The theory’s simple: where you work affects how you work. If your working environment is a mess, it doesn’t bode well for your general wellbeing. The good news, though, is that I’ve found it works both ways: minimising clutter can actually help get your mind, mood and working life in order.
Keeping the house tidy can be a challenge at the best of times. But when the whole family (and dog) spend their days keeping busy under one roof, it can become even trickier to carve out an orderly work environment. As someone who’s been working from home since long before it became an essential part of daily life, I know how important it is not to let our home lives spill into our workspaces.
Apart from precious time that is wasted searching for lost paper on a crowded desk, cluttered spaces can also influence our wellbeing in ways we might not expect. Feeling overwhelmed by clutter in the home has been proven to lead to procrastination, and can even weigh heavily on our emotions, behaviour, and relationships with others.
The University of Chicago[BR1] ran an interesting study on how the amount of clutter in students’ working environments impacted on their productivity. It found that students in clutter-free surroundings were able to focus on work for nearly 8 minutes longer than those working on messy desks. When expanded over the working week, these 8 minutes can really add up, and even be the difference between stopping work on time or not.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Neuroscientists have shown us over the years that our brains like order and organisation. Cluttered environments, on the other hand, are full of sources of distraction, which constantly demand our attention, and drain our ability to process other information and focus on the task at hand.
Why does this matter? Well, an organised office can give us back a feeling of control and competence, which are vital ingredients for boosting productivity and performance. Or as Daniel Goleman explains in Focus, the ability to focus your efforts is a huge predictor of how well you will succeed in a given pursuit.
Tidying your desk might seem trivial, but by giving your mind the space to be able to focus you can set yourself up for success. Taking these smalls steps, such as clearing up our working table or dealing with post the day it arrives, really can make a big difference in tidying up our professional lives.
Thankfully, I’ve found that purging your work environment doesn’t have to be a painful – or risky – endeavour. For me, the biggest help in keeping my desk tidy – and my mental state in order – has been the ability to digitise everything from family photos to paperwork. That way, I can turn my clutter back into helpful files, and store them neatly and safely out of sight until they’re ready for my undivided attention.
If you need to get other people, especially family members, involved in your clean-desk policy, music or pizza can make it easier for those of us who don’t happen to share Marie Kondo’s joy of tidying. And if that fails, remind them that cleaning up doesn’t just free up space – it frees up your mind too, and can make home spaces work better for everyone.