I do all of my work on my PC and I like to keep my desk very clean; it helps me think. I'm pretty much the only one of this mindset at my company and most other's desks are covered with papers, notes, ect.

I've gotten a few teasing comments that "Hard workers have messy desks", always said in a good natured, joking way, but I'm wondering if it really does appear unusual/lazy. These comments are always from coworkers, my boss has never said anything about it.

I'm a programmer so I rarely print anything, and if I'm given paper I keep it organized and file it away. At most I usually have an inbox, my iPad/Phone, my desk phone and a legal on my desk.

I'm also the youngest in the office; I've pretty much grown up in an age where information is digital, so I think that's part of the clash. Most of my coworkers print things to show them to me when I'd rather have a screenshot for my records.

Is this clean appearance something to be concerned about or is it harmless? How can I tell?

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    Eh, I consider myself lazy for having the messiest desk in my workplace. More the kind of mess that @AdamRackis describes, though. Usually only one or two items directly related to the work I'm doing.
    – sq33G
    Commented Apr 15, 2012 at 6:34
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    A cluttered desk doesn't always refer to a cluttered mind. Neither does a clean desk always refer to an organized mind. Actually it depends upon what you are doing on your desk and how much work you have to do. May be you will sometimes need to keep so many accessories around to do a specific task on your desk. However, what is important here is you should be able to make your desk look "Busy" and not "Messy," even if you have so many items in use at the same time. Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 10:25
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    I've gotten a few teasing comments that "Hard workers have messy desks" - I always say that too, but I don't mean it. I just mean "I don't have time to clean my desk right now." But I know that if I threw things away when I was done with them, I'd be tidy all the time.
    – pdr
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 8:47
  • 'tis a gift to be simple Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 19:04
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    If you do what is requested from you and on time or even before that, then you are in the clear. Any remarks from others can then just be followed up with "I had time to clean it after finishing my assignments" :) Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 10:08

11 Answers 11


In my experience, it's 100% about the culture and nothing to do with an RFC on cleanliness. My workplace is the exact opposite. The CEO values cleanliness and tidiness, so necessarily my work area is as tidy as I can manage. I've actually gotten lectured on my lack of neatness.

As always, communication is going to be key. A quick, private conversation with your superior can clarify how serious your coworkers are when you get teased. If the culture dictates that "hard workers have messy desks," then either mess up your desk or fight the current the whole way. You should make it clear that your desk tidiness is essential to your productivity.

  • Also worth noting that the culture can vary depending on the particular boss (or even the day!) - a company that generally wants to see busy/messy desks normally might want them all neat and tidy when the executives come into town. Commented Jun 26, 2012 at 19:52

Your coworkers are fools.

Developers rarely have to print anything out, as you mention. My desk happens to be cluttered, but it's with Dr. Pepper 10 cans and Dilbert calendar cartoons, mostly.

In other words, most developers have little, if any work-related content scattering their desks. That you choose to live a bit more cleanly and more organized than the rest of us, and also keep it free of crap is hardly cause for embarrassment.

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    I take exception to "developers rarely have to print anything out" personally - I come from the old culture of dead-tree debugging. I also burn through legal pads at an alarming rate during meetings...
    – voretaq7
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 19:32
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    Man, I haven't printed out code in over 5 years. That was before I discovered debuggers. Printing wastes so much paper, and the printed-out code is irrelevant once you start making more changes. Like Adam suggested, get a good debugger :)
    – jmort253
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 7:10
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    With regard to Your coworkers are fools, please play nice.
    – Mark Booth
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 9:58
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    @Mark - I'm hardly new to Stack Exchange, and I really don't think that opening line is un-civil. But maybe my time on MSO has hardened me :) Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 14:49
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    Maybe I was being a little abrupt, but our time in private beta is where we set the tone of the site for the future, so it's even more important than normal to encourage civility.
    – Mark Booth
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 18:35

Does keeping one's desk extremely clean appear lazy?

