Here are some of the items currently festering on Emerald Street’s desk: two empty takeaway coffee cups, a wavering pile of magazines, pens, a book on mushroom identification (you know, for when we get around to mushroom foraging), various nail polishes and a refreshing facial spritz. Sound familiar?
We live in a society that says mess is bad, where a stray sock on a bedroom floor must be cleared away immediately and we’re as fascinated as everyone else by the current spate of documentaries about hoarding – last week’s Britain’s Biggest Hoarders on BBC1 and The Hoarder Next Door currently on Channel 4 – but as proponents of keeping things “just in case”, we want to know whether our mess might actually be beneficial.
When researching his book A Perfect Mess, journalist David H Freedman met hundreds of successful people from top lawyers and academics to entrepreneurs. The one thing they had in common? Their offices were all a bit chaotic.
“If you’re successful and you’re getting your job done, you will create mess,” says Freedman. “If you’re not surrounded by a certain amount of clutter it’s a sign you’re spending a lot of time straightening things out and tidying away. That’s time you could be devoting to your career or your friends. When you allow some mess in your life you’re probably being more spontaneous and relaxed, too.”
A study recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research revealed that a messy desk can even make you think more clearly – well, it worked for Albert Einstein and Roald Dahl. Scientists from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands tested participants’ responses in messy environments such as an untidy shop front and a crowded desk. They found the chaos made participants think more clearly because they sought to simplify the tasks they were given.
“Desk clutter can be good as long as it’s not hampering your productivity and it encourages positive emotions,” says life coach Louise Presley-Turner. “It’s fine to have a family photo that makes you feel happy or paperwork that you actually need, but if you’ve got papers covered in tea stains and you can’t even sit down in your chair, you need to tidy up.”
Freedman argues that messy types are actually quite organised, in their own way. “We did a survey for the book which found that the more organised someone is, the more time they spend looking for things. If you’re surrounded by stuff, you’re relying on your common sense when it comes to finding it. Your instinct tells you where you’ve put something,” he says.
But if you do feel like you’re drowning in a sea of stuff, whether at home or in the office, how should you tackle it? “Have a good clear-out every three months. If something doesn’t have sentimental value or isn’t serving a function in your life, bin it, recycle it or take it to the charity shop,” says Presley-Turner. OK, but we think we'll keep that book on mushroom foraging. Just in case.