We investigate whether the whole "cluttered desk, cluttered mind" thing is real—and how to deal with it if your space is a hot mess

By Julia Malacoff
January 09, 2017
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January is all about fresh starts and taking the time to accomplish things you didn't get the chance to do last year-like maybe finally dealing with your messy, cluttered desk at the office. In honor of National Clean Off Your Desk Day today (yep, that's real), we decided to find out: How important is it really to your productivity and quality of work to have a clean and orderly desk situation? Does a cluttered desk actually equal a cluttered mind? (BTW, these nine "time-wasters" are actually productive.)

Are You a Minimalist or a Messy Worker?

Research on the topic is somewhat conflicting. While studies have shown that a messy desk can encourage creativity and even increase productivity, research also acknowledges that for more precise, detail-oriented work, an organized work space is much more beneficial. Your preference for messy or clean may also come down to personality, says Jeni Aron, professional organizer and founder of Clutter Cowgirl in NYC. "A desk is a highly personal environment," says Aron. "Some people LOVE having many materials on their desk at all times; it makes them feel alive and connected to their work."

Often writers, artists, and academics enjoy this kind of environment because their notes and papers can actually spark new ideas. The problem, though, is when a person starts to feel unproductive because of their desk area. "Unfinished projects and missed deadlines are two indicators of not having a productive office environment," she says. So basically, ask yourself if your work is suffering or you feel overwhelmed despite a reasonable scheduele. It could be that pile of notepads, boxes, or other stuff piling up on and around your desk. (One writer stopped multitasking for an entire week to see if it improved her productivity. Find out.)

Another important thing to consider? The vibe your desk is giving off to everyone else in your office. "Presenting yourself as an organized, confident, and together person is obviously quite crucial in an office dynamic," says Aron. "It is also physically challenging to have meetings in a cluttered office. People might not feel relaxed or at the peak of their performance when their eyes are darting everywhere seeing your mess with nowhere to set down even a cup of coffee." You want your coworkers, and especially your boss, to know you have it together-even if your desk is a hot mess.

How to Organize Your Work Space

On the other hand, it's sometimes less important that your desk is organized than it is that your actual work is organized. "Having an organized work space is important, but what's even more important is tailoring the organization of your work space to the organization of your work," says Dan Lee, director at NextDesk, a maker of power adjustable desks. He suggests thinking about the way you successfully get things done and the tools that make you feel most productive before tackling any desk reorganization project. For example, "If you never use paper notebooks or printouts, why are they taking up valuable desk real estate?" he says. Instead, focus on making sure you have the tools you need to actually make progress, since that's much more important than how your desk looks aesthetically. Aron agrees, noting that "having the ability to set up a system that works for who you are now-whether you're a pile person or a file person-will encourage you to go through each day in a systematic and orderly way." And that's what really matters, right? As long as you're getting your work done to the best of your ability, you should be free to choose whatever organizational system (or lack thereof) that you want. (Here, read up on the physical and mental health benefits of organization.)

According to Lee, there are two approaches you can take to reorganizing your work life. "One is the idea of doing a single-day deep clean, where you set aside a whole day (or at least an afternoon) to take everything off your desk and out of your drawers, clean all the surfaces, and put things back in an organized fashion," he says. This might not be possible or practical for everyone, especially if you have a really hectic work schedule, so the other approach is more gradual. "Take 10 minutes at the start or end of each workday to toss unneeded papers, wipe down any crumbs or coffee rings, and put office supplies back where they belong," he suggests.

Aron suggests taking your daily social media time (approximately 50 minutes for the average American-and that's just on Facebook) and dedicating that time to your office clutter instead. The first step is to sit and decide how you would like to feel in your office, whether that's at home or at work, she says. "Productive? Relaxed? Energized? You can use this feeling as your guideline for how to drive yourself toward making decisions about your stuff." And instead of blocking off an entire weekend or day to get it done, schedule 30- to 60-minute intervals a couple of times a week until you get your space how you want. (Now that your desk is all set, you might want to get a head start on all that spring cleaning with these simple ways to declutter your life.)