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Leave Your Desk Messy and be More Creative

A messy desk is more creative

A messy desk is more creativeI love productivity tips. Reading them makes me feel supercharged, ready to take on the world. If only I’d work out for fifteen minutes each morning, if only I’d wake up earlier or always wear the same type of shirt or talk in clear, action oriented sentence.

If only I’d kept my desk spotless.

That’s one of the classic ones: keep your desk ordered and you’ll be productive. Then I look at my own desk I see, right now: a pile of papers, a half-empty 20 ounce/0.6 liter thermos tea cup, a “world’s best dad” teddy bear, a tipped over picture, an entrance pass to a conference I attended half a year ago, an entrance pass to a party I attended a month ago, another pile of papers, an ergonomic wrist support, a mouse mat stacked on top of a pile of printer paper to get it to the right height, a note with an out-of-date password to an account that was shut down months ago, another pile of scribbled papers.

Yet, somehow, I manage to write. Imagine how productive I’d be if my desk was spotless.

Except that I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. Here’s why.

Choose the Right Work Environment

Your work environment must match your personalityA desk, or any type of work environment, must match your personality in order to work for you. Some people talk about taking their laptops to a coffee shop and cranking out 15 000+ words in a single sitting. I’ve tried working in a coffee shop and I was very uncomfortable with it, feeling that I was taking up space, that people would read over my shoulder, that I’d meet someone I knew and would have to answer the question of “what are you doing here”. I was a nervous wreck and I kept hearing snatches of conversations and breaking buses and the clink of china. Writing in a coffee shop isn’t for me.

A messy desk, however, works just fine. A messy desk works better for me than an organized one, and, if what I’ve read about intelligence and creativity, it may be that my brain craves messiness in order to be creative.

Why Messy Desks Work

There are three factors that make a messy desk work in my favor:

  1. Comfort
  2. G-factor
  3. Creativity

First is the fact that I find a messy desk comfortable. It tells me that it’s all right not to be perfectly clean, to write a messy first draft, to work on those ideas that don’t generate anything. A messy desk gives me confidence, allows me to be a messy writer as long as I do write. Messy, through being motivating, makes me productive.

Also, I know that I can put my glasses anywhere and still have them on top of a pile within easy reach whenever I need them. I don’t need to align them in their correct spot. I don’t need to make sure that they don’t get any thumb prints on them. I can fix all that in post, sorry, in the faucet with some soap. In effect this gets me off the hook for organizing unimportant stuff. I get to sit down at my desk and start working on whatever I need to work on.

Yes, I am a messy writer. I like to crank out drafts that meander, that doesn’t adhere to a strict, bullet pointed order. So does Stephen King and he did all right. Yeah, I wander into a dead end in many of my writing projects. I’m not as effective as I could be – but I’m a lot more effective than I would be if I didn’t write, and having a messy desk helps me with that.

Intelligent People Don’t Need Order

Here’s a kicker for you: if you’re intelligent you don’t need order. In fact, you might find strict order stifling and the more intelligent you are the less order you require.

Well, it’s not that simple, of course, but people with a high G-factor rely more on their ability to process new information than on their memory. G-factor is what psychologist call “general intelligence”, “general cognitive ability”, “general mental ability” or just plain old “intelligence”. It’s not quite the same thing as IQ but G-factor accounts for about 40-50% of the variance in IQ. Where IQ could be summed up as “pattern matching ability”, G-factor could be summed up as “learning ability” (this is very simplistic, not entirely correct and doesn’t take into account fluid and crystalline G components, but it works for our purposes).

So where a person with a lower G would rely on memory, i.e. everything being in the correct place, to find information a person with a high G would rely on their ability to quickly sort through lots of information in order to find what they need.

Me, I’m a high G-factory, high IQ type of person. Doesn’t make me better than anyone, nor a wunderkind of any kind – my EQ, that’s emotional quotient, is, well, ask my wife. Or better yet, don’t.

But I rely on knowing the general whereabouts of stuff I might need and then sorting through them very fast. Which brings me to my next point:

A Messy Desk is Creative

Without comfort the brain tends to innovateCreativity is the ability to take two disparate ideas and merge them together into a new whole. And when I’m digging through my messy desk I get bombarded with ideas: old notes, old memories, stuff that I’d forgotten to do, stuff that I wanted to look at later. All of this front loads my brain with a wave of chaotic data, which my G-factor helps me sort through (yes, my G-factor is a small, green hominid living in my left eyeball; darn grammar). And during that sorting marvelous new ideas flood my brain – “oh, an article about tropical fish, wow a note to find out what happened to the first dog in space – hey, giant space fish coming to eat earth!”.

Having a messy desk is creative in another way as well: without ordered lines, without the comfort of following set pathways, the brain tends to innovate. We’re great at spotting patterns even when there are no patterns to spot. So when our brain is presented with a multitude of senseless input it tends to create sense out of it anyhow by highlighting the parts that we focused on before. Think about red cars or strollers and take a walk around town – notice how many red cars there are around? If you don’t believe me, google “synchronicity”.

Too Messy is Still Bad

But there’s a catch: if my desk becomes too messy it becomes detrimental (not enough G-factor I guess) and I start to feel stressed about it. That removes any comfort I get from seeing my desk in disarray. And I get the feeling that I can’t find anything so I don’t try, meaning I don’t get any flow of new ideas because who wants to dig through yard high stacks of paper?

So while I might like to have a clean desk, and I know that my wife would strongly prefer it, I work better with a messy one but only as long as it’s not too messy. And when it gets too messy I get a definite feeling of accomplishment from cleaning it. Yay! Me: 1 – Desk clutter: 0. Excuse me, now I’ve got to go clean.

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