How a messy desk may predict—and even shorten—your lifespan

Messy desks encourage creativity, innovation

A clean desk may prompt healthier choices, but a messy desk promotes creativity and innovation, according to a recently published study in the journal Psychological Science.

According to University of Minnesota researchers, three experiments suggested a link between conscientiousness—or the ability to keep one's physical space in order—and several characteristics.

Your healthy habits: For the first experiment, researchers placed college students in either messy or clean work spaces and had them spend 10 minutes filling out questionnaires. As they exited, the students were offered either an apple or a chocolate bar—and students who spent time in a clean space were more likely to chose the apple than students who sat in a messy space.

Your creativity: In the second experiment, students were again placed in either clean or messy workspaces and then asked to dream up new uses for Ping-Pong balls. This time, students who sat in the messy spaces came up with significantly more creative uses for the balls, according to two independent judges who studied their work.

Your willingness to try something new: In the final experiment, students were again placed in clean or messy workspaces and then offered a smoothie with a health "boost." Students could choose either a boost labeled "new" or "classic." Students who sat in the messy spaces tended to choose the "new" option, while those in clean spaces tended to choose "classic."

Takeaways and observations

Lead author Kathleen Vohs called the results surprising because few studies have found any upside to having a messy workspace. However, Dale Buss at Forbes notes that many anecdotes have centered around a connection between have a messy workspace and being creative.

"One of my favorite viral e-mails of all time is one that simply shows the office desks of various geniuses that look like they needed an immediate visit from FEMA," Buss writes, "ranging from the work platforms of Albert Einstein to William F. Buckley to Nat Hentoff. It implies the question: What’s so bad about a bit of clutter where you work?"

"Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insight," Vohs added.

"My advice would be, if you need to think outside the box" then let the clutter build, Vohs said, adding that if health is the goal, clean your desk (Reynolds, Well, New York Times, 9/18; Waldman, "XX Factor," Slate, 9/19; Buss, Forbes, 9/19).

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