Here’s a very interesting and fun article about what your mess may mean about you.

According to some researchers, a messy desk may be the sign of an active and intelligent mind. High achievers often have piles of paper and book mess around their offices, but there is order amidst the chaos:

A clean desk really does signify an empty mind. “Office messiness tends to increase sharply with increasing education, increasing salary, and increasing experience,” they write, based on studies that I am inclined to accept without reservation.

My office and home used to be very messy, mostly because of the piles and piles of paper from self publishing, and the fact that I could no longer afford to rent outside office space. Moving about 100 boxes of stuff into a 750 square foot condo made for cramped quarters. I was miserable with the situation.

Read through the posts as well. Here’s an interesting tidbit:

Years ago McClellan offered a motivational theory that suggested people with clean desks and grip and grin photos were motivated by power; people with messy desks/offices were motivated by achievement; people with toys and family photos were motivated by affiliation. The theory went on to suggest that each of us is motived by all 3 factors in varying degrees.

Hm…my office looks like all of these things, with different zones showing extreme organization, minor clutter, and friendly family photos. My clutter increases or decreases depending on my workload, but nowadays, I schedule time to deal with clutter every single day, so it doesn’t get out of hand.

“Messy desk owners typically, for example, have separate piles for urgent, less-urgent, and non-urgent documents.”

A good point, that. But trouble comes when there is no more room for separate piles. They bleed into one another, or start to fall down, or both. By that point, using the desktop to create a new document is kind of impractical.

“As the mess grows, the rate at which the advantages grow tends to slow and eventually trail off,” the authors write. “Meanwhile the rate at which the disadvantages accumulate will eventually start to take off….”

That would be my observation. I do have this weird habit of needing to keep things out where I can see them, so there are little piles of stuff here and there, usually. But eventually, the piles get out of hand and you can’t find anything. So, then I go on one of my famous cleaning binges. I just finished one and I don’t think my work space has ever been so tidy. And it isn’t because I don’t have a lot on my plate. I just put all the crap away and know where everything is.

Years ago, I hired a professional organizer to help me sort the mess out. Best $40 an hour I ever spent.

One of these professional organizers adds to the thread:

I do believe the more brilliant people in the world struggle more with organization.They don’t necessarily think like the ‘linear/organized types’,” that is part of their brilliance, their ability to see things differently. I think what is being misunderstood, at least my perspective is, if you are competent and content working with your things in “messy order”, I am ok with it. It is the people who want more order as the mess is creating stress and difficulty, that is who we want to help, those seeking help. We are not looking to convert people who are ok with it. We are not trying to pass legislation to outlaw messy desks.

The professional organizer took one look at a pile of my art and asked, “OK, what do you want to throw out first?” I don’t think she liked my answer; “Not a damned thing.”

I like an uncluttered work area because I don’t like visual noise, and because I have wasted far more time digging through piles of papers (or more accurately, boxes of papers…boxes and boxes of un-filed papers…) trying to find just one important piece of paper than I have wasted simply trying to clean the place up and get in order. I have also lost thousands of dollars in overpaying taxes because in the past, I was not careful about filing my receipts.

After more than a year’s part time effort to get control of more than 20 boxes of un-filed papers, I found a stack of un-deducted tax receipts some two feet high.

Recently I got a tax bill from the state for a debt I was sure I had paid. It felt great to be able to go to a file and find the receipt in five minutes. In the past, I would not have found the receipt, would have wasted two days looking, and then would have paid it just to get the problem out of the way.

So, if you want to be a clutter bug and it works for you, no one cares. Have fun. But I am guessing the vast majority of people with piled high desks are not geniuses working in academia, they are your average shmoe who just won’t clean up the mess.