Generally, this appearance isn't simply about the cleanliness of your desk, but how it in conjunction with your overall behavior reflects upon you in the atmosphere. There are, generally, 2 reasons that your desk would be exceptionally clean:

  1. General fastidiousness, in which case the absence of clutter makes for a more productive employee.
  2. Poor utilization, in which enough work is not making its way across your desk at a given time to make the best use of your abilities (This is not necessarily your fault).

General fastidiousness can reflect well upon you so long as those exacting standards do not extend outside your acceptable sphere of influence (i.e. beyond your subordinates, if any). This can show that you have extremely high standards, but it requires that your productivity reflect this as well.

Poor utilization can be either on your manager, in which case he's simply not passing an appropriate amount of work onto your shoulders, which is inefficient for all involved; or it can be that you like to be part of what we in my office call "the clean desk squad" – the people who attempt to get everything off their desk quickly to get back to watching their internet aquarium parks produce fish or farms grow crops. If there's a chance that you fall into this latter category, beware! Your days are numbered.

Appearances Are Everything

You're smart; I can tell this by the way you phrased your question: "Does keeping one's desk extremely clean appear lazy?" You know that appearances are important, and that they reflect upon you and your capabilities.

Ways to appear busy despite your immaculate desk can be:

  • When your supervisor comes in, ask them for feedback on your current progress on the project. You're demonstrating that not only are you busy, but you're making progress.

  • Make use of the empty space effectively. A single notepad with hand written notes may be far less than other people have on their desk, but the appearance of notes and logs makes you appear to have something occupying your time. Just make sure they're actually notes about your current project!

  • RFC. Interact with others on your team regularly about what's going on in your current project; make sure you know their progress and they know yours. This way, you can say, "Oh, XYZ? John was handling that last week. He said ABC and thought he'd be on to MNO by Tuesday." Email, conversations, or messaging can keep you connected and in the know.

  • When something is on your desk, keep it orderly! Appearances aren't just about the moment, but about the moment in relation to the big picture. Show that it's a fastidious nature that drives you to be organized by keeping the papers you do receive stacked and ordered, not splayed out (The latter being a common indicator of a Clean Desk Squad member).

Being an employee is about managing expectations. We manage expectations by delivering appearances. So long as you deliver the right appearances, you shouldn't have any troubles about your clean desk.


On the contrary, I believe having a clean, neat, clutter free desk is a sign of greatness. There are several people that I work with who are minimalists, and they keep no more than a laptop and a plant on their desk, along with a cup for coffee or tea.

Our corporate culture also doesn't focus on implying people are lazy or not working hard, something I've always concluded was just a way for people to steal the energy of others and bring them down. The military was like that, and I've always taken offense in someone telling me, even in jest, that I wasn't working hard enough. I'm surprised to hear several people here say that their coworkers say things like this to them.

But, I digress, the people in our office with the clean desks have compared it to a form of zen. By creating an environment void of clutter, it opens up the mind to focus on creativity, thoughtfulness and freedom, which is why most of these people are either writers or designers.

I am a bit envious of this minimalism, yet I've not been able to achieve it. My desk is cluttered, and I have a box tucked away under my desk that I just haven't been able to work up the nerve to throw away.

Having a clean desk is a sign of discipline, focus, peace, creativity, greatness, and balance. Having a messy desk doesn't imply laziness, but it seems to me that having less is so much more difficult in a world where we all must have more.

The Search for Simplicity, is an excellent blog article that gives another perspective on this topic.

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    I agree completely with the desk zen thing, a clear desk is a clear mind!
    – RYFN
    Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 21:27

We all work in our own way. We also tend to pick up on anything about people around us which is different.

For myself, I go through cycles. My desk gets messier and messier as time goes on, right up to the point where there are too many things on my desk to easily find the immediate reference material I need. At this point I have a tidy up and file everything properly. I then have a clear desk for a few days until I start needing that reference material again, at which point it starts being pulled out of my files to populate my desk once more.

So, depending of when it is in the cycle, I could look like I'm exceptionally tidy, tremendously messy or anything in-between.

