Messy Desks vs Neat: The Writer’s Workspace

Laptop on messy desk with lamp shining on it

How often have we scrolled through generic productivity posts, hoping that organising our messy desks will somehow make us more productive writers? The idea of an untidy writer’s workspace as productivity’s nemesis has become ingrained.

Thanks to a quote misattributed to Albert Einstein, we think that a messy desk is a sign of a cluttered mind. Can it be that simple though?

Does a messy environment filled with stacks of papers, paper clips, reference books and an ever-increasing to-do list all held together by sticky notes actually mean you haven’t got it together?

Or you do– you just can’t find it.

Close up of piles of paper

The writer’s desk

A quick snap of the perfect writing desk will show you a clean uncluttered workspace or home office. Shiny, white, with gold and pink accessories featuring a teeny tiny succulent.

Writer's workspace with succulent, phone and laptop

You’ve got to have a succulent.

The Writer’s Desk (deserves capitals) in my house currently holds:

  • A pile of 7 unused notebooks
  • a pile of sticky notes
  • 15 borrowed books in a haphazard to-read pile
  • A line art drawing of a fox (reminds me of how the garden looked when I was young)
  • A print of Van Gogh’s The Cafe, (I know, I’m a cliche but it reminds me of my art GCSE)
  • A chocolate Christmas elf from last year I still haven’t eaten
  • And an intray that looks too boring to touch.

I have about 2 inches of work space. Also sometimes It’s a dining table. 

The average person would surely ask how I could hope to be a productive writer with such a messy desk.

I’ve read many a post on disorderly environments and how a cluttered desk can hinder a creative mind. Numerous studies have also concluded that a messy setting can decrease productivity by hindering focus and the ability to process information.

And I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of shiny minimalist YouTubers with perfect hair and teeth that seem to have no mess to tidy in the first place. None of the ‘hacks’ stick. My life still resembles a tornado. 

And yet.

My untidy desk doesn’t stop me from doing a fair amount of creative work. So what gives?

Messy desks or Clutter-free workspace

It turns out that messy desks can make us more creative not less. A study conducted by psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs PhD, of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management found that a tidy room can lead to following tradition and convention. A messy room, however, leads to a tendency toward creative thinking and the generation of new ideas.

screwed up ball of lined white paper with the word 'ideas' written on it

Although that comes with a side of unhealthy choices.

If you want to do all the socially responsible ‘good things’ like doing your finances, donating to charity and eating healthy, you need a clean setting conducive to productivity. If you want creative ideas, however, you’re brain is going to need a bit more stimulation. 

In support of clutter

When it comes to my work area, I like having personal items around. I like seeing what I’ve got. It can be inspiring to see a picture that reminds you of your childhood garden.

close up of a lilac flower with sun shining through it

I start thinking of apple trees, damson berries, stepping stones and my dad’s Lilac tree which he lovingly replanted from his Grandmother’s home.

The notebooks speak of potential; so do the books. Yes, I’m messy but I’m already inspired. I’ve got no excuse for the chocolate elf or the intray though.

Organizing the ideal writer’s workspace

However, there’s a fine line between creative chaos and overwhelming disorder. It’s important to strike a balance that works for you.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the piles of books, papers and office supplies on your desk, take time to organise your essentials while leaving room for the clutter that fuels creativity. Here are some practical tips to bring order to the chaos:

Stacks of white pieces of paper
  • Start by decluttering: Keep only the essentials on your desk and find homes for the rest.
  • Use desk organisers: Put all your stuff into containers. Also, see file folders and desk drawers where you can put things and never look at them again.
  • Create designated zones: Allocate specific areas for different tasks to maintain some semblance of order.
Brown wooden desk organiser with notebooks and newspapers in it
  • Regular clean-ups: Set aside time each day (each week?) to tidy up, so the mess doesn’t spiral out of control.
  • Inspiration Wall: Create an inspiration wall with whatever you want, artwork, or images that resonate with your current project or writing goals.
  • Create Comfort: the right balance of light, temperature, and noise level can make a big difference. Studies have shown that natural light can help improve productivity and mood. If you can, set up your workspace near a window, preferably with a view of something. If your window looks out on a brick wall? get a plant. Maybe a succulent. And some twinkly lights. The little things make all the difference. 
lamp stand beside wall with string lights and pictures
  • Try listening to soft music, or white noise or try total silence. Experiment until you find what works best for you. By creating a space that promotes concentration and relaxation, you can increase your productivity levels.
  • Invest in these great cable tidy boxes. Tripping over wires becomes a thing of the past and they look nice. An all-around brilliant idea.

