–Boyoun (Grace) Chae, Assistant Professor, Marketing and Supply Chain Management, Fox School of Business, Temple University; Rui (Juliet) Zhu, Professor of Marketing; Co-Director of the Branding Center, Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, January 22, 2015
Chae and Zhu’s research demonstrated that people working at messy desks “are less efficient, less persistent, and more frustrated and weary than those at neat desks.” In a series of experiments, over 100 people worked either at a neat work space or in an area “where papers, folders, and cups were scattered over shelves, a desk, and the floor.”
They were then tested with a challenging (unsolvable) geometric problem. Those who had come from the clean uncluttered environment stayed with the problem an average of 16 minutes before giving up, over 1.5 times as long as those who had been working in the messy space (11 minutes). More experiments with differing challenging tasks validated their earlier results.
Chae and Zhu argue that “persistence in a frustrating task is a classic measure of what’s known as self-regulation, which is essentially your ability to direct yourself to do something you know you should do. Self-regulation can be undermined by depletion of mental resources, and that’s exactly what we think was going on. The mess posed a threat, in a sense: It threatened participants’ sense of personal control. Coping with that threat from the physical environment caused a depletion of their mental resources, which in turn led to self-regulatory failure.”
Their research led them to consider other factors at work “that may deplete employees’ mental resources and therefore undermine their self-regulation and persistence. One possibility that comes to mind is extreme self-consciousness — ruminating about others’ perceptions. Employees might find it depleting to wonder: What do people think of me? Of my work quality? Of my appearance?” They posit that this type of thinking may also harm performance.