Another mess to clear up: Is a cluttered desk a sign of genius at work?

Phil Castle

I’ve heard a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind. I’ve also seen evidence for just the opposite. A cluttered desk is a sign of genius. A quote attributed to no less a genius than Albert Einstein poses a good question: Of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

The debate over whether cleanliness really is next to godliness or there are circumstances in which a mess actually could be nice has raged almost as long as there have been desks. That’s been more than 800 years.

On one side of the debate, efficiency experts argue people are more productive when their workspaces are organized with a place for everything and everything in its place. There’s even an indication an orderly work environment encourages people to act more generously and make healthier choices. Nothing wrong with any of that.

On the other side of the debate, researchers demonstrate in studies that people working in disorderly environments feel less constrained and more creative.

There’s additional anecdotal proof of the correlation between cluttered desks and genius in the photographs of the famous messes of not only Einstein, but also Mark Twain, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. Smart and busy people don’t have time to straighten up.

For employers intent on creating productive and creative workplaces, the issue is anything but academic.

I work at two desks — one in the office and one at home. They’re both cluttered. Actually, make that disastrous. Picture the aftermath of a tornado that’s ripped through a trailer park.

It’s not like I suffer from any shortage of storage. I’ve got a filing cabinet at work. The rolltop desk at home features eight drawers and no less than 19 cute cubbies. I know. I counted them.

Yet, both desks remain blanketed under paperwork, most of which I haven’t touched since I deposited it there years ago.

If archaeologists ever unearth the mound atop my desk at work, they can apply stratigraphy to their discoveries. Stories and notes from 2020 litter the top. But the deeper archaeologists dig, the further they’ll travel back in time. Near the bottom, they might even retrieve my notes for the stories I wrote about Y2K.

My desk at home is no less crowded with not only my laptop computer and printer, but also files and books.
The crowning touch, so to speak, are the baseball caps I brought back as souvenirs from scuba diving resorts.

I taped quotations and affirmations to an eye-level spot on my desk at home to serve as ready reminders.

“Court the muse,” one sign suggests. There’s more good advice: “Write with confidence and authority.”

I also clipped and displayed comic strips.

My favorite “Pearls Before Swine” strip by Stephan Pastis pictures in the first panel two characters talking.

“Where were you last weekend?” one asks.

“I went to a writers retreat,” the other says.

The next panel shows four writers sprinting away, the pages of what are presumably their manuscripts flying behind. One writer screams. “Run. Run. Writing’s too hard.”


Framed snapshots constitute the most prized possessions of all cluttering my desk at home. My two sons and beloved late wife in Hawaii. My brother and me diving the shark tank at the Denver Aquarium.

In one sense, it’s a shame the
bric-a-brac at home covers a beautiful 19th century heirloom. The desk belonged to my wife and before that her father and grandfather. My wife kept the desk in the conference room at her law office. Her grandfather served as a storekeeper and lay judge in a small town in Northwest Colorado. I expect my sons will one day cherish their mom’s desk as much as she did. I’m just borrowing it until then.

I suppose it might be more efficient to maintain militaristically clean desks. Still, there’s an argument to make for the benefits of workspaces that are both comfortable and comforting.

I’m distracted by the odds and ends that surround me in my office and at home. But I’m also reminded of all the blessings I have to count. That’s a good place from which to tell stories.

Is my mind cluttered? I don’t believe so. Do I boast an IQ of 160? Not likely.

Thankfully, this much is certain: My mind’s not empty.