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Could a Messy Desk Be Your Key to Success?

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Young South African woman overwhelmed by work, telephones and stress.

Your mother, your teachers and plenty of career writers (including ours!) have extolled the virtues of keeping an organized office space. When it comes to productivity, focus, lack of distraction and less stress, having a neat and orderly desk just seems to make sense, right?

Maybe not.

In a recent post on The New York Times, writer Gretchen Reynolds explores the ramifications of a study by the University of Minnesota that examined whether neat environments could produce good habits in people (and vice versa).

The surprising findings? A messy office may make you a more innovative worker than a tidy one.

As Reynolds writes:

In the first experiment, [researchers] randomly assigned a group of college-age students to spend time in adjacent office spaces, one of which was exquisitely neat, the other wildly cluttered with papers and other work-related detritus. The students spent their time filling out questionnaires unrelated to the study. After 10 minutes, they were told they could leave and were offered an apple or a chocolate bar as they exited. Those students who sat in the orderly office were twice as likely to choose the apple than those who sat amid the mess.

A second experiment, however, found that working in chaos has its advantages, too. In this one, college students were placed in a messy or a neat office and asked to dream up new uses for Ping-Pong balls. Those in messy spaces generated ideas that were significantly more creative, according to two independent judges, than those plugging away in offices where stacks of papers and other objects were neatly aligned.

…“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” Dr. Vohs and her co-authors conclude in the study, “which can produce fresh insights.”

You can read the full article here.

What do you think about these conclusions? Are messy environments more conducive to out-of-the-box thinking — or do out-of-the-box thinkers just tend to have messier offices? Weigh in in the comments!

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