Is a tidy desk a sign of a tidy mind?

The scientist Alexander Fleming was notoriously untidy.

CC: by KHRawlings, some rights reserved
CC: by KHRawlings, some rights reserved

It led to his greatest medical breakthrough. He discovered penicillin growing on mould on a laboratory petri dish that he had failed to clean properly.

In their 2006 book “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder’, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman argue that mess and disorder are essential to creativity. They believe that untidiness leads to unexpected events. Order and planning minimize the possibility for the unexpected occuring. Therefore, if you want to find new and better ways of doing things, stop tidying.

How much time should you spend filing old paperwork? According to Abrahamson and Freedman, not very long at all. A lot of time is spent filing items that will never be needed again. If you know vaguely where things are, the time spent digging them out may well be shorter than time spent cataloguing and placing every item in the first place.

Of course, there are many who completely oppose the Abrahamson-Freedman arguments. According to the International Sanitary Supply Association, regular cleaning can be cheaper than ‘cleaning on complaint’. And they believe that rugs and carpets that are regularly maintained look better for longer. But they would argue for regular cleaning, wouldn’t they? They make their money from sanitary supplies.

Orderliness may be an indication of speedy and efficient operation, but is it a sign of speedy thinking? As Albert Einstein put it: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, what then is an empty desk?

The case for a tidy desk

There is certainly a health case to be made for tidiness. There are certain work environments, such as operating theatres and an attic or a small shipping container, where constant tidiness is the only option. But would untidiness matter if you had a bigger space?

Untidy workspaces are more difficult to keep clean.  In one study, a microbiologist from University College London Hospital swabbed keyboards from offices  and found some of them had five times as many dangerous bacteria as the office lavatory seat.

Tidiness can also boost morale. An office that is ‘ship-shape’ can encourage the workforce to believe that the company is also ship-shape. A study of 400 managers and employees over a number of years at a New York firm, HLW International, concluded that staff are more productive in clean offices.

But what about customers? Do they care whether your workspace is tidy or not? Some commentators argue that an untidy workspace gives customers the impression that you are lazy and unprofessional. But that can cut both ways. An untidy workspace can also give the impression that you are simply too popular with customers and too loaded down with successful work projects to spend hours on filing.

There are no simple answers to the tidy-untidy debate. It depends on what works for your business. The difficulty is that you don’t usually make rational decisions about the level of untidiness you are working in.

The rationale of procrastination

One reason that paperwork can pile up in the office is procrastination. You leave all the paperwork until later, because you don’t know what will happen in the future. You don’t know what will be important and what will become a historical record.

Procrastination is not irrational. The U.S. Marine Corps don’t waste time on detailed advance planning. They believe that leaving things to the last minute avoids time wasted on unnecessary preparation.

Even if you do not procrastinate, untidiness can build up over time because you are not aware of it as a problem. One interesting solution has been suggested by three researchers at the Vienna University of Technology. They have developed a camera-based system that compares an image of a room in its optimal tidy state to images of the room throughout the working day. By measuring the difference between the two images, the system gives you a Tidy Score.  The Tidy score is meant to reinforce your good tidy behaviour while discouraging your messy other-self.

That might be a brilliant solution – or it might simply add guilt to the list of things piled high in your in-tray.

This article was provided by Official Space, the leading providers of office space in the UK. Looking for a clean, reputable office space to rent? Visit the site today. 


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