You can judge someone’s personality by what his or her work space looks like. Take Tara Hirshfeld, for example. She’s set up her office on a picnic table. She has the laptop, the headset, even the office-type snacks. But there are leaves falling and cars honking. Intuitively, you know she’s not an accountant-type. And you surely won’t be surprised to hear that she’s a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

People leave deliberate and inadvertent clues about themselves in their personal space and Samuel Gosling, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, studies these clues. And Gosling concludes that your co-workers are good at judging what the clues mean even if they don’t know why.

Deliberate clues people leave are things like plants, which reveal that you are nice and that you intend to stay a while, and candy, which reveals that you’re an extrovert, because you want people to drop by your office and talk. These are deliberate because a person puts them in their office for other people to see. Some clues are deliberate but not other-focused. For example, a pebble you keep from the beach of your first kiss will not be meaningful to someone who doesn’t know the story, but it reminds you of something nice. Still something like this gives the co-worker information, and he or she will pick up on the fact that you’re sentimental.

Hirshfeld’s clues fall into the inadvertent category. For example, when asked about her picnic-bench desk, Hirshfeld says, “I needed some fresh air.” She inadvertently conveys that she is non-conventional, which, for an art student seems fine. But for an accountant, watch out. You can give inadvertent clues with a plant, too. “Anyone can buy a plant,” says Gosling, “but you need to be task oriented to actually keep the plant alive.”

Be careful about all the clues you leave about yourself in your office because your image is at stake. And the image you project might be more powerful than the work you actually do.

So manage your workspace like you manage the colors in your wardrobe, the layout of your memos and all other aspects of your image. In many instances you’ll be able to control what you project. For example, if you are trying to be more detail-oriented in your work, but you’ve killed every plant you’ve ever owned, don’t buy another because your dead plant will just emphasize your lack of attention to detail.

When it comes to projecting a positive image through your personal space, some areas are more easily managed than others. A messy desk is tough. If you keep a messy desk, it’s probably inadvertent, and you will have to change behavior in order to clean up your act. It’s worth the effort, though. “There is a cultural bias toward orderliness,” says Eric Abrahamson, professor at Columbia University Business School, “Messiness is considered bad.” Kelly Crescenti, an Illinois-based career coach, concurs: “When people have a clean desk it looks like they get things done and they are productive.”

You cannot really know how productive someone is by looking at their desk, says Julie Morgenstern organizing guru and author of Never Check Email in the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work. But she concedes that “the image issue is giant.” So even if you can find everything you need on your pile-laden desk, clean it if you want to look good. Start with a filing system, and Crescenti advises that at minimum, you take the last fifteen minutes of every day to actually use the system and clean things up a little before you go home.

But as with all image management advice, don’t go overboard: Everything in moderation. Abrahamson provides a postmodern defense of the messy desk: “Messiness is related to creativity because it tends to juxtapose things that don’t normally go together.”

“It’s the last frontier of messiness,” says Abrahamson, and he reports that he’s seen computer desktops that rival the worst of the classic desktop messes. Hirshfeld can attest to that. “The last computer I had got very, very messy.”

But that might be okay; it’s true that your co-workers can accurately judge you by looking at your work space, but it’s also true that your computer desktop is a nice place to hide your worst attributes.

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31 replies
  1. Pete A
    Pete A says:

    Cluttered desk, cluttered mind.
    Empty desk empty mind.
    KISS rule for desks, Keep It Stacked Simply

  2. scm
    scm says:

    Messy vs clean depends on the corporate culture – I used to work for a VP who questioned why desks were clean/neat – to him it meant that the individual in question had so much free time that they could spend it cleaning – bottom line, there are no absolute rules other than be aware of the culture cues around you.

  3. Mgr
    Mgr says:

    There IS a cultural bias toward cleanliness. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    To some bosses, there’s nothing better than having a task completed in record time due to incredible organization skills exhibited by an employee.

    And forget organization, what about TRUE cleanliness. A tidy desk is fine, but if your computer is covered with a thick layer of dust, what are you really saying about yourself?

    Additionally, I don’t believe that a clean desk means the employee “spends more time cleaning than working”. I believe that it shows organization and a functinal running ability to multitask by putting things away when they are not in use.

    I agree that we shoud be aware of the cultural cues around us; yet feel comfortable in sticking to our own style (as long as it works!). Just remember, the boss is watching and picking up the inadvertant conveyances that may determine your next increase. After all, don’t forget why you’re there – to do a job. Do your job well and these miscellaneous issues may become endearing quirks in your employers eyes.

  4. Heather
    Heather says:

    I try and keep my office and desk organized. To me, finding something in a hurry when someone walks in and asks shows that you have things under control. Having to rummage through piles is not only time consuming but embarrassing. I try and make a point before leaving my office every day, to just straighten up. That way if I walk in to chaos the next morning, I have everything in order. Makes life less complicated.

