more often than the disorderly room participants.

Some take home messages:

  • tidy desk, tidy soul.
  • untidy desk, ungenerous fat ass
Experiment 2: where hygiene is unhelpful

In the second experiment, 48 participants were randomly split between the following rooms:

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 9.58.47 AM

The participants were asked to list up to ten new uses for ping pong balls for a company that makes ping pong balls. These ideas were then scored by two independent judges (blind to which condition the participants came from) on a 3-point scale from 1 (not at all creative) to 3 (very creative).

The results:

  • unsurprisingly perhaps, the disorderly participants had ideas that were judged to be more creative – and they had numerically more creative ideas.

The take-home message:

  • tidy desk, boring and predictable
  • drunk and disorderly – all the fun ideas
Experiment 3: A Truly Boring Example of Desk Management Choices

After the first two experiments, someone pointed out that there seemed to be a clear tendency in the “tidy room” participants toward choices that were part of accepted social convention, and a tendency in the “untidy room” participants toward choices there were, well, less conventional.

So in the last experiment, they wanted to determine if this was actually the case. Again, the participants were put into one of two different rooms, and they were asked to help a restaurant choose a menu display advertising shot boosters for its smoothies.

Spoiler alert: this next part is going to look especially dull.

The rooms:

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 9.59.13 AM


The options:

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.26.33 AM


The results: people in the tidy room preferred the “Classic” label; people in the untidy room preferred the “New” label.

The take home message really ought to be that scientists should veer well clear of advertising. Because that third experiment is mind numbingly dull on almost every front.

But the point is that tidiness tends you toward classic conservatism, while messiness is good for innovation.

The Take-Home

If your job is creative, it’s okay (and even better) to let your desk be messy.

And if your job requires anything other than creativity, keep it crisp.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and sometimes things that are only loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at Also, check out the RA podcast on iTunes: The Story of Money.