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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Are you a bureaucrat?

If you’re reading this, it’s definitely possible.

In a recent New York Times piece called Don’t Let Bureaucracy Ruin Your Day, Russell Bishop explains that the roots of the word “bureaucrat” come from the French word for desk or office and the Greek word for rule. So if you sit behind a desk (even part of the time) and develop procedures for others to follow (even if not very often) then you fit the classical definition of a bureaucrat.

Many people arrive at social change work—either starting up their own social enterprise, or taking a nonprofit job—because they want to avoid bureaucracy. After all, everyone has encountered a frustrating roadblock that’s explained as “just our policy,” and sometimes even the people most directly involved have only a hazy idea of why that particular policy exists or what it’s good for. Who wouldn’t want to break free?

But it’s easier to start something than it is to stop. So policies, procedures, rules, and regulations have a tendency to multiply, complexify, and persist. Piecemeal reforms often make things worse by tweaking one part of the problem but leaving the rest unchanged and even more difficult to understand.

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Turn those frowns upside down. Photo: Glen_Wright, Flickr/Creative Commons

But Bishop believes there’s a cure. It’s not necessarily easy – but stick with it and it may be fun and liberating.

Is it your job to administer a rule that seems to chafe? Then figure out how to ease the pain. Find deeper-than-average ways to review why the rule exists, how it might be changed, and what the benefit might be.

Put together a little group of people affected by the rule – including, of course, the people who need it to make their lives easier or safer. Bishop suggests three short questions that might guide a conversation with these people:

  • Based on what we are learning, what do we need to stop doing?
  • What do we need to keep doing?
  • And what do we need to start doing?

A candid talk about the whys and wherefores of any rule should generate suggestions for change and ideas about how to smooth out the rough spots.

I think it’s worth a try. I’d love to live in a world where bureaucratic barriers are less common, where rules simply help everyone to succeed rather than tripping people up.

What do you think? Is it possible to be a good bureaucrat?

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