The old adage that a “tidy room means a tidy mind” is a cliché, of course and there is little evidence that the two are connected. There are plenty of untidy people who have perfectly good minds, able to produce fantastic work from a seeming muddle.
One of the problems of a messy desk, for instance, is that people are judged by their colleagues. It seems we tend to think that individuals who work in a mess are somewhat inferior.
Yet in their book, A Perfect Mess, authors Eric Abrahamson and David H Freedman point out that there is little research connecting messy desks with poor work. Indeed, their own research found much the opposite. Their study found that there were significant benefits in not being tidy.
However, studies like this focus on productivity, largely looking at the ability for people to find things. If you can find things quickly in a mess, you can still be productive. The advocates of the messy desk theory can show that untidiness can actually force us to focus on searching for things and so, as a result, it is possible to find things quickly when you are untidy.
In a busy office, though, there are some downsides to mess. Firstly, it is about image – visitors to the office do not get a great impression. Secondly, even though the worker at a messy desk can find things, other people cannot because it is not “their mess”. It seems we can easily find things in our own untidiness, but not within the mess of other people.
Now, there is new research which suggests the visual impact of mess can have a real impact on our ability to concentrate. The research was admittedly looking at visual displays within schools, but it does offer a good lesson. The study found that when children were being taught in classrooms with the usual array of posters, work and other wall coverings, they were less able to learn things compared with children taught in classrooms with little visual distraction. The research showed that the visuals on the wall are sufficient distraction to reduce attention to the task in hand. Not only that, but the visually elaborate classrooms also increased “off task behaviour” – chatting to classmates and so on. In other words, the plain and boring classrooms helped children learn more because it helped them pay attention.
Offices with plenty of visual distractions, such as a mess around the desk or posters, lists and notices on the wall are likely to have a similar distracting effect.
Considering that much of the time in offices these days is spent online, it suggests that a plain and boring office could help you concentrate and focus on your online tasks more easily.
If you want to boost your web productivity, then tidying up your desk area and reducing visual distractions could well be a good idea.