Go ahead, keep your desk messy—science says it’s okay

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Research suggests that having a messy desk might make us more imaginative.

When it comes to workspaces, whatever works for you is best.
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

As a generally unkempt person, I tend to take issue with the “messy desk, messy mind” principle that tidy folks occasionally bring up (usually with one eyebrow cocked). But it turns out that science is on my side.

New studies are showing that it’s less important to rid your workspace of clutter than it is to design and organize a space that fits with your personal tastes. When we have control over the look and feel of our workspaces, it increases our productivity and all-around efficiency.

Psychologist-turned-writer Dr. Christian Jarrett explains this—and other new workspace organization research—in the 99U article “The Perfect Workspace (According to Science)“.

Though he asserts that individual tastes rule, Jarrett does have some decor ideas that work well for most people. Try working these into your own personal decorating scheme:

Choose rounded furniture and arrange it wisely

If you have the luxury of designing your own workspace, consider choosing a layout and furniture that is curved and rounded rather than sharp and straight-edged.

Creating this environment has been linked with positive emotions, which is known to be beneficial for creativity and productivity (added bonus: there’s also less chance of knocking an elbow or knee on a sharp corner).

Take advantage of color, light, and space

Choosing the right color and lighting scheme for your office is one of the simplest ways your environment can enhance your performance.

For instance, exposure to both blue and green has been shown to enhance performance on tasks that require generating new ideas. However, the color red has been linked with superior performance on tasks involving attention to detail.

Make use of plants and windows

If you only do one thing to optimize your workspace, invest in a green plant or two.

Research has repeatedly shown that the presence of office plants has a range of benefits including helping workers recover from demanding activities and lowering stress levels.

But however you decide to decorate or organize your space, says Dr. Jarrett, the most important thing is to do whatever you can to create “an office space that you feel happy and comfortable in.”

Messy desk, it is!

What kind of space do you do your best work in? Share with us in the comments.



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Just “follow your instinct”? Maybe not.


Not treating your instinct as the be-all and end-all can help you make better decisions
about when to change direction. (photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Most of us make the bulk of our decisions based on instinct. How many times in your life have you found yourself saying, “It just felt right”?

But here’s the thing: your intuition might be wrong. It just might be your obstacle to action.

In a recent Brainpickings blog post, editor Maria Popova dissects the marvels and flaws of intuitive thinking based on the findings of psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Drawing from a series of studies he did in the ’70s, Kahneman encourages us to keep our intuition in check.

How? By being aware that it’s our brain’s default to jump to conclusions based on scant information.

That will very often create a flaw. It will create overconfidence. The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence. … People tend to have great belief, great faith in the stories that are based on very little evidence.

But you can use your slippery instinct to your advantage. Maria smartly writes:

In other words, intuition, like attention, is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator [that] asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that” — a humbling antidote to our culture’s propensity for self-righteousness, and above all a reminder to allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.

So the next time you’re in the midst of a project and “feeling” that something is right (or wrong), you might want to think again.

When has listening to your instinct worked for you? When has it not?

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This experimental brain stimulator won’t make you superhuman, but…

Changing the world is a real brain workout.

So what if you could “improve everything from working memory to long-term memory, math calculations, reading ability, solving difficult problems, piano playing, complex verbal thought, planning, visual memory, the ability to categorize, the capacity for insight, post-stroke paralysis and aphasia, chronic pain and even depression” at the touch of a button?

Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) may offer just that opportunity.


tDCS: like “jumper cables for the mind”?
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

The experimental technique—which works by delivering extremely low dose electrical stimulation to the brain via electrodes—has been in development since 1981. It still can’t be found outside a lab, but research has lately made some big strides. Read this recent New York Times Magazine article about the past and future of tDCS.

“tDCS will not make you superhuman, but it may allow you to work at your maximum capacity,” says one doctor at Harvard’s Laboratory of Neuromodulation at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where tests are currently being performed.

“It helps you achieve your personal best level of functioning. Let’s say you didn’t sleep well the night before. Or perhaps you’re depressed, or you suffered a stroke. It helps your brain reach its peak performance.”

What would you do if your brain was running at peak performance?

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Giving fossils new life with Jurassic Geriatrics

Welcome back to Small Acts: our series highlighting people who use their passion to make a big difference in their community.


