In defense of a messy desk

A Financial Times Deutschland article asks the following question: “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what does an empty desk say about the quality of your ideas?” I guess the assumption is an empty desk equals an empty mind. I think an empty mind can help you focus on what the task at hand is, while a cluttered mind makes it a bit more difficult to concentrate.

The article continues:

Ian Smalley, creative director of corporate digital communications agency CTN, is a believer in just that sort of messy medium.

The perimeter of his desk is delineated by towers of paper: “I have a relatively big desk so as long as there is elbow room, things tend to pile up, even if some of them do date back to 2004.”

But his main reason for untidiness is lack of time to tidy:

“It is a busy environment and at the end of the day, while all confidential documents are shredded and recycled, I want to leave and see my son, not file bits of paper.” He adds: “I can get a professional-looking desk by doing a ‘five-minute tidy’ where I straighten all the piles of paper up if I need to.”

Keeping a clean workspace isn’t the only key to being successful at your job, but it doesn’t hurt. Yes, there are some people with tidy desks who don’t have the best work ethic and there are people with messy desks who are invaluable to their companies. But, as a rule of thumb, it can be more efficient to have a well organized workspace. An organized workspace allows you to focus on the task at hand rather than losing focus while looking for a misplaced paper or file.

What do you think of the article? Agree or disagree? I’m eager to read your responses to it.

42 Comments for “In defense of a messy desk”

  1. posted by Lisa on

    I agree that an organized workspace helps productivity However, some jobs, including mine, may have several projects going on at the same time. I need to be able to grab the pile when needed, rather than find it in a file. I’m an “everything out” person, because if I put it away, I’ll most likely not look at it again. I need it in a place where I can grab it and go.

    My compromise is binders. I can keep binders with empty clear sleeves next to my desk, one for each project, then put papers as they are created into the sleeves. Then when I need quick access, the binders are right there.

    On the other hand, I have colleagues that spend hours organizing their paperwork. Everything looks so neat and tidy, but if you look closely, paperwork is unneccessary and redundant, with time spent creating labels and cover sheets. That, to me, is wasting company time.
    I still have my piles, but not dating back more than a year.

  2. posted by Anna on

    I’ve always been a very organised and efficient person and my desk is always tidy and devoid of “stuff” but I don’t think that necessarily means a lot… I have colleagues who work part-time and would rather spend their time getting crucial work done than tidying which is completely understandable.

    However as a general rule, if a person tends to be a bit all-over-the-place and focuses on the tiny details instead of the whole picture, they will inevitably have a messy desk. I haven’t yet encountered someone with a clear desk with that problem.

    I tend to keep all my paperwork in folders in drawers, or better yet just as archived emails. Any paperwork that must be on my desk is kept in one of those metal folder organisers and I cull it weekly to get rid of stuff I no longer need. Books, a plant, a desk calendar, all live on a little bookshelf above my desk. On my actual desk is my computer, my phone, a box for recycling paper, another plant, and some healthy snacks to remind me to eat them 😉

    It’s not totally minimalistic, it wouldn’t feel as welcoming to me if it was, but it’s certainly neat and tidy and organised with everything having a purpose and a place, and I’m absolutely positive the lack of visual clutter makes it easier for me to really concentrate.

  3. posted by Elizabeth on

    Different people are different. There are people (I am one of them) who remember things by their location in space, and these people often do very well with stacks of paper out in view. I *know* that the file I need is in the back left corner, about 1 inch down from the top. I really do think this way.

    That said, I have a threshold beyond which I start losing track of things, and when this happens, I bear down and clear the decks. For me it is more effective to clear the decks on an occasional, as-needed basis rather than spend time filing everything at the end of every day and taking everything out again in the morning.

    As long as I can find what I need when I need it — and I usually can — it’s not clutter. Though I realize it often looks that way.

