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Familiar pipe, an open book, a cluttered desk and a blackboard covered with mathematical equations surround the empty chair in Dr. Albert Einstein's office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N. J. (1965)
Familiar pipe, an open book, a cluttered desk and a blackboard covered with mathematical equations surround the empty chair in Dr. Albert Einstein's office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N. J. (1965)

Weekend Workout

Clean or messy: What your desk says about you Add to ...

Messy desks are a sign of: a) a creative, high-achieving, productive genius; or b) an unorganized, irresponsible, untrustworthy incompetent. Discuss.

Listen to Tavia Grant's Workplace podcast

BRING ON THE MESS

The view: "A messy desk says that you're a normal human being, and, in fact, that you're like the vast majority of people. It also says that you're not the kind of person who places neatness and organization over actual efficiency, because a messy desk tends to be more efficient than a very neat desk."

Proof: "A survey my co-author and I did found that people who had messy desks spent less time hunting for things than people who had very neat desks. That makes a lot of sense, because, when you have a messy desk, you're arranging things in a way that's customized to the way you think and work."

Caveat: "Some people claim that having a messy desk is a sign of being a more creative person. I don't think it's true that someone who has a very neat desk is necessarily an uncreative person, and I've seen accountants with very messy desks and artists with extremely neat desks. But it's true that creativity is largely about making surprising connections, and a messy desk is certainly a way of mixing and matching things in sometimes interesting ways."

David Freedman, co-author of A Perfect Mess

CLEAN IT UP

The view: "We've lapsed into this culture where we believe that the messier we are, the busier we look. Having an untidy desk says you have no sense of priority. … It damages your ability to make good decisions, and all of that combines to add more stress in the workplace [for you and your colleagues]"

Proof: "Our research found a clear desk space also gives a clear mind space. It helps you prioritize what's most urgent and makes you more efficient. It also helps your ability to make good decisions because you have the information available where you need it."

Caveat: "There are cases where [people can still function well] it's just about our individual makeup." Also worth mentioning is that messiness nowadays is much less visible: it's become "electronic clutter," or excessive files stored on office computers.

Theo Theobald, co-author of Detox Your Desk

BY THE NUMBERS

48: Percentage of people who are "pilers" - they organize paper by piling it on their desktops.

38: Percentage of people who are "filers" - they file rather than pile, and tend to have management titles.

14: Percentage of people who are "tossers" - they keep their desks spare and uncluttered.

Source: 2005 survey by Pendaflex, a New York-based company specializing in organizational solutions

FAMOUS MESSY DESK PEOPLE

Albert Einstein

Abraham Lincoln

Sigmund Freud

"If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?"

- Albert Einstein

FIVE TIPS TO A CLEANER DESK

* Contain your stuff. Don't let your belongings spill onto your colleagues' desks, or into the corridor.

*Don't obstruct daytime traffic. If you need to overhaul your filing system and spread all your possessions out on chairs, do it after hours.

*Avoid the photo gallery. How much do you really want others to know? Don't display an album of pictures - a few photos will suffice.

*Avoid extra pairs of shoes, or a change of clothes. Your cubicle is not your home closet.

*Be cautious with foliage. Plants can drop leaves and leak water; do not cultivate a jungle. Remember that others may have allergies to certain plants.

Source: Diane Craig, Toronto-based workplace etiquette specialist

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