Messy Desk Syndrome

I just read an interesting article exploring why the most creative people have the messiest desks. The takeaway is that “employers shouldn’t overvalue orderliness in a work setting, because disorder might help trigger creative solutions to problems… .” Further, “… emphasis on order and efficiency in work settings can be misplaced. Instead of maximizing efficiency, a rigid focus on routine can force employees to waste time on minutiae.”

I found this argument compelling. I have always had a difficult time keeping a tidy desk. I remember my first “real” job as a 21 year-old working in the employee benefits department at American Motors (AMC). I shared an office with my boss, a man about 10 years older than me. He told me on our interview that it was important to him that his secretary keep her desk orderly. I really didn’t think that would be a problem for me, but I found out that it was much more difficult than I had imagined it would be. One part of my job was to service a constant stream of employees lined outside our office door (usually on their break — so they were in a hurry) wanting to cash in their profit-sharing, or apply for an employee discount on a new car or a Kelvinator appliance. This was before anyone had computers, so for every employee waiting in line, I would need to put in one of several different forms (with 2 carbon copies) into my typewriter, ask the appropriate questions, type in the answers, pull the form and its carbon copies out of the typewriter, have the employee sign the form, separate the carbons, give the employee a copy, place the original in a bin for processing and the other copy in another bin for filing. I found that try as I may, I was having a very difficult time keeping a tidy desk.

My boss, on the other hand, sat at his desk while all these employees were streaming in to be serviced, reading something or other. His desk was ALWAYS immaculate — nothing on it but a fountain pen and whatever report he was perusing. Often when he would leave the office for lunch or to take a break, people would stop by our office, take a look at his desk and ask me, “Dick isn’t in today?” His desk was TOO orderly — it looked like he wasn’t there!  I worked for him for about 6 months when he was notified that his position was being eliminated and he was being let go. I was to stay on and continue servicing employee discounts, but I would be moving to a different office.

I guess my takeaway from that experience and what may have been planted in my subconscious was that a messy desk at least shows that you are doing something! Now after reading this article I feel elated that my messy desk also shows that I am more creative than someone who keeps a really tidy desk. That makes me smile :).

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