  4. posted by Carol on

    I agree with Elizabeth. I always know where everything is on and in my desk, even though it doesn’t look that way.
    I need to keep things out until they can be taken care of. And like Mr. Smalley says, there are only so many hours of work per day and you have to set priorities of what to work on first. The rest stays out on my desk until I can get to it.
    I know alot of people who have very clean, tidy desks who do very little work.

  5. posted by pistolette on

    The opposite of cluttered is UNcluttered, not *empty*. And something that is uncluttered can simply be organized, not necessarily empty or nonexistent. If you need to work a lot of projects at once, it’s okay for your desk to get busy looking. the value of the uncluttered mind comes at the end of the day, when it can put everything back into neat stacks or drawers for tomorrow, making the bare surface a pleasure to return to.

  6. posted by Cheryl on

    I keep a tidy workspace. As a university researcher I often have many projects/studies/presentations/grants/manuscripts going on at once. However, all of that paperwork has a home. Sometimes I keep revisions with comments from other people in a pile in the bookcase until I am finished with the writing project, but then they are trashed. I do keep a small “action” pile on my desk for current, priority projects that I will continue working on the next day. I always clean my space before I leave for the day because it helps me feel pulled together and on top of things. Cleaning up also helps prevent me from feeling stressed when I get back to the office the next day–everything I need is easily found. Consequently, I am frequently asked by colleagues and co-authors for files that they have misplaced (or are really dumped in a pile somewhere which makes a second copy add to the volume).

    That said, when I visit the office of someone else as a client or otherwise and I see piles of clutter I lose some confidence that that person can competently do their job. I don’t want to be lost in one of those piles of paper! I don’t want to have to send extra copies of documents because that person isn’t organized enough. I think having a tidy, organized office sends a clear message that you are a professional and will do a good job. At least that’s the message I want to send by having an organized space.

    I agree with Anna that I would not want a minimalistic space because it would feel unwelcoming to me. However, clean and picked-up certainly is a pleasure to return to (pistolette) and is wonderful for concentration (Anna).

  7. posted by Rachel on

    I’m in the ‘uncluttered is not necessarily spotless’ camp. My workspace always has some piles of paper on it, and I work better that way. When my desk is completely free of paper piles it takes me longer to figure out where my everything is than when there is a limited number of piles that someone else would consider clutter.

    I think we should respect each others’ preferred habits. Just as some people function best at 7 AM and some at 11 PM, people prefer different work space arrangements.

  8. posted by Lynn on

    I have always, *always* been organized at work. Small neat piles of things that I’m working on, files for the rest of it. Our office went “paperless” about a year and a half ago, and it has wonderfully reduced my workload and the visual clutter.

    At home is another story. I raised five kids in roughly 1000 square feet of space. And then there was their father, who never threw anything away if he could help it. Any time that I got a room clean and organized, I photographed it and put it in the scrapbook, just to remind myself that occasionally it had happened. We [the womenfolk] are all artistic, creative, and hugely productive with our time. And we all struggle with messiness, some of us succeeding better than others.

    I had to give up my studio so there would be enough bedrooms to go around. After more than a quarter century, the last blessing has just left the nest, and I have moved into a tiny space of my own, and I am using Unclutterer to organize my home and my studio. I’ve been in the new place for three weeks, and there are increasingly large pockets of order amongst the chaos.

    I think I have always been a closet neat freak but was simply outnumbered and overwhelmed. I’m wondering if I will become even more creative now that I have space for my projects as well as space for my daily life.

  9. posted by JefferyK on

    I have never met a competent professional with a messy desk. Sorry. The do-ers have clear desks. The people with messy desks think that they are working but never get anything done.

    It isn’t just an issue of tidiness. It has to do with logic and order and prioritizing and task management and being able to tell the difference between what is meaningful and what isn’t.

    I think a lot of people get bogged down in convoluted organizational systems, which gives the impression that maintaining workspace order is a distracting, time-consuming task. It doesn’t have to be.

    Being organized, though, means being productive, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. When your employer finds out you can get more done in less time more accurately than anyone else in the office, they will pile it on.

