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by Erin Vaughan | November 02, 2016


With the average work week hovering just under 50 hours, it's no surprise to learn that our desk organization is suffering. Who has time for tidying up when you're going at a thousand miles per hour all the time?


Unfortunately, clutter presents a cognitive challenge for your brain. While you might think you can tune out excess noise and stimuli—after all, you've learned to ignore your coworker's pen-tapping and your cubicle mate's candy wrappers, right?—your brain is filing away those sensory triggers all the same. In fact, when researchers at Princeton University measured the brain's response to visual stimulus, they found that disorganized surroundings severely hampered a participant's concentration on a single task.


Meanwhile, there are practical reasons to organize your workspace, as well. Clutter doesn't just compete for your attention, it wastes time, too. A commercial whitepaper from Brother International Corporation found that workers take an estimated 38 hours a year searching for misplaced materials and supplies—adding up to an mind-boggling $89 billion in missed annual revenues.


However, you probably don't have a lot of extra time for tidying up. Therefore, it's a lot more useful to organize your space to avoid clutter buildup. Here's what experts say helps keep the mess at bay:


Organize Your Workspace Into Zones

A place for research, a place for meetings, a place for your laptop—not only does separating your office help you keep things more organized, it can also help you switch more easily into different mental modes required by each task.


Keep Just the Necessities Within Arm's Reach

One thing's for sure: that pen cup full of dried out writing utensils has got to go. If you're honest with yourself, there are probably plenty of supplies you keep in your office that you don't really need. Keep only the essentials on your desk—your computer, a notepad, your coffee—and put the rest in drawers or containers—or if it's really useless, just toss it.


Investigate the Real Root of Your Clutter

Sometimes clutter is merely the symptom of a larger issue. We often use material goods as a way to feel safer in a chaotic environment. As long as we have plenty of stuff around us, we reason, we won't be going anywhere soon. So if there are interpersonal conflicts, organizational challenges, or culture issues simmering in your office, you may find that these need to be resolved first before you can really kick clutter to the curb.


Manage Your Digital Spaces Too

It's no news that ever greater portions of our lives are being lived in digital spaces. But disorganized files, folders, and inboxes have the same effect as piles of paper when it comes to our psyche. Try making it policy to respond to urgent messages as soon as possible, and junk what you don't really need at the end of the day. A little maintenance goes a long way.


Decluttering a an means to boost productivity isn't a hard and fast rule, however. Some psychologists even feel that a space that's too spartan may actually harm creative thinking. In one study, for instance, participants were taken to both organized and messy rooms, and asked to generate ideas for new uses for ping pong balls. Afterwards, judges rated their contributions for their creativity and gave those coming from sloppier spaces marks that were an average 28 percent higher than their peers in the tidier rooms.


While that's highly subjective, the findings still resonate with some workers, who claim that tidying up crushes their creative impulses. It seems likely, given these results, that the way you feel about your space factors greatly into your overall ability to perform. So, if an untidy work area brings out your inner critic, you'll likely benefit from a classic decluttering. Whereas if you have a "method to my madness" approach, you may not need to do much organizing at all.


In the end, it's worth taking some time to evaluate how your office affects your individual psychology and mental functioning. When do you feel drained, and when are you productive and fulfilled? Don't be afraid to try different setups until you find something that works. Your personal productivity is in your own hands.


Erin Vaughan is a blogger, gardener and aspiring homeowner.  She currently resides in Austin, TX where she writes full time for Modernize, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.