The saying that cleanliness is next to Godliness might not be totally accurate. Although society praises decluttering and organizing, the reality of your workspace cleanliness could have a huge, subconscious impact on how you think. And if you’re a messy person, and have a desk to match, you’re probably a genius.
According to a University of Minnesota study, a neat and tidy desk is more likely to make workers do what’s expected of them—in this case, donating some money to charity when given the option, and opting to snack on a healthy apple instead of a junky candy bar. You can see this theory in practice among staid, sterile environments like your doctor’s waiting room, or any given Apple Store (a clean, symmetrical environment that psychologically insists you don’t, ironically, “think different”).
But a messy desk, the research suggests, is far from useless clutter. When asked to brainstorm new uses for an old product (ping pong balls, in the study), workers in disorderly spaces consistently generated more innovative and creative ideas than their organized counterparts. Simply put: creativity loves chaos. And creativity is a hallmark of most geniuses, according to Arif Dalvi, MD, MBA, of the Palm Beach Neuroscience Institute. Having a messy desk is one of the signs you’re smarter than you think.
The idea that a little clutter is good for the mind is consistent with anecdotal evidence, too. For starters, take a look at Einstein’s brilliant mess of a desk, along with a messy heap of other creativity studies. To name one notable example, researchers at the University of British Columbia discovered the average level of sound at a bustling coffee shop—70 decibels—distracts your brain just enough to quiet your internal censors and make way for more abstract thought (long story short: you are literally more creative in coffee shops). A similar mechanism could be in effect when faced with the visual “background noise” of a messy desk. All the junk in your periphery gives the front of your mind something to subtly process without becoming too distracted, potentially providing more room for your weirder thoughts to creep out.
“We are all exposed to various kinds of settings, such as in our office space, our homes, our cars, even on the Internet,” study co-author Kathleen Vohs concludes. “Whether you have control over the tidiness of the environment or not, you are exposed to it and our research shows it can affect you.” There are even more positive benefits of being messy.