messy desk

There’s an old adage about tidy desks making for tidy minds. And, I guess, for an auditor – having a tidy mind is relatively important. But if your mind was tidy all the time, that does sound like it might be a bit… small.

Minds, after all, are infinite for all intents and purposes. And infinity does seem to imply an ordered chaos, or method in madness, or something.

I bring this up because I listened to an interesting podcast this week called Cluttered Desks, Cluttered Minds and Toddler Hands, from the interesting people at Stuff To Blow Your Mind. In the podcast, they talk about a 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

The 24 participants were randomly placed in one of the two following offices:

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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. As they left, the participants were allowed to take either 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 actually, 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

48 participants were randomly split between the following rooms:

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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 – ¬°IDEA!

Experiment 3: A Truly Boring Example of People Going Wild

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.

The rooms:

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The options:

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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.


I’ve realised that weight loss is intrinsically linked to keeping my life clear of clutter. So perhaps it’s time to get a maid.