Employers bent on bringing out the best in their employees have tried everything from Beer Fridays to big design overhauls in an attempt to get their workers to be both more productive and more creative. But how you like your workspace — whether you’re a tidy person or, well, a little more chaotic — can do more to reflect the kind of working conditions you need, and the kinds of work you may be best suited for, than any design-y furniture or splashy graphics on the walls.
According to one often-cited study from the University of Minnesota, a messy workspace is more likely to indicate a creative mind, while a tidy desk is more likely to foster productivity than creativity.
“We found…that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting,” reported psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs regarding the study. Indeed, when looking at participants behavior and output, the researchers found that those with cleaner desks got more done, while those surrounded with more mess came up with more clever solutions.
If you don’t work in a vacuum — or at your house — though, all the creativity in the world might not save you from the critical eye of a boss who isn’t so into the beautiful disaster of your workspace. A survey from OfficeMax (who, with their wide variety of organizational tools, may admittedly not have a 100% nonpartisan stake in this area) found that messy desk could negatively influence the opinions of others, and even cost workers promotions. Your lack of organization might work for you, but if you’re not conscious of how it makes you look to coworkers, you could end up with a bad reputation as an unreliable or scattered person.
It’s also possible that having a lot of things on your desk is just too distracting to make the creativity you feel as a result worth it. Multiple studies of human psychology have found that having a lot of chaos (and, specifically, clutter) can reduce overall brain performance, making it difficult to focus on tasks at hand — even if you don’t really notice.
Of course, like just about everything else in life, the most important aspect of how you keep your workspace is whether or not it works for you. After all, some of the most famous CEOs in the tech industry have worked in total chaos, while others (like Bill Gates) seem to prefer a spotless surrounding. So truthfully, as long as the mess or lack of mess works for you, it’s probably best to just roll with it, rather than trying to make creativity or productivity happen by letting the plates pile up, or moving your sticky notes to the wastepaper basket.