Is clutter cramping your clarity at work?

If you're having a hard time focusing on the job, the solution might be simpler than you think. Researchers have long known the negative effects of physical clutter. It makes sense, when you think about it. If you have a messy desk with papers and paraphernalia strewn all over it, these distractions in your visual field can hijack you from the task at hand. A study from the Princeton Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University found that physical clutter (like desk disorganization) limits how well your brain processes information by wearing down your mental resources.

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Perhaps you're leaving things out on your desk or scattered around your office because you think you'll forget about them if you file them away. There's a problem with this clutter-as-reminder strategy, though. If your mind is pulled into thinking about the various tasks symbolized by each piece of paper surrounding you, then you're sacrificing the opportunity to direct your brain's full processing power toward your most important projects.

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Photo credit: Microsoft Word
Photo credit: Microsoft Word
Photo credit: Microsoft Word
Photo credit: Microsoft Word
Photo credit: Microsoft Word
Photo credit: Microsoft Word
Photo credit: Microsoft Word
Photo credit: Microsoft Word
Photo credit: Microsoft Word

Don't waste any more time trying to decide whether or not you should clear your office clutter – if you're reading this article, then you already know you have a clutter problem. Here are some clutter-clearing steps that can help quickly restore the mental clarity that you need to do your best work:

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  • Simplify your stuff. Often half the problem when it comes to clutter is that you're just saving too much of everything. No matter what type of job you do, you likely have paperwork that accumulates each week that can quickly become overwhelming unless you make a point of thinning it out on a monthly basis. Be ruthless as you tackle this organizational task, and don't file away papers that you'll never need again. Also think through whether your case of "too muchness" applies to other areas as well, such as keeping around more coffee cups or office supplies than you need. By reducing the number of things on and around your desk, and hanging onto just what's really required to do your job, you'll instantly improve your ability to focus.
  • Out of sight, out of mind – literally. Instead of leaving Post-it notes and other visual cues scattered all over your desk and affixed to your computer monitor, use your files and drawers to organize these reminders "off-site," so to speak. Since your goal is to avoid visual distraction on your work surface, you can safely store away your paperwork and other tchotchkes without these things distracting your workflow. Don't grow too complacent about your filing system, though. Stay on top of this hidden organization as well so that you don't max out your limited office storage space too quickly – otherwise, these items may find themselves back on your desk.
  • Don't leave it half done. Procrastination can fuel clutter if you're not finishing your projects and then leaving them out on your desk in an incomplete state. While it may be difficult to always complete a task by the end of the day, see if you can designate a time to get the job done and put it on your calendar. In the meantime, whether it's a computer file that you still need to work on or a paper report in a folder, file it away to avoid the visual and mental drain that half-finished projects can cause.
  • Clear back to zero every day. It takes a little extra time, but if you save five or ten minutes at the end of each workday to "clear to zero" and file everything away, then you'll start the next morning with a fresh desk. Even if there are certain papers, tools and supplies that you reuse regularly, putting things away when you're done with them ensures that you never begin your workday by walking into the clutter zone.
  • Ditch digital distractors. It's not just what's on your actual desk that can be distracting, but what's on your computer desktop, too. If you can hardly see the desktop background on your computer monitor because you have so many files and folders saved on it, then it's time to do some digital housekeeping. Organize your files so that you're only dealing with a few key folders on your desktop, with the others housed within them so that they aren't in your immediate view. And if you're being distracted by too many alerts and tweets, shut off your notifications when you're working.

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While you may think you're making things easier on yourself via the visual triggers that comprise your desktop clutter, you're actually losing more efficiency than you're gaining. By choosing the route of order and consistency over confusion and chaos, you can cut through the clutter that's cramping your clarity.

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