Which is better: a tidy, organized workplace, or a cluttered, messy one?
For most people, the answer to this question seems glaringly obvious. Clearly organization trumps slovenliness and disarray in the workplace.
Or does it?
In reality, the answer may be more ambiguous than you’d expect. A 2013 study led by psychologist Kathleen Vohs suggests that clutter and organization both have pros and cons; the former tends to promote creativity, while the latter is more conducive to observing social and ethical norms, following procedures, and getting mundane tasks done.
In other words, the choice of which of those two states (order or disorder) to favour largely depends on what you hope to achieve, and what sort of work you happen to be doing. (Naturally, personality and individual preferences are significant factors too.)
Messiness can promote thinking outside the box
Innovation, by definition, involves a break from convention, and many of the most successful start-ups in history owe their genesis to a moment’s inspiration. Nowadays, every business owner is seeking a competitive edge, and the ability to come up with fresh and useful ideas certainly helps. Writing in the New York Times, Vohs described the details of the study she and her colleagues undertook, and some of its practical implications for managers and entrepreneurs hoping to spur ingenuity.
One component of Vohs et al.’s study involved two groups of research participants, half of whom were deployed to a tidy room, and the other half, to a disheveled one. All of the subjects were assigned the task of devising innovative uses for ping-pong balls, and the ideas they came up with were rated on both quantity and quality. (Unoriginal ideas, like using the balls to play beer-pong, received a low creativity rating.)
Both groups produced the same number of ideas. But the novelties emanating from the messy room were significantly more creative, and included using ping-pong balls as floor protectors for furniture, and to make ice trays. Comparable results, indicating a correlation between disorganization and creativity, have been found in subsequent studies.
The take-away is clear: a bit of messiness (within reasonable limits, of course) can foster fresh approaches to everyday problems, exactly the sort of thinking that enables small businesses to address unmet needs in the marketplace, and thrive as a result.
But of course, disarray is not without some drawbacks.
Tidiness correlated with generosity, and adherence to convention
While thinking outside the box is well and good, there are also plenty of occasions in life, including in professional environments, where it pays to recognize what’s working, and stick with it. Why re-invent the wheel?
In another component of their study, Vohs and her colleagues found that research participants who had been exposed to tidy environments tended to be more generous in their donations to a charity that supplied books and toys to disadvantaged children. When offered a choice of snacks between a chocolate bar and an apple, participants from the more orderly environment also tended to favour the healthier option.
One needn’t perform a scientific study in order to think of some other advantages that stem from organization. By maintaining order around your desk, you can avoid wasting time hunting around for things, and won’t become sidetracked as easily. Having a clear process in mind for the tasks ahead, and all the tools and materials that you need on hand, can save you mental and physical energy. This is crucial if your workload is heavy, and especially if it involves run-of-the-mill administrative duties.
But as Vohs et al.’s research indicates, it is hazardous to presume that disorganization in the workplace is a liability. In fact, under the right circumstances, it can even be an asset.