  10. posted by KateNonymous on

    I’m not sure that’s always true, Jeffery. I’ve often had a messy desk, and have been more productive and efficient, with higher measurable quality, than some of my “neater” colleagues.

    Here’s the thing: I can visualize where a document is in a stack of paper. That works for me. Fine. But what if it needs to work for someone else? There’s no way for them to find what they’re looking for on my desk. So I have two magazine files: one for active projects and one for things to be filed. Either it’s on my desk because I’m working on it at this moment, or it’s one of my active projects, or it’s about to be filed, or it’s in the hanging files (I don’t use manila files, generally–they’re redundant in my filing system unless there is a specific reason why I need to subdivide).

    This is not the system that comes naturally to me. If it did, I wouldn’t need the “to be filed” section, because I would just file things right away. But at least it limits the hunting that someone would have to do if they needed something and I wasn’t there. It’s my compromise between what works for me and what my office in general might need.

  11. posted by Kellie on

    Like Elizabeth, Carol, KateNonymous and other “visuals,” I know the stacks on my desk like a map –second stack on the left, half-way down, blue folder… I tried many times to keep hanging files for active work, but it was counterintuitive and therefore counterproductive for me.

    I also found binders came to my rescue and make it easy to keep the things that have a natural order to them (dates or alphabetical) at my fingertips, even when the work is still in progress. I use one binder for all bookkeeping and banking, divided into sections as needed, and other binders dedicated to various projects. When the projects are complete the binder gets put away on the bookcase – in the meantime it’s all labeled on the spine and sections inside, so others can find what they need if I’m out.

    Oh, I still have stacks on my desk, but they don’t tower as high as they used to.

  12. posted by Lisa on

    I agree with Katenonymous. I have been actively seeking a promotion, therefore I paid more attention to how I kept up my files. I tried to keep everything in order so that when someone else assumed my position, they could find it. It was more time consuming, and I was a little less productive, in my opinion, because of the time spent organizing. When I keep things so that only I can find them, I work more efficiently.

  13. posted by Lisa on

    Electric hole punchers are my lifesaver, too. I punch the holes and slap them into a binder. 🙂

  14. posted by Tracy J on

    This one hits close to home for me, literally since I work from home! It is a Jeckyll and Hyde thing for me, when I worked in an office, I had a spotless desk, even the drawers were well appointed and I had an accurate inventory of what was where. At the end of the day I took 10 minutes to put everything back in it’s appointed place, close files completely clear my desk for a fresh start. BUT at my home office it is a disaster to anyone but me! If anyone steps within a 5 foot radius, there are things to step over, around and through. (As long as no one moves ANYthing, I have an excellent “mental map” of which things are in which zone. However, that is just an excuse and I know it!) I am afraid that if I put anything away before it is done that I will forget to finish it! And yes, that has happened before. Being self-employed has put me in a fearful place of working clutter. Why the difference?

  15. posted by Elton on

    Messiness is a sign of laziness, not creativity. A clean, organized workspace free of the unnecessary displays discipline, pride in oneself, and confidence.

    In regards to “empty mind,” there are parallels to be found in the minimalism of Japanese martial arts and their relationship to Zen. An empty mind is something to aspire to, not something to be ridiculed by the lazy.

  16. posted by Kevin (ReturnToManliness) on

    A lot of times it is about inspiring others who interact with you. Look, if you are disorganized at your workspace, you very well could be an organized thinker and leader as well, but it might not matter. If people “view” you a certain way (and maybe your workspace is just one point of reference for them), then you may not get them inspired to do what you want them to do. If this happens, then there is no argument for a messy workspace.

    In our interactive world, you must rely on others to help you with your project/career/whatever. Your appearance matters…just like how you handle other parts of your life…

  17. posted by Katy Newton on

    I understand where this guy is coming from. He’s looking at his desk in its current back-to-2004 state, realising that it would take ages to sort it out, and thinking that because it would take ages to go through the backlog it would take ages to keep it tidy day to day too.

