The Messy Desk Syndrome

Posted by jlubans on April 25, 2022

Many years ago I had a secretary.
She was a graduate of NYCs Katherine Gibbs School which trained executive assistants. A Gibbs graduate back then was guaranteed a decent job. At the time, most executives had at least one secretary.
I hired her in 30 minutes.
Once she started, my office and I were never the same.
For one thing, she was smarter than me – she eventually got her law degree and went on to become a luminary in the legal profession..
And, of course, being female, she had far more social skills than me.
Finally, while not stated in the job description, she assumed her job was to make me look good.
She did.
Her professionalism made up for my many too casual ways.
She rearranged my office. No more mess, no more piles of scattered folders, no more dying plants or half-empty coffee cups.
I recall how, under her guidance, one plant behind my desk rejunevated and spread symmetrically a meter to each side.
My office became remarkable for its order, its efficient appearance; not a bad thing to project to colleagues and visitors.
I enjoyed that clutter free office with all things at right angles.
It oozed business.
Some readers - sweat suited at their kitchen table home office - might cringe at the above. Not me.
I can deal with some mess, but not the mess I once found in a colleague’s branch office. The word “mess” fails. The mot juste is “squalor”. Unopened mail cascaded from the desk onto the floor. He’d put up a sign on his door advising custodial staff not to enter.
I’d say this was less the gesture of an Einstein famous for his messy desk than more a psychological condition.
My colleague was pretty much an OK worker, not a star. I suspect the mess was his way of decision making. If something really needed to be done, it would somehow rise in importance out of the piles of unopened correspondence. His decision to delay and ignore, first, second and third appeals for action, may have been an effective way to sort through mundane office trivia.
When we began using e-mail he probably had a thousand or two unopened e-mails. (Yes, there’s plenty of digital mess. How much free space do you have on your digital “desktop”?)
Another colleague opened all of her email, but never deleted any. At last count she had 23,546 messages in her in box!)
My branch office colleague’s mess was not unlike that to be found in many faculty offices across academia which - like the ubiquitous literary fat man who is, always surprisingly, nimble on his feet - is full of apocryphal tales of the allegedly absent-minded professor who knew exactly in which towering stack of preprints and committee reports to find his missing needle.
This is heard so often, I have to wonder if this is not performance art to impress gullible graduate students?
Yet, I could not help but wonder about my colleague, if this was closer to the mess of a homeless encampment than the disorder in a normal office space.
I wonder if the misnomered Diogenes syndrome* applied?
So, is there anything to the notion that mess is better because it suggests, unlike an empty desk, that something is happening: “If your desk isn't cluttered, you probably aren't doing your job.”
Mess makers of the world arise: “it's time to stop apologizing to the neat-freaks and start feeling good about our ability to prioritize. While our cluttered desks may not prove we're brilliant, they do show that we might be geniuses.”
Or is tidy better for production?
In my case, the less mess the better. I work better in a clean space.
For some others it appears that environment makes little difference. They are effective managers and are not distracted by clutter.
I am.
But, then advocates of the “mess is best” mantra might accuse me of being a fuss-budget or the above mentioned “neat-freak”.
There is psychological research, naturally, to support either view.
One example: Are people more creative in a messy room than in a neat room?
A study had participants list out new uses for ping pong balls while sitting in a clean room and in a messy space. The messy room produced more creative uses than did the clean room.
Another experiment by the same researchers asked participants for charitable donations; those in a tidy room gave more than twice of those in the messy room.
On the way out, when offered an apple or a chocolate bar, the tidy room participants were more likely to take the healthy snack.
“Our surroundings, it seems, can influence whether we make the choices society deems proper.”
So, does this suggests cleanliness enforces conventional (learned) behavior and messy spaces promote out-of-the-box (sorry) thinking and spontaneity and, perhaps self indulgence, in which we always choose chocolate over apples?
The researchers conclude that “disorder, apparently, helps us be more creative by steering us clear of tradition.”
If it does for you, then by all means keep to your squalid (how unkind) ways. If not, do what works best for you.
* A “behavioral-health condition characterized by poor personal hygiene, hoarding, and unkempt living conditions.”

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle

© Copyright text by John Lubans 2022

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