A Messy Desk Might Help Neatniks Be More Creative

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Millions of people are discovering that there are perks to working at home. Among them: You can have a messy desk, and there’s no one—or, at least, no colleague—around to judge.

In this new world, even neatniks might want to let the papers pile up. Studies show that a messy desk can spur creativity by keeping interesting things in sight and top of mind. That could be a blessing in isolating times, when we don’t have co-workers close by to spark ideas and we’re not meeting interesting people for dinner or drinks.

Eric Abrahamson, a Columbia Business School professor who wrote a book on messes, says they’re essential to creativity. “A mess will connect things that aren’t connected,” he says.

Abrahamson cites the case of Leon Heppel, a biomolecular researcher in the 1950s who worked in a state of epic clutter. Every so often, he’d cover his desk at the National Institutes of Health with brown butcher paper so that he’d have a fresh surface to re-trash.

One day, Heppel found a letter on his desk describing a weird molecule and its effect on cellular biology. A few layers below, he found an older letter describing another molecule. He put the authors in touch, and one of them went on to win a Nobel Prize for work on how hormones regulate cells.

Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota, tested the creative-mess hypothesis by putting subjects in a room strewn with books and papers and others in a clean room. She told them that a pingpong ball manufacturer needed new uses for its product. Judges rated their creativity.

Those in the clean room suggested using the balls for beer pong (already a thing, as any college student can tell you) and shooting them out of Nerf guns. Those in the messy room advised adding hooks to make funky earrings and filling the balls with water to form reusable ice cubes. In the eyes of the judges, Team Messy won.

Unfortunately, most of us are missing mess-inspired connections because as a society we overvalue order. Marie Kondo’s books sell by the millions. Companies mandate neatness—photos of chief executive officers never show a desk laden with papers.

Worse yet, there’s a cost to keeping order. It takes time to label files, and it takes time to file them in drawers. All the while, you could be working. “Because we value organizing, we don’t realize its cost,” Abrahamson says.

The key is moderation. Since writing A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder—How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place with co-author David Freedman in 2007, Abrahamson has become more orderly. These days, he sees where messes arise, and he lets them grow only so much. He also curates his messes so that only interesting things linger on his desk. He calls the best of them “oddmen.”

An oddman can be a compelling postcard, or a research report, or an old toy. They’re things that spur curiosity and can be combined with something else, either physically or in the world of ideas, like those letters on molecules whose authors Heppel introduced.

Abrahamson’s father was a struggling artist who kept oddmen in his garage, waiting for inspiration to strike. Strapped for cash, he once made a potter’s wheel out of a washing machine, a belt, and a metal plate, Abrahamson says.

Terrible as it is, Covid-19 has freed workers from certain barriers to productivity. Two hours sitting in traffic are now two hours of desk time. The loudmouth in the next cubicle is now miles away, as is the person always looking for an ear to bend. To this list, we can add pointless desk cleaning. If you like a neat desk, great. But see what happens if you let a few oddmen stick around.

Here are a few tips on how to optimize your messes:

  1. All messes aren’t created equal. “A good mess has about 10 or 15 really cool things,” Abrahamson says. Those include oddmen, which he also calls “recombinants”—things that feel like they have the potential to help you make connections.
  2. Make messes when you have to be creative. That’s when they’re most valuable. If you’re doing routine work, a mess is more likely to get in the way.
  3. It’s all right to organize papers on your desk in layers. It can look like a mess, but it’s really just organizing by time.
  4. Keep a different space clear of debris. Vohs, the marketing professor, writes in her home office, which is messier than the rest of her house. A recent mess included a tangle of computer cords, a Kleenex box on its side, a stack of half-finished crossword puzzles, a receipt, a bottle of lotion, and two lip balms. For data analysis, she sits at her kitchen table, which has almost nothing on it.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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