    I used to be a messy desk person. I left things out on my desk to remind myself to do them, but everything just mounted up and things migrated from their own file to other files; no one could ever find anything; I got a lovely reputation for being disorganised and untidy and no-one took me seriously. I didn’t tidy as I went along because I thought I didn’t have time, and once it had all got horribly messy I genuinely didn’t have time to sort it out.

    Things are different now. I found I couldn’t live like that anymore, so I divided my office into “zones” and reorganised it bit by bit. It ended up getting done in the space of about three days. These days I don’t have an in-tray in my room. When I get into my office I pick up my post from my clerks, and the first thing I do at my desk is go through the post and file or act on it. It doesn’t even take as long as five minutes. If I can’t act on something immediately I make a note on my running to-do list, which I check and re-check over the day, so that I can file it away without having to worry about whether I’ll remember to do it or not. I work with case files and only ever have one case file out at a time to make sure that nothing gets mis-filed, which used to be a real problem for me. And before I go home everything goes back in its place so that I start and end my day with a desk that has nothing on it except my monitor, keyboard, mouse and desk clock.

    I was not born organised, and when I was messy I was just as good as my job, but having forced myself to operate a clear-desk policy I genuinely find that I am much more productive, and also that my colleagues – rightly or wrongly – have much more respect for me than they did.

  18. posted by Michael (500 Apples) on

    I work from home in an unfinished basement and I keep a tidy desk. It really is difficult for me to stay upbeat in a cluttered environment.

    But I do like to hang things from the ceiling, which is one of the few advantages of working in “the dungeon.”

  19. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    I once went to an accountant whose office was a total mess. I was extremely nervous about entrusting my taxes to him. Sure enough, he lost a document and had to redo the prepared tax forms before I could file them. Could a neat accountant have made the same error? Of course. But this guy lost my business because I assumed that his messy office, and this mistake, indicated he was totally incompetent.

    However, I sympathize with the people who say they are so strongly visually oriented that if something is put away, it can be forgotten. I have that same need to see everything. I’ve tried several solutions; at the moment, I’m using a plain ol’ notebook with a “To Do” list in it and trying my best to keep things filed.

    As for the man with a desk perimeter defined by towering piles of paper, I sure hope that he’s not in earthquake territory and that he and his co-workers aren’t prone to accidentally knocking over his “filing system!”

  20. posted by Anissa Stein on

    I work in odd patterns, where sometimes I have bits of clutter around me. But for the most part, I can’t think in the midst of chaos or disorder. I have no idea why the state of affairs on my desk correlates to how I think, but it does.

    I have gone so far as to clean, not only my desk but my house, in order to get my mind churning again. The best I can come up with is that as I clean, what’s in my head marinates a bit more and becomes orderly as well. That’s what I tell myself when I write prodigiously after a good clean!

  21. posted by Amy on

    Wherever I am, I need a serene environment in order to be at my happiest and most productive.

    I am a “visual learner,” and need to sometimes print documents out, and spread them out on an empty surface for editing or detailed reading. The first time I worked from home, I set up my L-shaped desk with a monitor arm, CPU on the floor and keyboard tray, so there was *nothing* on the desk in front of me. The phone was off to the side, on the other part of the “L.” It was awesome, and pretty easy to maintain.

    That being said, there is no state of being that will ever be right for everyone. Tolerance and a close eye on results are the best policy.

  22. posted by el on

    When I go into work, my desk is very organized and tidy, but as the day goes on, papers end up all over my desk. For the most part, I try to have any notes or documents I need digitally, but I have several colleagues that just can’t/won’t work that way… hence the paperwork everywhere. At the end of the day, I’ll tidy up my desk… and repeat everything the following day.

  23. posted by Andy on

    My desk is very messy but I still remember where everything is. It’s silly to assume that everyone has the same work style.

