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Does a Tidy Desk Increase Productivity?

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Sony Creative Software Inc.

There is a general universal consensus that clutter is bad, blank space is good.  Clutter gets in the way of our thoughts and blocks our sense of “can do”, whereas a clear space leaves our mind and energy free to flow and opens up our sense of possibility. A sense of order on your desk can imply a sense of order in your work. However, Einstein is famous for his observation (amongst others) that “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?“.  Einstein, who certainly knew a thing or two about productivity, was not famous for a tidy desk.  Time, for him, was too precious a commodity to spend on putting the earthly components of his desk into order when he had a whirling mass of ideas and codes from the universe to unravel.

Those from the counter-tidy movement will also draw on the example of Alexander Fleming (another scientist who was not famous for a sense of order in his works pace), who made the discovery of Penicillin in a contaminated petri dish that he had casually left to the side of his workbench before going on holiday.

Perfectionism, they say, is one of the most tell-tale signs of procrastination. So, if time is better spent thinking, doing and discovering mysteries hidden within the masses of the disorganised than putting things into order, what are the pros of an orderly work space?  Firstly, if you command a tidy desk, you will at least give the impression to your colleagues and boss that you are running a tight ship and everything is under control.  Even if this is not the case, appearances carry a lot of weight in the workplace and if your desk looks like its under control, people will believe it and if  they believe it, you will believe it, and if you believe it, it might come true.   Also, a sense of order and knowing exactly where things are, will clear your mind to think about the things you really need to do.  If you don’t have to worry about locating your tools and papers, this will also free up your time and energy to spend doing more effective things.  Piles of papers and not knowing the lay of the land across your desktop can leave you feeling overwhelmed, lost and weighed down by the task of navigation before you can really go anywhere.  Of course there is also the basic hygiene factor… If you cannot see the surface of your desktop, then you probably can’t clean it properly.  And your desk is no more immune to the micro-pathogens of sneezes from passers by, crumbs from your lunches and airborne germs than any other surface.

While a tidy desk frees your mind to think clearly in a straight line, there is a counter argument that a slightly messy desk will free your mind, unbound by order and convention, to think creatively and come up with innovative ideas.  A sense of preciousness is one of invention’s greatest constraints. Like everything, there are advantages and disadvantages to both sides of the coin.  The key is to find a balance.  If you find you are spending more time tidying, organising and planning than actually doing, well then you need to address this.  In turn, if you are putting off tasks because the thought of locating that file or a paper is too much, you may need to spend a day putting your work space into order.  As extreme as that may sound and as great the fear of losing a day’s work to the pursuit of order may be to the Einsteins and Flemings of this world, you will find that the productivity and energy flow will pay off in return for the effort.  Once a balance between order and disorder is struck, maintenance is the next challenge.  That is an ongoing process and another matter altogether. (To be continued…)

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