I'm a messy desk sort of person (even the desktops on my computers are messy). But there are loads of personal productivity evangelists telling me that a tidy desk would make me more productive.

Here, for example, is one such site which says:

the simple act of a weekly review or a de-cluttering session clears the decks mentally as well as physically, leaving us amazed at the heighten levels of focus we’re actually able to achieve.

This site even thinks a messy desk makes you sick:

Did you know that a messy desk can actually make you sick? In a survey carried out years ago, researchers at NEC-Mitsubishi questioned 2000 workers and found that many suffered from “Irritable Desk Syndrome” (IDS). IDS is caused by working for long periods of time at a messy desk, often with poor posture, the combination of which can have physical and mental symptoms such as chronic pain and a decrease in productivity.

I have an apparently very productive friend who, when challenged by his boss in his annual review about his messy desk, claimed to have searched and found evidence that messy was better. He didn't tell me where. So my question is: is there any hard evidence that tidy desks are better than messy desks for personal productivity (or is it the other way round)?

  • 4
    I used to work at a company where one guy's desk was so messy he had to resort to stacking things up on the floor around him (and it was an open area office) in at least 50 different stacks of papers (I counted them once). He was incredibly productive though, so the management never encroached on his space (he slowly inched other desks away from him over time so that he could set up more stacks of paper), and the janitors were forbidden from going near it. Nov 10, 2011 at 18:33
  • 8
    Correlation doesn't imply causation.
    – Alain
    Nov 10, 2011 at 18:55
  • 2
    My last job required everyone to clean up their desks once a week. I felt like that hurt my productivity, because instead of working I sometimes spent time looking for stuff I could clean up (when my desk was otherwise clean) just to appease my boss who felt like it was always possible to make my desk cleaner.
    – Flimzy
    Nov 10, 2011 at 19:55
  • 1
    I believe this is source of the original claim, which doesn't show us the actual study, but it comes from NEC/Mitsubishi, and cites the (possibly private) study. Note the point of this study was not to prove that messy desks are a production-killer, but that for those people for whom a messy desk contributes to stress, it would be easy to reduce this source of stress.
    – Flimzy
    Nov 11, 2011 at 2:14
  • 3
    Define tidy. My desk arrangement would not fit my wife definition of tidy - as it isn't beautiful - however it is highly organised. This organisation makes it efficient. Thus I would suggest that the question be altered to, "does an organised desk make you more productive than a disorganised one." I would, though, accept that most people's tidy = organised, but some people's tidy =/= organised. So in general tidy is productive would be true. Nov 11, 2011 at 3:00

1 Answer 1


This article(more about the life of paper than productivity) says the following:

But why do we pile documents instead of filing them? Because piles represent the process of active, ongoing thinking. The psychologist Alison Kidd, whose research Sellen and Harper refer to extensively, argues that "knowledge workers" use the physical space of the desktop to hold "ideas which they cannot yet categorize or even decide how they might use." The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity: those who deal with many unresolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desks, because they haven't yet sorted and filed the ideas in their head. Kidd writes that many of the people she talked to use the papers on their desks as contextual cues to "recover a complex set of threads without difficulty and delay" when they come in on a Monday morning, or after their work has been interrupted by a phone call. What we see when we look at the piles on our desks is, in a sense, the contents of our brains.

So it seems like the anwer would be: "It depends."

If your space is used (as above), then having a tidy desk would actually be counterproductive!

(Note, I wasn't able [didn't try] to track down the actual research by Alison Kidd, so that information would be a welcome addition.)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .