Why work better behind a tidy desk | Chantal van der Leste

Behavioral psychologist Chantal van der Liss examines our behavior in the workplace: Who or what determines our daily decisions? Today: Chaos Effect

‘Oh, you’re here,’ I said to fellow S. Behind piles of books and scraps, I suddenly saw a crown with brown hair. He looks up with a crooked smile. “Sorry about the mess.”

I understand he’s saying that, because actually: What a lot of rubbish is in his office. “It’s not even my stuff,” he explains. His colleague has a day off, but his belongings are very present. The floor is littered with archive boxes, papers are piled high and a rotting bunch of brown flowers litter the windowsill. S. indicates an extension cable on the ground. We agreed that he could spoil this telegram. The other side is my part of the office. “Outside of the cable, it’s already a lot more tidy.

creative minds

I feel some sorry for S. I am very upset. Preferably my desk should be completely empty, with a printout or a book next to me at most. Otherwise I will be distracted, my head is busy enough on its own. How different many of my colleagues, who do not seem to care about all manner of knick-knacks and heaps of empty coffee cups. They argue that “creative minds have a messy desk,” and they seem right. In a study where people had to come up with creative ways to use a ping pong ball, they came up with five times as many ideas in a crowded space.


Your brain loves order and structure, and anything that captures attention requires mental energy

However, there are indications that the chaos primarily causes stress. Your brain loves order and structure and anything that catches your eye takes mental energy. Then this pressure creates more chaos. Because stress makes you less able to make decisions and keep everything that might be useful at any given time. Your perseverance also gets messy, as researchers from Temple University have demonstrated. 100 people had to try to solve an impossible puzzle. In an organized room, they only gave up after about 19 minutes, and in a mess they threw in the towel after 11 minutes.

a Clean office policy So the entry isn’t too bad after all. Unless cleaning becomes a procrastination. You don’t really need to have an entire filing cabinet in order before you can start a challenging project.

Want to learn more about psychology and work? Read Chantal’s books Why Perfectionists Are Rarely Happy, 13 Tips Against Perfection (2021) and Our Fallible Thinking at Work (2018).

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