HBR: Difficult task at hand? Step one is to tidy your desk.

Studies show messy workspaces erode workers' persistence

Cleaning up workspaces may help improve employee persistence and task completion, two professors write in the Harvard Business Review.

Authors Boyoun Chae, an assistant professor at Temple University's Fox School of Business, and Rui Zhu, a professor at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, detail the findings of a study of more than 100 undergraduates who waited in a neat or messy room and were then moved to a different location and told to complete an impossible task. They found that those in the uncluttered environment stuck with the problem at hand 1.5 times as long as those in the messy space.

Chae and Zhu write that the mess threatened participants' sense of control, taxing their mental resources, which in turn lowered their ability to self-regulate.

However, when participants were asked to write about their values—an exercise proven to replenish mental strength—they said the environment did not affect their determination to finish the project. Chae and Zhu suggest—admittedly, without data evidence—that a self-created mess affects individuals even more because it signals they cannot control their own surroundings.

Also in EAB Daily Briefing: Productivity is just a state of mind

Chae and Zhu note that prior research has shown that messy workspaces may foster creativity—possibly because wearing down mental resources may push people to think in non-traditional ways.

They write, "The two sets of findings aren’t necessarily contradictory. In fact, it could be that the depletion effect of disorder caused people to engage in primarily affective or divergent thinking, which enhanced creativity" (Chae/Zhu, Harvard Business Review, 1/22).

The takeaway: People may not realize it, but working in a disorganized workspace may negatively affect one's desire to preserve with a difficult task.

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