Keeping tidy for your brain

Is your house clean and tidy, or are you one of those people who insists that you know the exact location of everything within the piles dumped across your floor and desk?

Or here’s another question, are you a conscientious person, who continually strives to complete all their work thoroughly and to a high standard?


If you answered ‘yes’ to that second question, the answer to the first question matters a lot to your productivity and ability to be conscientious in your work.

The story started in 2013, when a group of researchers (from the fields of both business and engineering) set out to discover whether people performed better in tidy or messy work environments.

They took 80 different university students and offered them a one-off payment for a 2-hour process of transcribing data from paper into a computer and completing a personality test. All the students were put in the same computer lab at the same day and time of week (Friday from 4-6pm), although different students participated on different weeks.

39 of the students completed these tasks in an environment with many extra papers, pencils, clips, boxes, and rubbishy things lying around the space. Although they had sufficient space to complete the required tasks, the items were clearly out of place and messed up. The other 41 students were instead asked to complete the task in an extremely clean area with all items stored in correct locations and neatly organised.


Now, you might be thinking at this point, that it would be obvious that conscientious people would work more effectively in a tidy environment, as their personalities are naturally inclined this way. You’re right! The authors mentioned that this had been the topic of multiple previous research adventures and shown fairly conclusively that conscientious people work better in tidy environments.

What this group was more interested in understanding was whether the tidiness of working environment affected low-conscientious people. They hypothesised that it wouldn’t, as they decided low-conscientious people had personalities that were unlikely have quality of work affected by the working environment.


And they showed exactly that. High conscientious people naturally performed better in a tidy space, whereas the low conscientious people did equally as well in either space.

The practical application is that a tidy space is a better working environment overall, as it will not provide a negative consequence to either group. So companies and businesses can invest in keeping their areas clean to maximise the efficacy of their employees.


However, for those who scatter clothes everywhere, and like to have all their documents “within handy reach”, these same authors do realise that you may prefer things this way … and that’s fine if you’re working by yourself- because it doesn’t impact your productivity. However, if you’re working with others, or managing other employees in a shared space, keep in mind that their brains work best in tidiness, so keeping the space clean will improve results!




Read the full (open-access!) paper here. 

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