Researchers Are Studying the Things People Fiddle With at Their Desks

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If you are reading this at work, chances are you are employed at a think-y kind of job, one that doesn’t require much physical movement beyond tapping on a keyboard or moving around a mouse. And yet, as you engage in creative thinking, you likely do so while moving around: fiddling with your jewelry, clicking up and down on a ballpoint pen, that kind of thing. 

Mike Karlesky and Katherine Isbister at New York University are fascinated by the things we deskbound employees fiddle with as we work, and how those little repetitive motions may promote creative or clearer thinking. Their theory is that we need to express some kind of physical movement to get the creative juices flowing, and that this is why we fiddle with things on our desks — “like doodles at the edge of a notebook, digital workers actively think in the physical margin surrounding their software,” the pair wrote recently in a presentation describing their preliminary findings.  

Changing what the body does can change our feelings, perceptions, and thoughts,” Isbister wrote in an email. Eventually, Karlesky and Isbister would like to provide office workers with a kind of sampler box of what they call “fidget widgets,” ideally those best suited for stoking creative thinking. “We are taking advantage of something people do already to help them focus, and figuring out ways to support this better,” she added. 

Take a look at some of the examples they’ve rounded up so far — and they’d also very much like it if you’d submit your own photos and stories at their Tumblr.

My favorite thing at the moment is that I twirl rulers around pens. … I find that I listen better and retain the information when I am fiddling.”

“I purchased this years ago at an aquarium. It is filled with some type of liquid, cool and squishy to the touch and easily flips inside-out through a hole in the middle. It keeps me mindlessly entertained for hours.”

These little rubber things on my headphones. All day.” 

“I roll bits of paper between my fingers. I like different kinds of paper, waxed paper, gum wrappers, coated magazine pages, and vellum. Regular copy paper is okay, too. Sometimes I’ll roll up a whole sheet of paper with a happy swoosh! Ribbons and rubber bands are also nice to roll.”

I play with this headless shark when I’m thinking or on the phone. It was part of a set of Legos my children had when they were young — and then our puppy decided it would be a good chew toy! Now it is headless, with teeth marks all over it. I took it to work one day to see if I could buy a replacement part — kiddos were really upset about the chewing — and here is has stayed!” 

I always find myself fiddling with an old coat toggle. It fits so easily in the hand and all my fingers can play with it in many different positions. The spring always feels so satisfying to squash and release when stuck finding that creative breakthrough, and it always helps, even if just for a moment of procrastination!”

Ever since I was a child, I would play with rubber bands as a sort of safety blanket; I roll them around in my hands and use them as a stress-reliever. All through my growing up, my parents would know exactly who to go to if they needed a rubber band or, even, if there was a lack of rubber bands in the house; they knew exactly who had ‘stolen’ the stash of elastic strands.”

I fidget daily with this gavel that is made of stress-ball material and this Eos chapstick (I repeatedly take the lid off and put it back on).”

The Things People Fiddle With at Their Desks