David holds a T. rex jaw at The Renaissance assisted living apartment community in Wausau, WI. (photo courtesy David Daniels)

When David Daniels walks into a retirement community, he’s not carrying a meal or a magazine or an oldies music collection for the residents.

He’s carrying a jaw. The bottom jaw of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, that is.

It’s a win-win: residents get respite from the typical entertainment of bingo games and Frank Sinatra impersonators, and cool artifacts like bear skulls and wooly mammoth bones are given new life.

As founder of the Wisconsin nonprofit Colossal Fossils, David is all about spreading his love of extinct creatures and helping communities while he’s at it. Besides retirement homes, he’s shared his hobby with at-risk youth, the blind, and more.

The idea began a couple of years ago when David, whose professional background is in business, was rummaging in his basement and found an old, dusty box of fossils he’d been curating since childhood.

Sad to see them wasting away, he and his wife started talking with science and nonprofit folk in their hometown of Wausau to see if they could resurrect them. Wanting to help bolster local science programs, they started taking the collection into schools for show and tell.

Then David called up a retirement community on a whim. Knowing such places often have small entertainment budgets, he thought it could be a way to break up the monotony of the day without breaking the bank. They agreed.

“One lady came up to me afterwards,” David says. “ ‘She said, ‘I just want you to know I have Alzheimer’s. Chances are, tomorrow morning when I wake up, I won’t remember any of this. If I could have one wish, I would remember everything you taught me today.’ ”

So far, David has been to a dozen retirement homes in Wisconsin, with many repeat visits. The eventual goal is to create portable museums he can take across the U.S.

For David, who was admittedly one of those kids who wore dinosaur t-shirts all the time, it’s been an epic journey to circle back to his childhood passions as an adult. And while you could say Colossal Fossils is the dawn of a new era, their small focus is what David hopes will make them stand the test of time.

“There are plenty of large organization that focus on larger cities and larger venues. But there’s nobody that will go and talk to six seniors citizens about mastodons,” he says. “We’re okay with that.”

Do you have a niche hobby you’ve shared with others to make your community a little bit better? Tell us about it in the comments!

*Update: Colossal Fossils is looking to make their collection bigger. Get in touch with David here if you have fossils to donate.

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It’s magic! It’s a subliminal trick! It’s… priming?

How subtle environmental cues can affect whether we make progress on our intentions or not.

It’s a well-established fact that the words in our immediate environment can make us particularly cognizant of the same or similar words in our larger surroundings (imagine: you’re strolling down the street listening to Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” and suddenly the words “rain” and “umbrella” pop out as you pass a sign for outdoor gear on sale).

But in 1996, New York University researchers John Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows published an article that redefined just how influential words can be.

In the classic experiment, participants rearranged scrambled words to form sentences. In the control group, the sentences were random. In the experimental group, the sentences contained words relating to the elderly (“old, wise, wrinkle, bingo.”) After completing the task, the experimental group walked out of the testing room more slowly than those in the control set.

What?! The researchers had the same reaction. Could something so subtle really have such a significant effect? It did, and it sparked tons of research on just how much we might be unknowingly influenced by what’s around us.

This phenomenon is called priming: when something in the environment activates associations in the mind, influencing one’s perceptions, behaviors, and goals. Not to be confused with subliminal messaging, priming occurs due to direct, conscious interaction with something in your environment; there are no hidden words or images.

Subsequent studies found that it’s possible to prime using all kinds of stimuli (not just words) and for everything from behavior to goal-setting to judgement. In 2007, the New York Times cited an experiment that primed through touch.


Priming can help you put your best foot forward. (Photo via Toby Bradbury on Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

Simply holding a cup of hot or iced coffee influenced the way subjects would later judge a person in a story: those who had held hot coffee rated the character as warm, friendly and social; those who had held iced coffee rated the same person as colder, more selfish, and less sociable. Wow.

Priming and you

These studies have a significant “whoa!” factor that alone makes them worth sharing, but they also have implications for the world of social impact.

It would be great to start plastering your world with primes to make yourself kinder or more productive. But, there’s a catch to all this—you can’t prime yourself. As soon as you become aware of a prime, it no longer works. In fact, even if you’re just a tiny bit suspicious that you’re being manipulated, primes have no effect. C’est la vie.

Unfortunately, priming others won’t fly either. As long as you know who’s in your own “prime” and “control” groups, you’re likely to subconsciously alter your behavior, which affects the results. Primes need to be facilitated by a “blind” third party in order to work.

