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Is there any correlation / linkages between productivity (whether it is digital or paper-based) and the tidiness or messiness of the desk?

I love looking at other people's work spaces and I generally like to keep my desk tidy, but sometimes it is difficult to keep my workspace tidy.

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I've adjusted your question to be more research, fact and reference oriented; to avoid it being closed for being not constructive. +1 Your question is very interesting, although I think we should look at "being organized causes productivity" in general as it will be hard to find such specific research. I wonder whether we just took this as a fact or if there really has been done research to point this out... – Tom Wijsman Jun 25 '11 at 9:36
Yes, but I can't find it under the mess on my desk ;-) – Brian Carlton Jun 25 '11 at 18:05
Great question. I am a "messy desk person" and keep hearing about clearing it to be more productive. But I find my mess helpful at times. I think I might dig for that research we are after here... – Dmitry Selitskiy Jun 28 '11 at 1:07
I've always been an adept to the idea that cleaning up my desk = clearing up my mind before starting work. – Mihai Oprea Jul 1 '11 at 11:36

There's a difference between mess and disorganization. I can have a dozen piles of paper on my desk - each for one task. I know exactly where everything is. Although it appears messy to others, it is organized and aids in task switching/productivity. Then there is disorganization where everything is one giant pile or things get lost. Disorganization does harm productivity because one wastes time looking for things.

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A comment more than an answer this one. Though very valid! – Dmitry Selitskiy Jun 28 '11 at 1:12
I was trying to answer that I think that correlation shouldn't be determined between mess and productivity. You are right that I didn't look for a study though. – Jeanne Boyarsky Jun 28 '11 at 1:23
You'd be surprised how many correlations were found in places where nobody should really have been looking... – Dmitry Selitskiy Jun 28 '11 at 1:24
True. Which leads to the problem of correlation is not causation and two things could be correlated because of a third thing. – Jeanne Boyarsky Jun 28 '11 at 2:28
I would +1 and I do agree with what you wrote, but I'll refrain from up voting because of the lack of reference to research that was asked for. – Bernhard Hofmann Jul 1 '11 at 6:21

Here's a good article and a scientific reference on this topic:

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I think to measure correlation between messiness and productivity, the personality of the individual needs to be taken into account.

As an embedded engineer, my desk is always in a constant state of mess. Check out these desks. Engineer's messy desk The late owners of these desks are extremely productivity in their domains, but their desk are truly a mess!

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Generally, messiness is not good.

Proper answer

The link Robby Slaughter posted has it right. Every single thing you have on a desk will demand your attention by default. That's the reaction that someone else gets when they first see it.

Eventually, your brain will learn to filter out some of that mess and start organizing it mentally. Like it will know that this pile of junk is where you keep tools. That pile is where you keep your forms dedicated to doing a specific task.

However, this doesn't necessarily make it more organized. When you drop something in the wrong pile, it will be nearly impossible to find. It also means that everything that isn't in the stacks of useful things will be filtered out by your brain and ignored, meaning that you can have actual garbage lying somewhere between the stacks and never see it.

I would recommend cleaning up your desk if you plan to have other people work with it and so you don't have candy wrappers and moldy sandwiches hidden in there somewhere. An organized mess can easily be an organized non-mess, and it takes little effort to maintain it in some cases.

Realistic answer

The time spent cleaning it up is not always worth the productivity gain from a clean desk.

And as most people know, a clean area attracts mess. If your desk is clean and your colleague's is cluttered, your boss may choose to dump their excess things on your desk because there's more space.

People will also correlate messy desks with work, so if your desk is clean, you may be given more work (since you've obviously got a lot of time to clean your things). Or if they see that your "to do" stack is small and neat, they may think that you've got room for more work.

If you are in full control, clean it up. Otherwise, organized chaos may be your best option.

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