Scientists Say a Messy Desk Could Make You More Productive

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Decluttering your home and office space, and the psychic relief that supposedly comes with it, are undeniably en vogue.

Yet there's reason to believe that messiness has its benefits, too. According to recent research from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, cited on Pacific Standard, disordered environments prompt people to be more goal-oriented.

The findings suggest that we're hardwired to seek order in our lives whenever possible. So when we're faced with physical chaos, we're motivated to create a more abstract sense of organization by pursuing clear, well-defined goals.


The study included a series of experiments designed to test this phenomenon. In the first, experimenters approached 40 people in a Dutch shopping district and asked them to fill out a questionnaire about shopping.

Participants indicated how much they agreed with two statements: "I prefer to participate in a program that clearly indicates the total number of points required to redeem for a reward" and "I get an unpleasant feeling from the crowdedness of the shopping street."

Results showed that people who were more irked by the idea of navigating throngs of shoppers were more inclined to want a reward program with a specific endpoint. The researchers note that the nature of the reward apparently didn't matter — people were simply attracted to the idea of reaching any endpoint.

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In another experiment, 90 participants were selected from an online Dutch panel. One group of participants saw pictures of a disordered store environment as the website's background; another group saw an ordered store environment; the third saw neutral pictures.

All participants were asked to imagine that they were participating in a reward program in which they collected points to redeem for a product they would choose from a catalog. Then they indicated how much they agreed with statements such as, "I am inclined to buy more products in order to receive additional credits."

Sure enough, participants who had seen the messy environment said they were more motivated to reach the end of the reward program than those who had seen the tidy environment or the neutral pictures.

Importantly, the study authors note that the processes of goal setting and goal striving might not happen consciously. It's possible that your cluttered desk may be consistently motivating you to finish your work, even if you're not aware of it.

To be clear, these findings aren't an excuse to keep your work area like a pigsty, with yesterday's coffee mug stuck to a pile of unopened mail. But when you need to buckle down on an important assignment, there's probably no harm in keeping a few stacks of paperwork around your computer for a little extra motivation.

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