The effect of clutter: productivity killer or catalyst?

We spend a lot of time at Central Desktop thinking about how to unclutter your work day. We’re focused on digital clutter, the kind that’s piling up in your inboxes and on your desktops. Time-wasting email threads, old-fashioned review-and-approval processes, missing files, scattered versions of single documents, and on and on.

Hopefully this clean-up will make a visible impact: fewer teetering stacks of unnecessary printouts, perhaps, or a decrease in Post-It consumption. But even finding organizational nirvana in the cloud may not free you from the clutches of a messy desk or messy office.

The good news? You may not need to clean up after all, especially if you’re a creative type.

“Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity” sums up a new study from Kathleen D. Vohs (with Joseph P. Redden and Ryan Rahinel) from University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

In Vohs’ study, participants were more likely to donate to charity and make healthy eating choices after spending time in a neat and orderly room – but less likely to rise to the challenge of creative problems compared to participants in a messy room.

The New York Times cited research by cognitive psychologist Jay Brand indicating that your coworker’s recreation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa via Starbucks cups may simply be a sign of a busy mind – and a booming bank account:

To a professional organizer brandishing colored files and stackable trays, cluttered horizontal surfaces are a horror; to cognitive psychologists like Jay Brand… their peaks and valleys glow with intellectual intent and showcase a mind whirring away: sorting, linking, producing. (By extension, a clean desk can be seen as a dormant area, an indication that no thought or work is being undertaken.)

On the other hand, those killjoys at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute suggest that the effect of clutter in a work environment is frayed focus – and, as we’ve previously discussed in considerable detail, our brains just aren’t equipped for multitasking.

Thus people sometimes cite the “contradictory” studies about clutter – but it seems to me that they mostly supplement one another pretty well. If clutter is lurking as a constant item on your backburner to-do list, its continued appearance day after day is going to distract you. It may drive you crazy. It may lead to a dramatic reaction (or overreaction) like donating all of your clothes or deleting all of your emails.

If you thrive with a little bit of chaos around you, though, don’t feel the need to conform to coworkers whose sterile desks always look like they’re in the midst of someone’s first (or last) day. Tomorrow’s workplace will increasingly be built around individual strengths and preferences, not the illusion that productivity comes with one-size-fits-all standards. Like a homeowner, though, you do have some responsibilities to your neighbors. And there’s a difference between messy and dirty.

A bigger menace to your productivity than a messy desk may be the very notion that you need a traditional work desk in the first place. An increasing number of workers are singing the praises of more flexible ways to work – standing desks, adjustable tables, more time working from home, etc. If you want to do an office overhaul to boost collaboration and productivity, check out Jessica Stillman’s tips on our blog.

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.