If you've ever scoffed at a colleague’s messy desk, it should come as no surprise that clutter on the job can invite shame. A survey by the hiring firm Adecco found that 57 percent of workers admitted to judging their peers by the cleanliness of their workspace. Another Adecco survey found that nearly one-third of workers said people who left desks and common spaces messy were their single biggest office annoyance.
But a lot of us think about clutter in the wrong way. It’s not all bad, and the neural processes that make it a problem don’t begin or end at our desks. With spring cleaning season upon us, it may finally be time to tackle that pile of papers that’s been crowding your view. Before you do, here’s what science says about clutter’s effect on our brain and how to manage it.
First, it's important to understand why having too much stuff around can impede our ability to concentrate. We rely on certain brain processes to help figure out what to focus on as we navigate a world filled with people, billboards, piles of paper, and coming-at-us-from-all-sides stimuli, said Sabine Kastner, Ph.D, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University. “There are so many objects in the world that you have to process when you open your eyes,” she added. “This creates a bottleneck problem. There’s a resource limitation on what you can simultaneously process.”
Not only do our brains have to filter out many of the sights and sounds around us, but the fate of objects that get the cutting-room floor treatment is so severe that they may not even get a neural representation. In other words, as far as our brains are concerned, they don't exist—and if those invisible objects represent tasks (say, a folder related to an unfinished project), it may mean they don't get done. What's more, the constant process of scanning the world to determine what's worthy of our attention is taxing.
"You can overload any neural network and any cognitive mechanism to the extent that it will be completely dysfunctional,” Kastner said. “So if you put too much clutter into your world, at some point this mechanism will break down.” That makes it hard for clutter-crowded desk jockeys to focus on one item. And like the neural networks responsible for this system, we can easily end up feeling overwhelmed.
But here’s the catch: Too much clutter is bad, but subjecting yourself to an empty, un-stimulating environment is no better. “If you completely uncluttered the world by putting somebody into a sterile room with few objects, these attentional selection mechanisms would shut down,” said Kastner. “It sounds counterintuitive, but we need a certain amount of clutter to operate normally.”
According to Kastner, the ideal level of clutter differs among individuals. This is why some people are able to focus just fine when confronted with a messy desk, while others shut down at the sight of a stray paper. Dip below your ideal level by removing too much clutter, and your brain could be understimulated, potentially making it difficult for you to operate at peak performance—particularly when it comes to tasks that require creativity.
So if you’re dealing with a particularly neatness-obsessed colleague who likes to judge your relatively messy desk space, you have my permission to tell them to take a hike, because, hey, this is how you operate best.
How do you prune your workplace pile down to a level that works for you? Lori Vande Krol, a productivity consultant and professional board member at the National Association of Professional Organizers, says the simplest step is to separate items that you are holding onto for future reference from ones that are relevant to the task at hand. “You can deal with them later but just put these in a separate pile or box for now,” said Vande Krol. “Getting these objects out of sight will keep them from distracting you in the short term.” Moving on from there, the goal is to get rid of any items that aren’t actually useful. Vande Krol suggests keeping three types of objects on your desk: things you are currently working on, objects that help you be productive (computers, staplers, and planners), and items that inspire you (so that “Hang In There, Kitty” poster can stay). Anything else can probably be trashed or filed away for future reference.
Of course, old habits die hard and keeping up such a system is no easy task. Vande Krol recommends making sure you assess new items as they come in, to keep them from adding height to your pile. It may be tough at first, but just like any new habit—be it hitting the gym or remembering to call your mother—it gets easier with time.