So… is this really real?

If you’re raising your eyebrows in doubt, you’re not alone—there is much controversy about the validity of priming studies. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great review on both sides of the debate, but the social psychology jury is still out.

Part of the reason primes are so hard to create (and replicate) is that they have to be delivered in an environment that convincingly simulates “real life”—a tall order in a lab setting. In addition, newer studies have uncovered many layers to priming. In a variation on the elderly-prime study, for example, researchers found that subjects who had good feelings in general about older folks walked more slowly, while those who didn’t actually walked faster.

What you can do

Why did you just read this whole article, then? Because, priming—even if it’s ultimately judged more fluke than phenomenon—still offers some worthwhile takeaways. Here are three tips on how to create a prime-friendly environment:

1. Be more visual.

Even though primes don’t work when we’re aware of them, embedding positive images into our environments can only help. Not only is “happy decor” a spirit-lifting sight for us, it can also work as a positive prime for newcomers to our space.

Is your nonprofit looking to hire? By creating a work environment that visually promotes cooperation instead of competitiveness, you’re more likely to bring out the best in your candidates and employees. Think, for example, about putting out some flowers, or hanging up happy pictures of people your organization works with.

2. Watch your talk.

Think about the way you speak. Do you use more negatives or positives? Instead of asking, “What didn’t work? Why did it fail? What problems do we need to fix?” Try asking, “What could we improve? What did we learn? What solutions can we try?”

Positive language can inspire people whether or not they’re conscious of its use. It also has the effect of bringing you up in the process, in the same way that smiling—even if you’re unhappy—can brighten your mood.

3. Take stock of your environment.

It might be a bummer that we can’t prime like some research pros, but the flipside is that we don’t have to let ourselves be primed, either. The next time you notice yourself losing patience or feeling feisty, take a moment to truly notice your surroundings.Would you feel the same way if you were surrounded by sunshine, ice cream, and puppies?

By becoming more conscious of our environments, we can help ward off that chilled-coffee effect, and see the strangers around us for their potential warmth instead.

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How an Irish nonprofit is helping kids be green

Leprechauns. Frothy mugs of green beer. Four-leaf clovers. Whether you celebrate it or not, these are likely the first images that pop in your head when you think of St. Patrick’s Day. But these universal symbols for the Irish holiday aren’t the only green products Ireland has to offer.


Two boys create a completed circuit in Rediscovery Centre course on green energy.

Green businesses have grown in Ireland over the past few years. From small-scale organic farming programs to larger businesses manufacturing new wind power technology, environmentally sustainable projects in Ireland are both diverse and original.

One nonprofit in particular, Eastern Ireland’s Rediscovery Centre, has geared its environmental efforts towards the next generation of green thinkers by bringing waste reduction and sustainability tools into the classroom by partnering with teachers in schools across the region. Fortunately, the Irish government encourages primary schools teach a certain amount of classes focused on waste reduction and biodiversity through its Green Schools Program.

And it’s anything but dull. With sessions spent constructing terrariums or cooking with a homemade solar ovens, the center’s staff know how to make environmental education captivating for a range of ages. And based on student and teacher surveys that praise their alternative style of education, their method is working.

But it wasn’t always a breeze.

When the Rediscovery Centre first created its education program (it also serves as a store for recycled paint, restored furniture and eco products) in 2006, the staff had a simple framework for its classes—but needed in-class experience to truly understand what its students needed.

“It’s always been easier with the primary schools. They love the hands-on learning style and are willing to learn,” says Tara Singleton, manager of research and education at the organization. “But once the students get older, they’re sometimes too cool for school. They are more stubborn.”


Students learn the ins and outs of recycling with a life-size Chutes and Ladders board game.

So her staff has to modify each lesson by age group, making the topic something both relatable and appealing to the students. The program’s Executive Manager, Sarah Miller, adds that education disparities within an age group can even create issue within a classroom.

“Some schools have engaged in quite comprehensive environmental awareness raising before they book a workshop, whereas others haven’t,” she says. “In order to deal with this we have developed a range of workshop activities and additional teaching aids.”

Working with teachers, who best know how the individual students work in a school setting, tends to be the quickest way to plan a lesson.

“It really depends on the teacher,” Singleton says. “Some are really welcoming to our program, and want to help us make our class work for their students, but others don’t seek us out.”

