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A messy desk in need of decluttering.

Decluttering Your Way to Better Performance

From Einstein to Jobs, cluttered offices are often romanticized and held up as proof that disorganized spaces can yield remarkable work. Mark Twain famously insisted on being photographed at his messy desk. 

Not a fan of decluttering, Mark Twain sits at his messy desk in 1901.

Despite assurances that such figures have a method to their madness, however, clutter can have a profound negative impact on your productivity and performance. Just as multitasking can fracture your focus, a cluttered workspace may overload your senses, causing physical and mental stress while strangling your creativity.

This reality is not news to most people, but the business of eliminating clutter has grown substantially in recent years. The home organization market surged to $11.4 billion in 2021 as the pandemic roiled and people sought ways to make their spaces more comfortable. Growth is expected to continue at a rate of 3.8% annually in the years to come. That doesn’t mean that getting organized is easy or painless. Many of us cringe at the idea of getting rid of our possessions. After all, we might not need that one thing today, but what if we need it tomorrow? 

It’s science. Researchers at Yale University found that the two areas of the brain associated with pain light up like a Christmas tree when people are forced to part with items of financial or emotional value. We’re wired to react adversely to decluttering. 

But as the saying goes: no pain, no gain. In many ways, effective decluttering comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. That analysis requires understanding the cost of inaction first.

Calculating the Cost of Clutter

Professionals today find themselves in a constant, delicate balancing act, wearing multiple hats and putting out fires to keep things moving smoothly. With so many tasks and projects in the mix, our desks and offices often come to reflect the complex workload we’re navigating.

The resulting material clutter can hurt our ability to deliver results in multiple ways.

  • Productivity – When information is scattered physically or digitally, we spend unnecessary time searching for it. Some estimate the average worker spends as much as four hours a week looking for misplaced documents. Other studies suggest a significant link between clutter and procrastination.
  • Focus – That sidelong glance at an empty coffee cup on your desk might not seem like that much of a distraction, but those moments add up to diminished performance. Researchers consistently find that the brain is not wired to simultaneously handle disparate thought processes effectively and efficiently. 
  • Memory – Like a computer, your mind has a set amount of “working memory”. When it gets pulled in multiple directions because of clutter, our ability to absorb and retain information is hurt.
  • Stress – Evidence linking clutter with heightened stress levels continues to mount. Those living and working in cluttered spaces frequently see spikes in their cortisol levels. When your mental health takes a hit, it can cause additional problems with productivity and focus. Everything compounds.

But what to do with this information? When people initially commit to decluttering, they often attempt to “rip off the bandaid,” purging and organizing their homes and offices with gusto. Though the immediate results may be satisfying, such actions do little to foster long-term habits and benefits.

If you’re looking to make more durable changes, there are several approaches worth considering. 

The Bare Essentials Method

How little do you really need to survive? Extremists might have some thoughts that strike the rest of us as comical, but using this question as an anchor in our decluttering efforts can be useful. 

A minimalist decluttered workspace.

Take for example TreeHugger founder Graham Hill. He traded in his Seattle mansion for a shoebox of an apartment. He boiled things down to six dress shirts, ten bowls, a handful of utensils, and no regrets

Downsizing his lifestyle didn’t mean downsizing his wealth or success. It allowed him to cut costs, focus on more meaningful tasks, and dial back his stress levels. The same approach may work for you.

The key is to shift your mindset – not just your workspace. If you orient your mind to process information and make decisions based on utility, it gets easier to declutter not only your office but your mind. 

The Kondo Method

Topping the bestsellers list in 2014 was Marie Kondo’s revelatory The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo’s approach to decluttering can be distilled rather simply: only keep what “sparks joy.”

Part of the reason the philosophy gained steam is that it flipped the thinking behind decluttering on its head. Instead of focusing on what’s being left behind, you’re prompted to think positively about what is going to stay. 

In contrast with the bare essentials approach, the Kondo method leaves room for a very human qualitative overlay in your decision-making process. It’s not only about how useful an item is now or will be in the future. It’s about how items affect you, too. 

Just be careful not to toss that important report out because it doesn’t bring a smile to your face. 

