While coworkers may be concerned about your mild hoarding, your messy desk may indicate boundary-breaking thinking (while a clean desk says “doing the right thing”).

Does every object on your desk have its proper place? Do you keep your pencils sharpened to the exact same length and dust regularly between your computer keys? Or maybe there’s so much junk on your desk that you can’t even see the surface. Maybe all that crap looks like it’s levitating. It turns out, there are benefits to both types of work spaces.

A recent study published in Psychological Science, found that subjects who worked in a clean room were more likely to make charitable donations and eat healthy foods than those who worked in a messy room. For example, when participants in the clean room were offered chocolate or fruit, they chose the fruit. Kathleen Vohs, a psychological scientist at the University of Minnesota, said the clean room “cued [subjects] to ‘do the right thing’–that which is expected of you.”

In contrast, researchers found that a messy work space cued subjects to defy convention. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” Vohs says. In a second experiment, subjects in a messy room generated more interesting ideas when asked to find alternative uses for a ping-pong ball, such as cutting the ball in half and using it to make ice cubes. Also, when given a deli menu featuring “new” and “classic” smoothies, subjects in the messy room were more likely to choose the “new” drink.

Vohs says the study’s findings have immediate and practical implications. Preliminary research has found that people are more likely to donate money to an organization when its website features a clean, user-friendly design. And if you really want to get your creative juices flowing, then by all means, make a mess. “To elicit the creativity you have inside you,” Vohs says, “you should clutter your local environment and bring it out.”


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