The advantages of a messy desk

The advantages of a messy desk

Untidy workers rejoice. Economist Tim Harford finds that tidiness can stifle creativity and flexibility, as Lynn Elsey finds.


Are you the type of person with piles of papers and files strewn across your desk? Or someone with a perfectly organised workspace – your desktop free of anything other than the one item you are currently working on, files stowed away and email messages organised into an intricate series of folders and subfolders?

According to well-known economist Tim Harford, an untidy life may be the true path to success. He turns the virtues of tidiness and order upside down in his well-researched book, Messy: How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World.

Harford looked into the traits and habits that are linked to creativity, flexibility and responsiveness – key requirements in our new economy. What he found was that randomness, messiness and even chaos all lead to positive outcomes.

For example:

  • The disruption from a strike on London’s Underground in 2014 led to permanent and more efficient changes in commuting patterns when people were forced to find different ways to commute.
  • The dishevelled design of a building at MIT– which randomly threw together people, in a complete hodgepodge of disciplines and projects –prompted the creation of the world’s first commercial atomic clock, the first arcade-style video game, nine Nobel Prize winners and the Bose Corporation.
  • Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, has achieved great results by eschewing normal business planning and structures.
  • When it comes to email, research shows that meticulous organisation is not an efficient use of time. “If you just dump all your email into one folder, you can find your emails more quickly [by using ‘search’] than if they are contained in a tidy structure of folders,” Harford writes.

The pluses of a messy desk

Harford cites research showing that workers who have total control over their workspace, which often results in messy desks, are more productive than those working in neat environments. Workers who have untidy desks also find adapting to change much easier.

“A messy desk isn’t nearly as chaotic as it as first seems. There’s a natural tendency towards a very pragmatic system of organisation based simply on the fact that the useful stuff keeps on getting picked up and left on the top of the pile,” Harford explains.

Still not convinced? Here are a few more reasons why being messy can lead to better outcomes:

  • Neuroscientists have found that improvising makes it easier to tone down the urge to control and sensor, allowing more creative ideas to flow.
  • Seeking out people who have different backgrounds and experiences can lead to fresh and often challenging ideas and help overcome groupthink.
  • Studies show that working to a monthly rather than daily plan, which allows time for unexpected challenges and opportunities, is more productive.

While few of us could live without having a schedule or being able to get our hands on a particular item at a minute’s notice, history shows that too much order and detail doesn’t always end well.

So, what have you got to lose, put a little chaos in your life.


Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World, by Tim Harford. Published by Hachette Australia. Tim Harford is a senior columnist for the UK’s Financial Times.