Want to get more done? You may need to clear your desk. June Saruwatari, author of the new book Behind the Clutter, says clutter makes you less productive.
It's a claim backed up by research. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed multiple stimuli present in the visual field compete for our attention, making it harder to focus on the task at hand. The study also showed a cluttered environment led to difficulty processing information and has a negative impact on working memory.
Physical clutter turns into mental clutter. When your environment is littered with paperwork, photos, tchotchkes, and other things that distract you from the task at hand, your brain’s ability to process information is blocked, causing your focus to waver and your energy to decline. All this clutter weighs down on your mental resources throughout the day, much like having a screaming toddler standing next to you while you try to get work done.
Clutter can also take a toll on your emotional state. Saruwatari used to hang onto old contracts and paystubs from her time as an actress, a reminder of the success she once had. She realized all of those items, in addition to taking up space in her home, were weighing her down emotionally. For Saruwatari, decluttering isn’t simply about getting your desk in order, it’s about relieving you of the baggage we hang onto from the past – past careers, relationships and incomplete projects.
How to deal with clutter:
Stay in the present.
When sorting through items, ask yourself what’s important to you right now, what you’re working on that requires your attention, and get rid of the things that aren’t related to or that aren’t helping you to complete that task. “The desk needs to be free and clear for whatever activity you’re going to be working on,” says Saruwatari. If you’re running a home office and have kids’ homework loitering around or art projects that pull you out of your focused state and into your hectic home life, remove those items from your workspace.
Ask what items represent.
Saruwatari speaks about one client who was holding onto old suits that reminded them of a past success. While it’s common for us to hang onto memories, Saruwatari says sometimes those meaningful items can become restrictive. “Do you really need those suits to remind you that you’re successful?” she asks.
When going through items, ask what purpose each item is serving and ask whether it’s holding you back from achieving your present goals. “It can be a tentacle connecting your past to your present, but not in a positive way,” she says. “Clutter is the unfinished business. It’s what’s standing between you and the life you would love to live and create so you can be supremely happy.”
Get rid of things that distract you from your goals.
A cluttered desk can be akin to working at the family dining room table. The dining table is full of non-work related items that distract you – such as kids’ homework, which may trigger you to think about ironing your kids’ school uniform – and the salt and pepper shaker that triggers you to think about what you’re going to make for dinner. Saruwatari recommends a completely clear desk with nothing on it except for the activity that you’re working on.
Keep things that motivate you.
Doing this spring cleaning exercise in your workspace doesn’t mean you have to get rid of everything in it. If you have things around your office that remind you of positive things or that motivate you towards your goals, you don’t need to eliminate these.
Saruwatari says we only need to get rid of the things that distract us from our goals. Family photos and kids’ artwork may be motivating to some and can be wonderful reminders of the love you have in your life, but if they’re distracting you from your main goal in your business, then it may be best to keep them in your living space rather than your work space. Go through each item and ask whether the item is making you feel energized, or if it’s bringing you down and is just “clutter.”