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cluttered desk

Do you feel grumpier when your desk is cluttered? Do you feel more productive when it’s not? Have you ever paid attention to how clutter affects your mental state?

There’s science to explain how clutter impacts mental health and productivity. A clean workspace truly does help us think and feel more emotionally satisfied by our work, while a messy office space can cause anxiety and reduce our ability to focus.

Earlier research into the impact of clutter focused on how clutter in the home impacts mental health. More recent studies, however, look specifically at the impact of a disorganized work space on the productivity of office workers.


Why Your Cluttered Desk Is Bad For Your Brain

One important study found that too much visual stimulation restricts our brain’s ability to process information. In other words, the mind is a computer that must tabulate everything we perceive through our senses, sight being one of them. As visual clutter increases, our brain’s ability to focus on important tasks decreases because we only have so much mental capacity.

But clutter comes in many forms. Yes, those dirty coffee cups and paper clutter tax our brains, but so do errant noises that distract us when we’re trying to focus. So, too, the freezing cold office temperature and flickering overhead lights. While our brains process these sensory stimuli, our ability to focus on work decreases.


The Impact Of Digital Clutter On Business

Clutter in the physical world hijacks our productivity, but there is also digital clutter. One fascinating international study surveyed information workers who primarily deal with documents. 

Researchers found that workers spent significant time on tasks related to searching for documents, trying to find the right versions of documents, recreating lost documents, etc. 

They wrote, “Time wasted in the course of dealing with document-related challenges cost the organization $19,732 per information worker per year in compensation costs alone.” (p.20)

Of course, in addition to wasted time, there are other consequences of disorganization to both individuals and companies.  


Your Cluttered Desk: Other Negative Impacts

In addition to the negative impact on the organization’s bottom line, research shows that physical and/or digital clutter have far-reaching effects on the mental health and productivity of each individual employee.

Multiple studies find that office clutter negatively impacts individual employees, causing:

  • Increased emotional exhaustion.
  • Heightened stress.
  • Decreased productivity.
  • Reduced job satisfaction.

Also, and quite interestingly, research shows that a damaging cycle exists: an employee who procrastinates in making decisions or completing tasks is more likely to have a cluttered workspace. This messy workspace, in turn, causes the negative consequences outlined above. 


If You Lead A Company Or Team, Here’s What To Do

The cost of clutter and other distractions have a staggering impact on your organization’s bottom line, so you’re probably motivated to resolve the problem.

Instructing your employees to clean up their desks isn’t enough.

You have to address the root of the issue by training the team on how to become more organized. Otherwise, it can increase an employee’s frustration with their work, making it more likely they might leave. And it’s significantly more expensive to replace an employee than to upskill those that you already have.  

Learn more about training here or reach out to discuss your specific situation. 


Get Started With These Tips 

A cup of coffee and a sign that says "Declutter your workspace" rest on top of a calendar

Many people find that just the thought of tackling clutter is depressing and overwhelming. But it doesn’t need to be. Once you get started clearing clutter, you’ll feel the benefits in terms of the increased ability to focus on your most significant tasks. You’ll also feel lighter, freer, and more organized, and these benefits will create positive reinforcement that’s motivating.

Following are some strategies that my clients say are their favorites for starting to clear clutter:

1. Break physical clutter down into bite-sized pieces.

If your office is cluttered, don’t try to tackle the overloaded bookshelf, the messy floor, and the trinkets on your desk all at once. Pick one small spot, such as the nicknacks on the window sill. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Turn off your phone. Then get to work. Stop after 10 minutes if you want, but you may discover new momentum to keep going. Continue to schedule 10 minutes to declutter each day until the job is done. 

2. Pair the habit you want with a habit you have.

If you already have a habit of breaking for a walk at 10am, you might want to pair that habit with 10 minutes of decluttering your desk. By always decluttering as soon as you return from your walk, you kick the temptation to procrastinate to the curb

3. Create an archive folder for old emails.

You know that your email inbox is a disaster. You may not think this digital clutter weighs on you, but scanning hundreds of emails for the one you need takes a toll, just like scanning physical clutter does.

So create an email folder called “Archive – 202X” and add the current year to the folder’s name, or call it “old email,” or “email to save,” or anything you want! Just don’t try to organize those emails into folders. It will take too long, prevent your progress, and you’re unlikely to receive any benefit from the activity.

Then move all your emails into the folder. Voila! You have zeroed out your inbox. This method is incredibly liberating for many of my clients who can’t bear to trash their messages, but want them out of the way.

You might also find it helpful to read my articles about getting organized and how to create a workspace you love.

The Science On Clutter Is Clear

When confronted with physical or digital clutter, we’re forced to expend limited cognitive resources processing the information. The clutter distracts us from instead focusing on achieving our most significant results. In addition to heightening stress and exhaustion, clutter impacts the organization’s bottom line. To support their workers, companies can offer employees the training they need to stay organized at work.

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