The Effect of Your Environment, Part II

A Fine Mess

Albert Einstein is widely quoted as saying, “If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” If you’ve used his words to defend your own messy ways at school, work, or other parts of your life, you might be hard-wired for disorder. And that can be a good thing.

In his Psychology Today article Natural Element: Office Spaces, Jay Dixit says, “Studies show that top executives are actually less organized than subordinates, and levels of office messiness actually increase with education, salary, and experience.”

Dixit discusses University of California at San Diego cognitive scientist David Kirsh’s contention that “People respond differently to cues in the environment—and neat and messy people may be calibrating their workspaces to suit the way they think.” Kirsh goes on to explain that “It may be that messy and neat desks are actually adaptations to differing cognitive styles.

According to Kirsh, the state of our desks sets the arena for the next round of activity and provides entry points for the tasks of the day. “Messy people depend on the cues in their environment to prompt their behavior,” he says. “Their stacks of documents, folders, Post-it notes, and laid-open books remind them of what they’ve done and need to do.

While few people speak out in favor of disorganization, Dixit spotlights two who do – Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, coauthors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder – How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place (Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group USA). Dixit shares this comment by Freedman: “The piles on messy desks are useful. You put your fingers on things quickly—often far faster than someone who files stuff. Plus, randomness is an essential part of creativity. Looking through those piles spurs connections, random thoughts that give you unexpected insights.”

Jason Stilwell talks about the chaos theory in his Public Management piece Managing chaos: use it to your advantage. You may be applying this theory to your life and work if, according to Stilwell’s insights, you “Rely less on precise planning,” if you’re “adaptive and flexible,” and if you maintain “a dynamic attitude.”  Check out the article to learn other useful insights that can help you thrive in a chaotic environment.

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