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What’s All This Messy Office Stuff, Anyhow? (.PDF Download)

July 20, 2017
What’s All This Messy Office Stuff, Anyhow? (.PDF Download)

Bob Pease had a famously messy office (Fig. 1). In an article in these very pages, he described winning a contest for the ugliest desk in Northern California (Fig. 2). After he died in 2011, I made a video tour of Pease's office, circa 2008, set to music.

Pease’s office came to mind when I read an article claiming a messy desk may be a sign of genius. The article was based on a University of Minnesota study. As is often the case, the mainstream media article played up the more sensational aspect, that messiness was good. The study itself noted that while messiness can promote creative thinking, tidiness can encourage healthy habits, kindness, and conforming to established standards. As a recent convert to the KonMari method, I root for tidiness.

Decades ago, when I worked for Ford Motor in Dearborn, Mich., there was a fellow engineer who complained he never got promoted. His desk looked like Pease’s did back in the 1990s (Fig. 3). I took the fellow to the group leader’s office. It was noticeably neater. Then we went to the supervisor’s office. Neater still. We got up to the manager’s office and it was pin-neat. I didn’t have to take him to the VP’s office to make my point. If you can’t organize a desk, how can you organize a complex business? A sloppy desk is perceived by others as non-professional.

Now engineers know that correlation is not causality. So you can’t simply claim that a messy desk makes you more creative. Pease I think was a special case since he was a hoarder (Fig. 4). My pal Alan Martin at Texas Instruments helped unload 140 boxes of paper from his house. Bob’s wife Nancy told me she would not recognize the house afterwards. She also mentioned to Alan Martin that there was “a second storage space” that Martin did not know about. It too was full of papers.

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