With regard to your co-workers perceptions of your tidiness, you are almost certainly taking this more seriously than they are. If it bothers you, you could always talk to them about it. It could be that their humour stems from the fact that they are jealous of how you manage to work in a paperless way, and would actually be interested to learn how you manage it.

Finally, on the matter of printing things out. Many of us find reading documentation on screen hard on the eyes and e-paper e-readers simply aren't fast enough to update to be able to quickly flick through documentation. For many of us, dead-tree technology is far superior for some activities.


I'd file this under be yourself. Keep it neat enough that you don't offend anybody in your office (if you get comments on how messy your desk is, especially from a manager, you should probably clean it up a bit).

Otherwise, be yourself. Don't put on a "show" by being either neater or messier than you really are, because you won't be able to keep up that level of cleanliness (if you are naturally messy), or you will find it irksome to keep it "messy" if you are naturally neat.

IMO it is really silly to think you can raise the esteem of your colleagues by "being messy" - try doing really good work instead.


Personally, I wouldn't read too much into your co-workers' comments. I feel a clean desk should actually make you more productive. A messy desk is an eyesore and can distract you.

Even if you have stuff to keep on your desk, keeping it organized and neat helps you not have to waste time rummaging or searching for stuff.


The reason people tease about things like that is because they are uncomfortable about what they perceive as a weakness in themselves. It's a back-handed way of paying you a compliment. If you have a sharp but witty and playful retort ready, one of two things will happen: either you will all be having fun together, or it will stop being fun for them.


I think this falls into the assumptions/stereotypes category, and is highly based on the culture where you work. It's kind of hard to answer for everyone, because perceptions are highly personalized, though I have heard this sentiment many times, usually to justify a messy work environment, even though there was no correlation to the amount of entropy on one's desk and the amount of "productivity" coming from that desk.

My personal perspective is this: my desk is usually messy, but I need to clear it occasionally just to clear my head, my workspace, and to feel like my space is as useful as it can be.

I once had someone come up to me the day after I'd cleaned my desk, look over at the guy across from me who we all knew barely did enough to stay employed, and this person (not very jokingly) implied that I didn't look very busy, and that I should learn from the guy across from me. This person didn't work in my department, wasn't "over" me in the organizational structure in any way, nor did they actually work with or rely on the other guy who barely did any work, so really they didn't know what they were talking about. That didn't stop me from taking it a little personally, but no, I've never see a consistent correlation between output/productivity and cleanliness, except when the disorganization reaches such a height that it becomes a burden to doing new work.

  • Immediate reply: "So you think looking busy is more important than getting your work done? "
    – gnasher729
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 14:20
  • Yeah, no kidding.
    – jefflunt
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 15:57

It's one of those "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situations. If you keep your desk clean, you'll get complaints; if you keep it cluttered, you might get complaints as well.

Your work and how you work speak louder that what your desk looks like, so let those aspects shine through. These teasing comments are most probably nothing but good-nature ribbing (like you mentioned), and is probably an effort to mark you with a quirk. Maybe next they'll call you a nickname. If you're that concerned about it, you can ask your superior about it.

In any case, you can try to throw people off by putting a fake stack of papers in your inbox and emptying it by the end of the day. :)


Personally I've always heard that it is better to keep your desk clean as "a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind" and reflects negatively upon the employee as well. Periodically you will find articles about the clean versus cluttered desk debate and honestly it does come down in part how you work, what you are working with, and the company culture.

In practice the best workers tend to be the ones that know where to find things as soon as you ask for it so you are best off taking that to heart and keeping your desk as you like it, as long as you can find everything you need when you need it.

  • 7
    “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” ― Albert Einstein (I just like the quote, I'm an empty desk person, myself.)
    – John N
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 7:43
  • @JohnN - Same here, I can never find anything in clutter which is why I tend to advocate for at least making sure your desk appears to be organized as opposed to chaos.
    – anonymous
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 13:05

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