OFF THE TABLE 

BY ROB SMALL


As Albert Einstein once famously said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

messy desk

The words of such an intelligent man, coupled with the many pictures of him surrounded in chaos, the piles of books that obscure him partially from view, has helped inspire a new way of thinking when it comes to our work spaces. From a young age, we’ve been taught to tidy up after ourselves, to make space so that we can play again and create mess. Rinse and repeat. Ultimately though, is this a pointless task? Do we achieve more through the muddle than the minimal? How do we change our way of thinking by changing our desk and can there be a balance of both?

In my last remaining year at university, I had cultivated a rather cluttered desk. Occasionally I would clear and shift my thinking to be more conscientious of disorder and would make an effort to keep my workspace free. It helped me summarize everything I had to do, I felt in control, accomplished and that now I could do anything I set my mind to. Upon sitting down to begin writing my dissertation however, I hit a mental block.

I slumped. I couldn’t figure out where to begin. It was as if all of my brain space had been cleared away with the clutter! Struggling with writing a full paragraph I sat in my chair and stared at the screen. It had been easy before to start the writing process, why was I finding it so difficult now?

I grew frustrated, and kept putting off writing my dissertation until dangerously close into the semester. As my desk accumulated more clutter again, I found myself creating more; writing for my blogs became easier. I sat down to tackle my dissertation again. To my surprise, the words flowed easily. I managed to write around half of my dissertation in little under 3 days. At the time, I attributed the sudden brain wave to the pressure of looming deadlines, but now it seems that I work rather well in the chaos surrounding me.

It’s interesting to analyse how something seemingly as small as your desk space affects you when you’re working. In those moments of writing my dissertation, I found that having a slightly more ‘occupied’ desk made me feel more freethinking, I felt less pressure to maintain a tidy office space and ended up writing much more loosely. This helped me say what I needed to say and allowed me more freedom to write in my own way, before cleaning it up for submission.

This way of thinking saved me at the finishing line, but it doesn’t mean it works for everyone. Many don’t have that same feeling of restriction from having a minimal workspace; instead they feel completely focused within a tidy zone. Some say that having a tidy desk reduces stress. According to clinical psychiatrist Scott Bea, (1) “for some people, a lack of clutter reduces tension. I think the cleanliness or messiness of our desks or offices often says something overall about how people deal with stress and reduce tension.”

 

We all work differently. Finding what gets us going when we sit down at our desks is important for our work lives. Having consulted the majority of my friend group (most of them being artists), the general summary was that while they didn’t like a high level of mess, they did like to keep everything they needed on their desks within arms reach. This seems to be a creative approach, mixing the benefits of both a cluttered and tidy workspace. Ultimately it all comes down to personal preference.

At Pixar Studios in Emeryville, California, creative office space is embraced! Employees are encouraged to decorate their workspaces in any manner they see fit: “Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter believes that if you have  a loose, free kind of atmosphere, it helps creativity”  (2) remarked fellow Pixar director Brad Bird.

Our habits and routines help define who we are. We streamline our lives down to a science and we know what we like, even when it comes down to something as simple as desk space. In the past, society stated that office desks remain clear of clutter. Nowadays we bring a messier approach to the table.


(1) https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2015/01/is-your-desk-messy-or-tidy-find-out-what-it-may-say-about-you/

(2) https://officesnapshots.com/2012/07/16/pixar-headquarters-and-the-legacy-of-steve-jobs/