Which is another battle altogether. How does the staff make their resources attractive to public school teachers?

With classes based solely on these topics, the center has no trouble winning teachers over. For secondary classrooms, however, staff has to work harder to align its classes with topics covered in the school courses.

“We try to pair science and geography lessons up with our classes, but it’s not as simple as with the younger grades,” she says. “There’s less incentive there.”

But by dealing with these obstacles from the get-go, the center has been able to secure its roots in the surrounding community.

“We often get calls from delighted schools that have used our lessons throughout the school year,” says Singleton. “They say ‘look what we’ve done!’ Sure, it’s a hard slog to start up something like, but the interest is there. It’s worth it!”


 Want to learn more about how to engage children in learning about sustainability and the environment? Feel free to contact Tara Singleton at tara@rediscoverycentre.ie and Sarah Miller at sarah@rediscoverycentre.ie.

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The secret to surviving a financial apocalypse? Community trust

Jason Lee is no stranger to the ups and downs of financial instability. In Detroit—a city left financially and physically vacant following the 2008 economic downturn—it’s impossible for Lee to be anything but.

“I became director right before the economy changed, so I got to experience it all first-hand,” says Lee, who runs the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP).  “It wasn’t easy. People sometimes forget that nonprofits are businesses, too.”

Nonetheless, DAPCEP—a local mainstay offering free pre-college science and mathematics programs to minority youth—has seemed to rise above the bankrupt-triggering recession. From summer computer camps getting prospective college students up to speed on cutting-edge technology to basic pre-engineering classes for Kindergarteners and their parents, DAPCEP’s breadth of classes rope in a wide reach of support.

DAPCEP students having

Students learning about molecules in DAPCEP classroom

Its secret? Community trust.

Now at 37 years old, DAPCEP has successfully led students from the first day of elementary school to the first day of college. Growing from a small idea to a family name over the decades, the program has now reached a point where its community is returning the effort.

From public schools and local universities regularly encouraging parents to enroll their kids in DAPCEP to second-generation DAPCEP graduates donating money and time to keep the program on its feet, Lee says he’s has seen an uptick in local support since the city hit financial bottom.

“A lot of credit goes to schools and universities when it comes to encouraging people to get involved in the program,” says Lee. “They see students interested in becoming doctors or scientists in the classroom and can send them directly to us.”

Local and national grants, issued through a variety of foundations, have also kept DAPCEP above water over the years.

But this support didn’t come without work. The program’s pre-recession roots in the community certainly added to its neighbors’ backing.

DAPCEP offered its first classes 37 years ago with a small population of 245 middle school and high school-aged students (now, Lee says, they’ve had up to 10,000 at a time) with the simple goal of breaking outdated career stereotypes. At the time, it was uncommon to see students of African-American, Hispanic, or Native-American heritage choose a career path in science, engineering and other technical fields. DAPCEP wanted to change that.

Now, based on a 2010 survey, 94 percent of all students enrolled in DAPCEP plan to attend college and pursue a technical degree. Additionally, more than 90 percent of Detroit Public School entries in the 2011 Metropolitan Detroit Science Fair originated in DAPCEP classrooms.

Soon, DAPCEP college graduates will likely return to the city to add to its regrowth. Lee himself went through a similar program as a child in Massachusetts, a move that, after leading him through graduate school to an engineering job at Ford Motors, inspired him to take the reins at DAPCEP.

The community has clearly recognized the impact.

For the first time in the program’s history, DAPCEP will be charging for its younger age bracket classes this summer. The price? $100, a steep jump from a long-time free program. But instead of grimacing at the change in policy, applicants’ parents appear eager to pitch in to DAPCEP’s grant-funded pot.

“Many parents were amazed that DAPCEP has survived so long without having to charge,” says Lee.

With the community-based support giving the program the boost to continue growing, Lee has fielded many requests from people across the country wanting insight on the program’s successful model. While he’s hesitant to expand DAPCEP itself to other metropolitan areas, Lee fully supports other programs starting up their own similar platform, as he’s seen such success in Detroit.

“We’ve been around long enough to engage a population that’s had parents and grandparents in DAPCEP,” says Lee. “And now we have their children telling them ‘Mommy, I want to be a scientist!’ on their own. It’s come full circle.”


Interested in learning more about the importance of community trust in sustaining a nonprofit? Talk to Jason Lee at jdlee@dapcep.org.

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