Why a Messy Workspace Undermines Your Persistence

February 10, 2015

It has long been argued – usually by those with cluttered desks – that their untidiness is a sign of genius. But a Harvard Business Review article, co-authored by CKGSB Professor of Marketing Juliet Zhu, shows that a messy workplace hinders efficiency and persistence, while creating frustration and tiredness.

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

It was Albert Einstein who uttered those words, and variants of this quote are often used to explain away a messy workplace as creative genius, but, in fact, disorganization at work is more likely than not counter-productive. New research from CKGSB Associate Dean and Professor of Marketing Juliet Zhu and her co-author Grace Chae, an Assistant Professor in Marketing at the Fox School of Business at Temple University, shows that people sitting at messy desks are less efficient, less persistent, and more frustrated and weary than those at neat desks.

Description: Source: Boyoun (Grace) Chae and Rui (Juliet) Zhu

While they admit that keeping a tidy desk can be a monumental challenge in itself, the data they have found in their experiments shows that a group of undergraduates exposed to a neat work environment stuck at a task far longer than those who were working in a cluttered space. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Zhu and Chae continue:

Persistence in a frustrating task is a classic measure of what’s known as self-regulation, which is essentially your ability to direct yourself to do something you know you should do. Self-regulation can be undermined by depletion of mental resources, and that’s exactly what we think was going on. The mess posed a threat, in a sense: It threatened participants’ sense of personal control. Coping with that threat from the physical environment caused a depletion of their mental resources, which in turn led to self-regulatory failure.


The evidence for this chain reaction comes from another aspect of the experiment: If participants wrote about their personal values, an exercise known to restore mental resources, the disorganized environment had no effect on their persistence on the fiendish task. So even though it can be comforting to relax in your mess, a disorganized environment can be a real obstacle when you try to do something.


And although we don’t have data to back this up, we conjecture that a mess of your own creation may affect you even more strongly than a mess that’s been imposed by someone else. A self-created mess can become overwhelming because it serves as evidence that you’re unable to control your environment.

As Zhu and Chae point out, others have found that there can be benefits to a disordered environment in terms of creativity – not dissimilar to Zhu’s own research which showed that a certain level of background noise helps when undertaking creative projects – but when it comes to self-regulation and persistence, tidiness is essential. The two also provide reasons as to why these dual findings aren’t necessarily contradictory.

To read the HBR article in full, please click here

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