Desk Essentials for Writers

Writer’s workspace essentials include a comfy chair, a durable desk, a good lamp, and some coasters for the multiple hot beverages you’ll be drinking. It’s part of the ritual.

Other than that, a laptop or notebook is pretty much all you need. But if you don’t want to go down the minimalist route, here are just a few different ways to personalise and organise your space for comfort and productivity:

  • Stationary: I buy far too much, but notebooks are a must. 
  • fairy lights: Make your writing zone glow. You can clip photos and pictures to these battery-operated string lights: mood board, inspiration and ambience all in one.
  • Pots for those desk succulents you know you want. Or if you’ve got black thumbs there’s always the artificial kind. This one has added lights. 
  • pin board to keep all your ideas and inspirations.
  • An insane amount of sticky notes to plaster all over the room. These ones are transparent so your writing can magically appear midair.
  • Ooh and then you can get this little sticky note dispenser. Totally, superfluous but it’s shaped like a tiny typewriter.
  • Get your favourite classic books as coasters made from reclaimed wood. There are 24 designs to choose from, full colour and beautifully made; A great option for a writer’s workspace.
  • More Cord tidy boxes. Because you can never have too many.
  • If you’ve got any space left try this wooden folding LED book lamp. It’s rechargeable by USB and it’s book-shaped. It’ll fit right in.

The Freewrite 

Remember when the world began to go digital and word processors were a thing? It was a free-for-all of new products trying to predict what the market would want.

As it turns out, none of it.

Word processors like the Star-writer went the way of MiniDiscs and Blu-Ray because A laptop or phone can do everything you need. 

But sometimes the distractions are impossible to ignore and battery life sucks.

a Laptop open beside a glass of water and a coffee with white foam in a black cup on a coffee shop style bench table

Especially when you’ve taken your ancient laptop to a coffee shop to avoid the messy desk at home and it dies as soon as you switch it on. Also, the Wifi won’t work.

Enter the Freewrite Traveler. It’s Wifi enabled but seems like a pretty good distraction-free alternative. It has its own little screen and you can pretend it’s the 90s again as you get that manuscript finished.

The famous writer’s workspace

Messy desks are pretty common for writers. Many famous authors have had unique and fascinating workspaces that reflect their creativity and personality. Here are a few notable examples:

  • Ernest Hemingway: Hemingway’s writing studio in Key West, Florida, is now a museum. It’s a cosy space filled with books, typewriters, and bullfighting memorabilia. Great if you like that sort of thing. Not so great for the bulls. Anyway, it was obviously inspiring for him.
  • Mark Twain: Twain had an octagonal writing study in Elmira, New York. It also featured a fireplace and a large round table where he wrote many of his classic works.
  • Roald Dahl: Dahl had a small writing hut in his garden, surrounded by yellow legal pads and an assortment of quirky items. His chaotic workspace was where he crafted beloved stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
  • E.B White: Known for Charlotte’s Web, had a bare-bones boathouse writing space with a wooden bench and a desk.
  • Austin Kleon author of Steal Like an Artist has two desks: one analogue and one digital. The analogue desk is a distraction-free zone where nothing electronic is allowed.
  • Danielle Steel’s desk is custom-made to look like a brightly coloured massive stack of her own novels. It’s quite something to behold. And she’s very prolific so make of that what you will.

Messy desks or Clutter-free workspace

Man's arms with clasped hands wearing a watch, resting on white desk with a macbook near a succulent

The truth is there’s no right way to work. Clutter may not always decrease productivity any more than a clean desk with a spotless MacBook can make you Steve Jobs. If you’re good at ignoring your external environment, you’ll probably be able to focus just fine wherever you are. One of the many benefits of being an introvert.

Mess may help you think outside the box and explore new creative ideas, and you can’t be productive without first having an idea. 

Embrace the Mess

So, the next time you feel the urge to do something about your work environment, consider Danielle Steel’s giant desk of books. You can work anywhere your imagination can flourish. The writer’s workspace is a very individual thing.

Finally, not everyone thrives in a pristine environment. Some people find inspiration and creativity amid chocolate elves and notebooks. But I’m probably getting some of those cord tidy boxes to hide all the wires I constantly trip over.

Messy desks can have a big impact on productivity for some, but as long as you keep it somewhat under control you can still do some of your best most productive work. After all, amid the chaos, magic can happen.

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