Emily Gilmore on the show Gilmore Girls applies the Kondo Method with more gusto than she should.

It is tempting to overlook the Kondo method when decluttering a workspace because it seems so simplistic. Think, though, about the impact of clutter on stress. If the clutter on the desk amplifies your stress levels, that’s certainly not “sparking joy”, is it? And if you’re working from home, failure to address the problems in your workspace might end up sapping joy in other areas, too.

The 30-Day Minimalism Method

Does the idea of a massive purge give you anxiety? A gradual approach to decluttering might be more appropriate. One such popular decluttering method is known as 30-Day Minimalism. 

A planned monthly approach to decluttering your space.

Though the method plays out differently depending on who you speak with, the idea is to commit to small changes over a month to build a sustainable approach to keeping your life organized and decluttered. In one version, you get rid of one item on the first day, two on the second, three on the third, and so forth. In another, you have a specific decluttering task to complete each day. 

 An extension of this thinking is rules-based: one in, one out. Once you’ve created a stable, decluttered environment, you may only add something new to it if you get rid of another item in the same category. Buy a new t-shirt? Donate an old one. This helps you maintain a space that is useful and tidy.

Decluttering Digital Spaces

Your desk, office, and home aren’t the only places accumulating clutter. Our digital spaces tend to accumulate clutter, too. From clogged inboxes to poorly organized drives, information can quickly become difficult to locate. Add a mess of notifications to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for poor productivity.

If you can declutter your digital spaces, you can help yourself and your computer.

While the best digital organization approach to use depends on the person and work, there are several tactics you can use to make your life easier.

  • Remap your file storage – If your files are routinely ending up in the wrong place, it could be that your organizational system is failing you. Taking the time to ensure the right folders contain the right files and are intuitively located can make sustainable digital organization simpler.
  • Standardize file names – Is the title “373583932754759.img” going to tell you exactly what that file is? Probably not. Come up with a standardized file naming system that allows you to quickly identify contents and organize the items appropriately.
  • Limit open tabs – Surveys suggest that 64% of people have 11 or more browser tabs open at any point in time. This can make it difficult to keep track of important information and significantly slow down your computer. Close them if you aren’t using them, and store important links using a digital organization tool like Evernote or Google Keep for later reference.
  • Pause notifications – If you’re trying to knock out work on a project, odds are you don’t need to see a Facebook notification pop up about your neighbor’s recent casserole success. Consider using “do not disturb” settings on your smartphone and computer when you’re working to ensure the task at hand has your full attention.

Steps like these will help with digital clutter, but like physical clutter, such systems take maintenance. By making sound digital organization a priority instead of an afterthought, you’ll make practices that seem awkward today into productive habits over time.

Creativity: the Clutter Caveat

Those who work in creative capacities especially may cringe at the idea of decluttering, likening the process to sanitizing past sanity. To some end, that’s understandable. The creative process is often messy itself. Should the environment where it unfolds not follow suit?

The answer is complicated. Some research suggests that the inability to focus in a cluttered space undermines creative thinking by redirecting the imagination in too many directions. Other studies found that workspaces that may not look organized can encourage less rigid thinking. 

In the end, experts suggest reflecting on your process and outcomes to determine what level of “mess” best supports your creative thinking without hurting your productivity. Our brains are all wired differently. Our workspaces should be designed with that in mind.

The Best Decluttering Starts Today

Maybe you’re hoping to top your personal bests this year. Perhaps you’re starting an exciting new project with as many challenges as opportunities. It might be that you’ve simply lost a step and want to get back on track with your career. 

Whatever your motivation might be, decluttering your office and home is a great way to get where you want to go. It might try multiple attempts and different methods, but you’ll be happy you put in the work.

As LinkedIn co-founder Jason Fried put it, “The most important thing is to begin.”

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This is an updated version of an article originally published in December 2018. ©2023. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM. This article is subject to the disclaimers found here.

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About Mercedes Holmen

Mercedes is a business owner and the Executive Consultant with Rodan + Fields. In addition, she works in the field of behavior analysis for children with autism and their families, specializing in preschool-aged children. She also has her Masters in Science from the University of California at Davis. Share this page:

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