A disastrous desk might lead to your next brilliant idea.

Nearly 70 years ago, on the day of Albert Einstein’s passing, a photographer visited the scientist’s office and snapped a picture of his desk, exactly as it had been left.

Surely, one of the most notorious thinkers of the 20th century had a squeaky-clean office space. Yes? As many productivity apps like Notion and Evernote espouse, a clear workspace leads to clear thinking.

Productivity culture has more mainstream interest these days because companies (and the people who run them) are grappling with how to work efficiently in hybrid employment arrangements. Employers lost an estimated 6.6 billion hours of productivity over the last two years, costing them $213.1 billion, according to a press release from the Integrated Benefits Institute, a nonprofit research firm. Learning what setup helps you think best is time well spent.

Still, Notion and Evernote enthusiasts would spit out their coffee at Einstein’s setup.

black and white photograph of a desk covered in stacks of papers

Einstein’s desk. Photo taken in April 1955, shortly after his passing.

Einstein’s desk. Photo taken in April 1955, shortly after his passing.

This photograph has led to a never-ending debate among productivity nerds. Are clean, sterile workspaces more conductive to quality thought? Or do chaos and disorder invite the wild ideas that evolve into incredible, career-changing trajectories?

Here’s what science has to say.

Different Environments, Different Thought Patterns

In a 2013 issue of the journal Psychological Science, a team at the University of Minnesota found that both clean and messy workspaces have their own unique perks.

Key Takeaways

  • The experiment had participants sit at a desk that was either clean or messy.
  • Subjects were then asked to answer survey questions and make various decisions while in this simulated work environment.
  • The study found that participants seated at a messy desk generated more creative ideas during a brainstorming exercise.
  • They also chose new or novel products over established ones when presented with options.

In contrast, those seated at clean desks behaved more conventionally, doing that was expected of them. For example, when presented with either an apple or piece of chocolate for a snack, participants seated at clean desks chose the healthy snack at a higher, statistically significant frequency.

In a follow-up interview, scientist Kathleen Vohs, who led the experiment, noted the broader implications of these behaviors:

“Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: Not engage in crime, not litter, and show more generosity,” Vohs explains. “We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting.”

— Kathleen Vohs, for the Association for Psychological Science

The variations invite us to align our environment with the type of thinking we want to cultivate. Do you work best with organization and lots of whitespace? Or does chaos leave you feeling free, resulting in better, brighter brainstorming?

Think New Thoughts

Creative thinking is often intangible, yet incredibly valuable. Here are a few tips to tap into your inner Einstein on command.

  • Focus on passion. Discover what makes you leap out of bed in the morning, then cultivate that feeling as much as you can. When you’re inspired, the grind feels more meaningful (and less like work).
  • Be a student. “Unknown unknowables” — the stuff you don’t know you don’t know — are often where solutions are found. Learning about a new technology or shift in the market can get your creative juices flowing. Make it a habit to read and learn every day.
  • Brainstorm without words. Fancy checklists and productivity journals are great, but why limit yourself to words? Drawings, sketches, and mind maps can help you flesh out ideas without being burdened by this silly thing we call language.

Your work environment doesn’t have to be static. It simply has to work for you and help you move toward your goals.

Embrace a balance of messy and clean and you’ll have what you need to bring great ideas to fruition when lightning strikes. ⬥

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