Clutter is, by definition, a bad thing. In our homes, whenever we come across an overflowing magazine rack or the entire week’s stack of mail spread all over the dinner table, we tend to feel drained of energy and frustrated. Many times, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the perpetual struggle against the mountains of stuff lying around – unless the mess is invading our work space, where it’s actually considered by some scientists to be a good thing.
A 2013 study published in the Psychological Science magazine found that a desk overflowing with magazines, piles of papers, empty coffee mugs, and various objects stimulates creativity, promotes positive emotions, and encourages a problem-solving attitude. Three experiments were conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota analyzing the behavior of 34 participants asked to fill out questionnaires, half of whom were placed in a tidy room and the others in a room cluttered with books and papers. They concluded that being in a tidy room appeared to encourage people to follow stricter rules and do exactly what was expected of them, while participants working in the messy room seemed more open to challenges and a more creative way of thinking. Overall, both groups generated a similar number of ideas, but those belonging to the group in the messy room were rated as more interesting and creative.
Surprisingly, this theory confirms by looking at the workspaces of some of the most creative people in the world. Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, John Abell from Reuters and Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos all have astonishingly disorganized desks, and they seem to have made it work to their advantage. Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Mark Twain are also famous creative geniuses who were only able to concentrate in a free-spirited workspace not bound by order or discipline.
For other workers, however, clutter exhausts the mind and drains the spirit. The never-ending mess makes it hard for them to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their work day, at the same time strengthening procrastination, increasing stress and anxiety levels, and weakening decision-making skills. According to an in-depth 2011 study conducted by researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute, a cluttered environment limits workers’ ability to focus. From the report: “Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.”
Worse yet, the negative impact of clutter goes even further and can even influence colleagues’ perception of one’s professionalism based on the looks of his/her desk. After interviewing more than 1,000 workers, staffing firm Adecco concluded that over half of Americans (57 percent) judge coworkers by the look of their workspaces, most of them being appalled by the mess and displeased with their laziness. Because, according to vice president of recruiting for Adecco Jennie Dede, this is the conclusion most of them draw from looking at an untidy desk: “With so many open office plans today, more people can see into your workspace, and they do judge. It’s often personal. They think that you must be a slob in your real life.”
Clutter may have its benefits and can work to stimulate some workers’ creativity, inspiration, and open-mindedness, but it’s downright damaging for businesses, for various reasons:
– Clutter sets a bad precedent for your work: A messy desk affects workers’ productivity and motivation, preventing them from using their entire potential. It also influences clients’ perception of your business.
– Clutter wastes your time and energy: Trying to locate a file or item by searching through piles of stuff will waste your time, drain your energy, and also distract your attention.
– Clutter makes you feel miserable: Aside from directly decreasing your productivity and work performance, clutter can negatively affect your state of mind, making you less happy, more stressed, restless, and even angry.
– Clutter gives you an excuse to procrastinate: A cluttered work environment is full of endless distractions that could call you away from your tasks and cause you to lose precious time arranging and organizing things.
To get your life and business back from the claws of clutter, the most important thing is to understand that clutter is not about things, it’s about people and their interactions with things. Re-evaluating your belongings, throwing out old and useless items, organizing things by importance, finding and tackling the ‘problem’ spots, and giving everything on your workstation a suitable home will do wonders for your mental state and productivity.
Lynne Lemieux, Founder and President of Alliance Interiors Inc., has devoted more than 20 years of experience developing and implementing growth opportunities for some of Canada's leading office furniture dealers. Her ability to provide clients with inspiring and versatile interior solutions for both business and home office environments has garnered her title of Aboriginal Business Woman of the Year in the city of Toronto for 2012. In her spare time, Lynne takes an active interest in politics, public speaking, and philanthropy, but also enjoys gardening, interior decorating, cooking, yoga, and traveling.