  5. coder
    coder says:

    I just don’t have anything on my desk except the computer. It’s much simpler. Papers are becoming less and less necesary. It’s certainly not necessary to keep them around.

  6. Mandy
    Mandy says:

    I had the cleanest desk in the place and they thought I didn’t have enough to do. Everyone else had stacks so high you couldn’t even see the person in the cube!! As a result – they more than doubled my workload – that’ll teach ya not to have a clean, orderly desk!

  7. Living Off Dividends & Passive Income
    Living Off Dividends & Passive Income says:

    I think in some ways the messy desk thing might be true.

    I like to keep my paperwork at home in order and periodically I fall behind with the paperwork and the clutter increases. Once I deal with the issues and file/discard the paperwork, my desk looks tidier.

    maybe there’s some truth to that after all.

  8. J.R.
    J.R. says:

    Clean desk = anal retentive person.

    Busy desk = somebody who gets things done.

    Messy desk ~~= a creative person.

    Messy desk with last month’s pizza box buried = slob.

  9. dallas jobs
    dallas jobs says:

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  10. Keith
    Keith says:

    “You can judge someone’s personality by what his or her work space looks like.” – Wow. That’s a bold, brilliant statement right there. Psychological profiling via desk clutter. Amazing. I guess we can all go back to judging people by their skin color and religious affiliation, too, huh? Some constructive criticism, Penelope – those who waste their coworkers’ time obsessing over petty b.s. like “workspace neatness” clearly don’t have enough work to do themselves.

  11. Ashleen Hayes
    Ashleen Hayes says:

    I seriously doubt this blanket statement works for everyone, even for most people. As we are all different, our bosses have various approaches and very few people I have worked with actually cared about how other people’s desks look like. Also because we get more and more paperless, most of our organisation is transfered to our computers. Some of the senior partners in our firm have the most cluttered offices you might have seen. I am not sure who was the base for the research pieces you mention, because it is a bit counter-intuitive to say that if you are organised you are creative; i worked with a few advertising companies and and the creative offices were always less that tidy – they still managed to come up with wonderful campaigns. I cannot see how someone can make the statement that you can judge someone’s personality by their workspace, except to say that that person is either organised or not, seriously…

  12. Programme Manager
    Programme Manager says:

    I am an unapologetic messy-desker. I always have been and I may well be actually incapable of keeping a desk tidy. However, this terrible – €˜career affliction' does have its compensations:
    1. Only invited visitors get to sit in my office because I keep all chairs and all potential alternative seating areas covering in piles of paperwork. If you haven't been invited, you stand (and leave much faster than if I'd given you a seat!)
    2. Uninvited guests almost always get given something to do that helps me and irritates them – €“ I always have something at hand in the numerous piles of paper to give them!
    3. I work in the happy knowledge that my "3D physical mind-map" is a constant irritation to all those sanctimonious neat-freaks who are too busy trying to look organised and efficient to actually be productive (you know who you are!) …actually I get a nice warm fuzzy feeling every time I see self-righteous neat-freak involuntarily shudder as they pass my office.

    On a more serious note, I have worked with tidy-desk people and messy-desk people in both the Private and Public sectors. The only helpful conclusion I have drawn from that experience on messy verses tidy is that you need both types of people on your team. Yes, it's true, untidy desks don't look good but, excluding extreme cases, most of the time that's really not important – €“ it's what people achieve that makes the difference to the organisation and to the individuals career. Any senior manager worth their salt knows that.

  13. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This post is good for those people who need to or should project a positive image through their personal space.
    However, there are many people who have desks where image doesn’t need to be or should be a primary concern. Their desk is a very personal domain for them and the level of clean/orderliness will vary depending on their needs, mood, or whatever.
    There’s a nice, short (6 minute) video on desks at http://vimeo.com/3239496 which explains (among other things) why the physical desk will be with us for a while longer.

  14. Val Howard
    Val Howard says:

    This article is good .. nice to see a messy desk is a struggle for others..I’ll have to try organizing at the end of the day…Why I don’t? I guess, slowing down to organize, is like morphing from a jack rabbit to a tortoise.. So I just forge ahead.. but by the end of the week… I’m buried in chaos. I’m the rabbit that got somewhere fast but can’t find the finish line! So I often go in circles and finish late…
    End of the day clean up … I’ll try it

  15. Cian Lavin
    Cian Lavin says:

    I clear as I go, I found that filing is the biggest time waster going. If it’s not really important put it in the shredder. If it is important I ask for a email version “so i have record”. My desk; note pad, laptop, phone and a pen.

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