Minimalism at work: why—and how—to declutter

Albert Einstein, as famously disheveled as he was brilliant, quipped, “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” While he’d clearly taken to heart the grammar rule against ending a sentence with a preposition, Einstein was more of a rule-breaker when it came to organization. And he got a lot accomplished, so clutter must be an OK work environment for the rest of us, right? Well…not so fast.

Clutter isn’t doing us any favors

A study done by the Princeton Neuroscience Institute found that when we have a larger amount of visual stimulus, like a messy desk or office, it creates competition for our attention—so, whether we’re conscious of it or not, our brains are trying to make sense of all that visual “noise.” And while our minds are occupied with clutter, it leaves us less brain space for filtering information, switching between tasks, and maintaining focus.

A recent experiment reveals that a neat environment encourages people to stick with a challenging task 1.5 times longer than those exposed to a messy environment, suggesting that clutter can reduce our self-regulation—the ability to direct ourselves to do the things we know we should.

And one survey estimates that the productivity lost while we’re looking for misplaced items is costing companies $89 billion a year. And in that same survey, 87% admitted that when their workspace is disorganized they feel less productive.

Clutter can be digital, too

Those of you with neater desks probably have digital technology to thank. After all, who needs the hard copy when you have it stored on your hard drive? But with all of our devices and accounts, it can still get mighty messy. Without some kind of logical system, it’s as hard to find what you need on your company’s servers as it is to find in a stack of paper on your desk. And that leads back to lost time, frustration, and distraction from what you were trying to do in the first place.

Ready to declutter your physical and digital spaces? Here are some strategies that can help—and help free up some mental space to boot.

1. Touch tasks only once

This applies to routine tasks, uncomplicated emails, and hard copies alike. If you’re looking at it, deal with it right then and there—file it, finish it, delegate it, or discard it. This makes you more productive, and also keeps the small things from piling up and adding to the clutter.

2. Shut down smarter

Take 15 minutes at the end of the day to tidy up, organize your space, and make a list of what needs to be done tomorrow. You’ll be more prepared in the morning, and it’s also a good method to detach from work and clear your brain.

3. Deal with your inbox

Though it may take some initial thought and setup time, decluttering your inbox will save you in the long run. Got 137 unread emails? Check out how your email software can help you manage in the future—some let you to mark emails for follow-up, send specified emails directly to an appropriate folder, or delete older emails automatically. And make it a habit to immediately delete email that doesn’t need a response or isn’t relevant to you.

4. Get rid of things you don’t use

Take a look around. Is everything in your space necessary? What about the bookshelf that holds those outdated marketing materials? The box of files that was here when you started? The overflowing office supplies that’ll last you until 2030? If you haven’t used it in the last six months, find a new home for it.

5. Get a filing system

Store paper documents inside a filing cabinet or drawer, rather than where you can see them. Remember that not everything is worth saving—if you have a digital copy, do you really need a hard copy as well? And don’t let your filing cabinet become a graveyard—take stock a few times a year, and recycle or shred anything that’s not essential.

If your team shares server space, become an advocate for a logical filing system so that it’s clear where the important files are stored and what they should be named. You could be saving everyone a whole lot of time—and heartburn.

6. Clear your desk(top)

If you’ve got documents, folders, and shortcuts scattered all over your desktop, plus printouts, sticky notes, and lunch on your actual desk, that visual clutter is slowing you down. And just knowing you have a system for filing and stowing all your important information will be a weight off your mind. Check out one writer’s process—and the “after” desktop photo she took. It just might lower your blood pressure.

Clutter can easily become a habit in a busy work environment, but, with a little focus, so can organization. Take the time to really see your spaces, both digital and physical, and think about where you can declutter to create the greatest boost on your efficiency—and your mood.
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