  24. posted by Lucy on

    There is a little book I recently read. Title is “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder….” by David Freedman. He has wonderful pros and cons about a messy desk, and goes on to talk about other “messy” things, like politics. A delightful read! My at-home office is “messy,” but I know exactly where everything is. If it’s neat and put away, I can’t find anything!

  25. posted by Sally Villarreal on

    I agree with the article. Period.

  26. posted by Tania on

    Whatever. I don’t work at other people’s desk so it doesn’t matter to me what they do or how they do it. Likewise it doesn’t matter to me what other folks think of how I work. I just try to keep things as best I can in a way that works best for me. *shrugs*

  27. posted by Simone on

    I’m trying to fight against messy and clutter but I’m also reading an interesting book by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder – How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place”

    It explain that a little bit of disorder often is better than the perfect order! An interesting, and well explained, point of view.


  28. posted by Alex on

    I’ve had a desk that can be sometimes messy, sometimes tidy. But I want to get it tidier, or at least my work area. I don’t have a large desk and I’d like a little more space so I can feel organised with printers/scanners/external drives I access regularly. So I’ve decided to get a larger desk and see how that works out for me.

  29. posted by Tricia on

    I think the tipping point is being able to find things. I’m a visual person and like to see everything that I’m working on, but I know I cross a line when I can’t find something right away. Slightly busy is okay, but impenetrable piles are not.


  30. posted by The Conscious Snob on

    My desk represents the state of my mind: busy, everywhere, and scattered. I have tried organizing my desk before, and it would be really uncluttered for about half a day, a day if I was away most of the time. I have found equilibrium. i try to declutter every few days, and my new motto is to get rid of one item a day in my home. So I am always on the lookout for what I don’t need and I toss it. Great post!

  31. posted by Mer on

    I don’t like my own desk to be messy, but I don’t have a problem with your desk being messy as long as you can provide me with the information I need when I need it.

    Some people have a knack for knowing precisely where they left something – I’m not like that, so I keep my paperwork in file folders that are logically labeled and stored in alphabetical or numeric order. I do that not only for myself, but for those who come after me and may need to access that information. It made things a lot easier for my boss or coworkers whenever I went on vacation or took a sick day.

  32. posted by Magnus on

    I would use another word than “empty” to describe a clutter-free desk; open. Which would make the answer to the question “an open mind”.

    Also, I don’t agree with the notion that anyone is too busy to have a clutter-free environment. Like loosing weight, it’s a lifestyle change. You have to learn how to work differently than you did before.

  33. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Simone — We’ve reviewed the book your referencing on our site already:

  34. posted by Kathy on

    When my desk is uncluttered and organized, I’ve realized my new boss drops by with more work for me. On those occassions, I have mentioned that I am busy with other projects and he has responded that it doesn’t look like I’m busy. I must admit that I let my desk slide more now that there is a perception held by the boss that a clean desk means an employee with not enough work to do!

  35. posted by Colin on

    I so enjoy reading comments from people who confuse house-keeping with professionalism. If nothing else, they tend to keep me in business for consulting services when their problems exceed 3 or 4 variables and they can’t cope any more.

    Snotty? Absolutely. But with a purpose: if you don’t like being called stupid for being organized, don’t assume that people with some paper on their desk are incompetent. I’ve worked for messy geniuses and tidy incompetents, and vice versa. What matters to me is getting to the end result.

    Forest for the trees, people, forest for the trees.

  36. posted by Missi on

    Sheesh! I can’t believe all the comments about messy desks = incompetence. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. I always have a messy desk but it’s my way of keeping track of everything. If it’s still on my desk, it needs to be dealt with. It’s my way of not missing a thing. I take comfort in knowing that Einstein had a messy desk.

  37. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    Good heavens! This is a topic that seems to bring out some strong emotions.

    Maybe it would help to clarify the term, “messy.” It probably means different things to different people. I define it this way:

    There’s a desk that’s covered with papers, many in stacks, maybe some stuff spread out on other surfaces or even on the floor; this may appear messy, but could simply indicate work in progress.

