How Geniuses Work

Science tells us uncluttered workspaces set us up for success. On the flip side, messy desks prevent us from reaching our full potential. Clutter causes fatigue.

“People sitting at messy desks are less efficient, less persistent, and more frustrated and weary than those at neat desks,” a recent <em>Harvard Business Review</em> article states. “A disorganized environment can be a real obstacle when you try to do something.”

Research seems to confirm this hypothesis. One study found that people who sat at messy desks took 10% longer to answer questions than those who sat at organized desks. Another study found that people sitting at clean desks were able to focus on tasks longer than those who were stuck at messy desks.

But wait a minute.

Throughout the years, a number of people we’d all agree are geniuses seem to have ignored that advice. They’ve thrived behind spectacularly disorganized workspaces.

Let’s start with Albert Einstein and a quote often attributed to him: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Albert Einstein

Maybe Einstein was on to something?

A recent experiment asked research participants to come up with new uses for ping pong balls. Half of the subjects brainstormed in clean rooms while the other half brainstormed in messy rooms.

Both groups ended up with roughly the same number of ideas.

But the folks who brainstormed in messy rooms came up with ideas that were more creative.

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” explains Kathleen Vohs, a psychological scientist who facilitated the experiment. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

Mark Twain

Kurt Vonnegut

This is perhaps why two of America’s most talented authors, Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, were able to pen so many amazing and unique novels.

Simone de Beauvoir

It may also explain why Simone de Beauvoir, a French writer, philosopher, and political activist, was writing about women’s oppression before most people even knew the concept existed.

office, genius, work

Susan Sontag

And why American activist and essayist Susan Sontag’s critical writings changed the way the world thought about photography, human rights, culture, media, and more.

When you stop to think about it, it makes sense that so many of our greatest thinkers maintained messy workspaces.

Proponents of messy desks say that people tend to ignore the cost of neatness. Folks who are incredibly organized need to invest a lot of time to maintain that cleanliness—which is time they can’t spend tinkering with new ideas.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Messy desks may even help us think better on our feet, too.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—who famously improvised his “I have a dream” speech—maintained an untidy workspace.

So, should you keep your desk clean? Or should you let loose and let your workspace get cluttered?

Different people thrive in different environments.

If you’re not sure which one is best for you, keep this in mind: People with messy desks often command higher salaries.

Maybe you shouldn’t bring that dirty coffee mug that’s been sitting on your desk for weeks to the kitchen after all.