When You Should Have a Messy Desk
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
There is a concept in psychological research called "salience." It simply means consider how prominent or visually outstanding a particular factor is in what you are studying and how does that affect the subject of your experiment. As an example, if you are studying people's self-rating of their feelings of hunger, you might want to see if they feel more hunger when they can see food and drink displayed nearby, or smell it cooking.
So what does that have to do with a messy desk?
Although it has been shown to be true in many studies, it is also good common sense that when you can easily see an item that needs to be handled in some way, you are more likely to remember to do it than when it is tucked away out of sight. That is, the more salient an object, the more attention it will get. The more attention, the more influence it will have.
If you have a bill that must be paid by Tuesday, are you more likely to pay it on Monday if it is sitting on your desk in a prominent place (salient) or if it is in a nice little grey file folder labeled "Bills To Pay," inside your squeaky-clean credenza with the lateral file drawers?
Imagine you are working on a project that requires several reference books, twenty well-stuffed file folders and two computers. It's a project that may take a couple of weeks. You must refer constantly to your sources.
Do you lay out your work materials on your desk in a way that makes them most handily accessible (salient, attention-getting) and leave them there for the two weeks? Or do you clear the desk at the end of each day and put everything back where it is usually stored?
Perhaps you consider simply bringing in a big table for just that project? So you can keep a clean desk, even if it makes your office smaller and less efficient? Sure you do.
I've been reading a lot lately from the "let's get everything extremely organized" crowd. I'm a big fan of organization -- in fact I believe tightly organized systems can save a business or a life. But I don't see a great need to be so over-organized that you have to retrain yourself to some anal-retentive's (thank you, Sigmund Freud for that term) idea of office paradise where there are hundreds of well-labeled folders in beautiful cabinets that require three-ring reference binders to direct you to where your stuff "should" be filed.
And I can't find anything in research literature that leads me to conclude that having a desk clear of anything but a computer monitor and mouse will make my mind more organized or my day more efficient.
No, I don't say your desk should be messy or cluttered. I think it should be cleared of one project's necessities before filling it with another project's necessities. I think it should have no more on it than you actually need to accomplish your daily work or current project. I just encourage you to organize in such a way that you can see what you need to do now and next. A way that allows you to work with what you need at hand and in sight. (Of course, if you are in a workplace that requires certain documents to be secure, you must comply with security measures. Security and confidentiality trump "easy" or "handy" any day.)
However, I would say you need to remove the coffee cups and candy wrappers regularly. There is no particular salience value to them.