    Then there’s a desk (or entire office) that’s mounded with paperwork from the last several years which is mixed in with last week’s fast food containers, several partially-full coffeee cups, a hairbrush, a dog leash and other items unrelated to work, and a phone that rings but can’t be located; that indicates a level of messiness that I find distressing (i.e., the aforementioned accountant).

    Yes, “Sherlock Holmes” could find anything he wanted based on the quantity of dust that had gathered on his stacks of books and papers. Yes, there are incompetent clean freaks. But, alas, the reality of life is that we all make judgments based on appearances, from our offices to our wardrobes. I go to a doctor who I think is brilliant, but if he’d shown up at my first appointment in raggedy jeans and flip-flops, topped off by a coffee-stained “Grateful Dead” t-shirt, I never would have stuck around to find out how smart he is! Would you?

  38. posted by Keith on

    nice little article

    and five reasons why a messy desk is a good thing

    1. It takes time to organize
    2.Everything is in front of you
    3. Searching through piles can help you make connections
    4. Organization is a form of procrastination
    5.Creative thinkers are messy

    you can check the website i got that from here;id=998415

  39. posted by Angie on

    May blessings rain down upon the folks who invented laptops and scanners, and starved billions of dust mites to death! I love the uncluttered life, but–

    Two best reasons for a cluttered desk: a/keeps the boss convinced that you’re busy and prevents him from outsourcing your job
    b/keeps competitors from using a logical path to search your files/tasks/projects and stealing your ideas/clients-a necessary security procedure in the event of burglars or landlords with friends who are your (or your boss’s) business competitors. BTDT!

  40. posted by Sandy on

    As a person who has a bit of a shotty memory, I find it helpful to have visual cues for what I need to do. I have a couple different size/shape folder organizers out on my desk (of course nothing confidential, etc) for my working projects. I put the folders away when the projects are completed or put on hold.

    This requires a little work in the middle of the day sometimes, but it beats the starting and stopping that happens when I don’t know what to do next or what I have on my plate

  41. posted by Rue on

    I’ve come to realize that everyone has their own way of organizing. Some people are neat organizers, and some people are sloppy ones. I worked with a guy who subscribed to the “multiple piles on every available surface” method of filing. At one point I took everything on his desk and put it in a proper place…but he still kept making piles. Eventually I figured out that while no one else knew where anything was in the mess of piles, HE did (well, most of the time). He didn’t mind if someone filed things for him, but he wasn’t going to do it.

    In the end, it really comes down to what works for you – whether it’s your office or anywhere else in your home. The only reason you should deviate from your method (provided it’s a method that actually WORKS for you – leaving stuff in piles even though you know you can’t find anything does not work) is if you have other people who need to find things in your files as well. In that case you should respect your fellow man and come up with something that works for everyone.

    Personally I like to keep everything on my desk neat. I have my phone, letter tray, adding machine, stapler, cup for pens, cup for paper clips, stamp pad, mini garbage can and computer on my desk and that’s it. (Sounds like a lot, but my desk is rather wide, although not very deep…darn cubicles.) I have sorters in my drawers and hanging files for anything I need to keep in my desk. I find I work better that way. When my desk gets amassed with stuff, it stresses me out and I can’t work very well. But some people thrive in clutter – let them!

  42. posted by kazza on

    I file things away when they’re done. If I put the papers in files and store them, even just overnight, before I finish the job a little voice in my mind says “I don’t have any work to do”. Followed by the business equivalent of mental musak in my brain.

    I’ve tried to tame the little voice and convince myself that ‘out of sight doesn’t mean ignore it’ but it didn’t work.

    After I missed a few deadlines because I was too neat, I stopped filing work in progress. Now it lives on my desk or in my desk drawer ontop of my stationery.

    If I have to move it I have to work on it.

Comments are closed.