Albert Einstein famously quipped, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” While the Nobel laureate was obviously advocating for the benefits of cluttered desks, he likely had no idea that his question would inspire researchers decades later…and that those researchers would eventually give him an answer.
In a recently study published in Psychological Science, a team of researchers headed by Kathleen Vohs found that working at a tidy (Einstein would say empty) desk influences people to be more conventional, more generous and to make healthier choices. But, perhaps more interestingly, working at a cluttered desk positively influences people’s creative thinking ability. It appears Einstein was on to something.
Over the course of the study, the researchers conducted several experiments that placed participants in either a clean, neatly organized room or a cluttered, messy room. When asked if they’d like to give to charity, the participants in the clean room donated more often. When they were allowed to take a snack as they left the experiment, the tidy room participants choose healthy snacks more often. So despite Einstein’s protests, there may be some benefits to a clean desk.
But it’s the relationship between the tests of conventionality and creativity that are perhaps most intriguing. When asked to choose between a new product and an older, better-known product, those in the messy room chose the new product more often. In addition, when asked to generate new uses for ping-pong balls (something the largely college student crowd of participants must have already been a bit familiar with), it was those inside the messy rooms that consistently listed more uses than their tidier counterparts. This type of test, known as an alternate uses test, is a common measure for divergent thinking and creativity.
It appears that being in an orderly environment influences us to conform to the conventional expectations set for us. However, being in a messy room helps us depart from those conventions and unlock more divergent thinking. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” Vohs explains. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”
The implications for this research are intriguing. We are more influenced by our environment than we might initially suspect. While many who’ve written about this study since it was published love to use it to sing the praises of messy desks (Einstein lovers unite!), the study suggests that we can learn to structure environments to suit our goals and help use more effectively achieve those goals. If you’re trying to bring some more order, healthier choices, and a more generous perspective into your life, then maybe you should start by cleaning up your office and home. However, if you need a creative insight or breakthrough idea, that same tidy office could be stifling your creative thinking. Who knows how much more Einstein could have accomplished had he known when to empty his desk and when to leave it cluttered?
David Burkus is the author of Under New Management. He is host of the Radio Free Leader podcast and Associate Professor of Management at Oral Roberts University. To get more resources to help you lead smarter, join his free newsletter.