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New study shows work environment can affect your creativity, healthy choices

Shawn Tennyson, director of resources at Sundog, Fargo, keeps many small items of all types around his work space. DAVE WALLIS/FORUM NEWS SERVICE

A glance around your desk or office space might say more about you than your tolerance for clutter or propensity for filing. A recent University of Minnesota study indicates work environment can affect your creativity and how likely you are to make healthy choices and try new things.

If you’re looking at your desk piled high with memos predating officewide emails and coffee-stained napkins that double as important notes, don’t panic. Researchers found positive outcomes with both tidy and cluttered spaces.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found spending time in neat and orderly spaces promotes conventional and healthy choices, while messy environments can foster creative thinking and breaking away from the norm.

The link between disorder and creativity challenges Phil Hunt’s “tried and true tactic” of clearing his desk when he wants to focus on an idea.

Hunt, a copy writer for Flint Communications in Fargo, said straightening up can make it easier to concentrate. But when he’s busy and deadlines are approaching, he likes to have his materials scattered on his desk where he can easily get to them.

His desk reflects the nature of his work.

“If you’re jumping from one thing to another on a regular basis, you have to be open to when ideas hit versus coming up with them on a schedule,” Hunt said. “You want your source material and inspiration in front of you and handy when your brain is ready to shift.”

Three experiments

The authors of the study used three experiments to gauge how physical environments affect decision-making and thinking.

In the first experiment, 34 Dutch students were assigned an “orderly” room with all papers and objects neatly put away or a “disorderly” room with normal office clutter strewn about. After spending roughly 10 minutes in the room filling out a basic survey, participants were presented with the opportunity to donate to charity. They were also offered two snack choices – an apple and a chocolate bar.

Participants who spent time in the orderly room donated more than twice as much money as those in the cluttered room. They were also more likely to choose the healthier snack.

Another experiment indicated that cluttered spaces may foster more creativity and originality. Participants were asked to think of up to 10 new uses for a Ping-Pong ball and those ideas were judged for creativity by two independent judges. Participants in the disorderly space generated more highly creative ideas than those in the neat space.

The third experiment measured participants’ choice of conventional or novelty options. Those in an orderly space were more likely to choose “classic” options over ones marked “new,” while those in the disorderly spaces were more likely to opt for novelty.

Other studies often point to disorderly spaces as those that promote bad or harmful behaviors and ordered spaces as those that foster positive behaviors, but the authors of the University of Minnesota study say the “effects of physical orderliness are broader and more nuanced than that.”

Comfortable environments

At Sundog Interactive, a local marketing agency based in Fargo, mementos on Shawn Tennyson’s desk reflect former projects, favorite films, hobbies and family. He keeps a small spread of notes, folders and documents for current projects on top of his desk for quick access.

Tennyson, who’s been at Sundog for 13 years, said most of the stuff just makes him feel at home, but it can be inspiring.

“It can make you think of different things and take you in a different direction,” he said.

While local certified public accountant Jeremy Ulmer described his daily work of reviewing financial statements and preparing tax documents as “task-oriented” rather than creative, he said his messier-than-usual desk reflects his priorities.

As the extended filing deadline for federal taxes approaches, Ulmer said his desk has grown more cluttered with client files.

“It’s kind of an out of sight out of mind thing, so you keep them in front of you,” he said.

He keeps his personal materials such as aviation figurines, knick-knacks from his travels and photos of family neatly displayed.

A comfortable environment is essential for local painter Marjorie Schlossman. Like old slippers, she said it takes a while to break in a studio space and make it the perfect fit.

Her neat studio breaks stereotypes of a typical creative space. Schlossman keeps the furnishings simple and doesn’t display much besides the canvases she’s working on.

Her main work station, a cart with her paints, palette and other materials, may be a little cluttered, but she has everything on hand when an idea hits.

“Often, I’m in a big rush, I want to hurry up and do something,” Schlossman said. “I want to catch it before it disappears.”

Cali Owings | Forum News Service

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