Your coworkers are judging your messy desk

By the time Friday rolls around, you've probably collected some papers, old sticky notes, and a few empty coffee cups on your desk.

But an extremely messy desk may lead your coworkers to perceive you as more neurotic and less agreeable, finds a new study from the University of Michigan (U-M).

Psychologists at U-M conducted three experiments to explore how the degree of messiness in one's workspace affects perceptions of the owner's personality, writes Jared Wadley for U-M News. They randomly assigned 160 participants to sit in a researcher's office that was either clean and uncluttered, "somewhat" messy, or "very" messy.

The tidy office had neatly stacked papers, upright books on bookshelves, organized drawers, and garbage in the wastebasket. The "somewhat" messy office included tilted books, papers on the floor, and a wall clock an hour behind. The "very" messy office was even dirtier and more cluttered.

Related: 3 ways to make your open office work

After sitting in the offices, participants rated the owner's extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism based on the office's appearance. In each experiment, the psychologists found that participants thought the owner of the "somewhat" messy office was less conscientious than the owner of the organized office. Some participants thought the owner of the "very" messy office had one or more negative personality traits.

"When there are cues related to less cleanliness, order, organization and more clutter in an owner’s primary territory, perceivers’ ascribe lower conscientiousness to the owner," says the study's lead author, Terrence Hogan, a professor of psychology at U-M-Flint.

Our perceptions about a person's traits can consciously or unconsciously affect how we process information about, ask questions of, or behave towards that person, adds study co-author Sarah Dyszlewski.

For campus leaders, a messy office may lead your colleagues and students to think you're careless or cranky. These negative impressions may affect how they interact with you, warns Wadley.

There's another reason you should clear off your desk: you'll be more productive. A Harvard University study found that people who work in a clutter-free workspace are able to work for 7.5 minutes longer than those in a cluttered space. People who work in a tidy space may waste less time getting distracted and experience less stress, the study found (Wadley, U-M News, 11/27; Raphael, Fast Company, 12/3).

After you clean your desk, knock out 6 other 15-minute tasks


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