Why Changing Your Desk Changes The Way You Work

To clutter or not to clutter? That is only one of many work-space issues. Let's go beneath the surface.

What you're working on is really important.

No, not the task on your to-do list—the actual surface that you're physically working on. Your desk.

As people are getting more mindful of their workdays, they're getting more mindful of their work spaces. Citing the dangers of Sedentary Death Syndrome, some won't stand for anything less than a standing desk: Hemingway stood in oversize loafers as he typed his stories, while HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes tells us that standing desks abound in his company's office.

But, of course, having an awesome desk isn't only a matter of sitting or standing. What's on it matters, too. Fast Company readers, being awesome, have shown us the importance of having dinosaurs, boundless walls, and a dose of Iron Maiden.

Another factor with the desk is your equipment: a gigantic calendar, we've learned, provides a landscape for you to plan your days—and an analog space for sketching ideas. Family photos keep you calm. And disinfectant wipes will keep things from getting too gross.

Correspondingly, the desk don'ts hinge on not being gross. Like:

  • Don't brush your hair, clip your nails, floss your teeth.
  • Don't broadcast your "edgy" beliefs.
  • Don't neglect the unavoidable scuzz.

Why do the desk do's and don'ts matter so much?

Because our environments affect us in ways we don't realize. If we're too cold, we can't concentrate, since our bodies have to spend energy heating themselves rather than solving problems. Similarly, our work spaces shape our mental spaces. As Erin Doland explains at Unclutterer, the random crap that accumulates on your desk is a distraction for a mind that's already prone to wandering:

The clutter competes for your attention in the same way a toddler might stand next to you annoyingly repeating, "candy, candy, candy, candy, I want candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy. . . . " Even though you might be able to focus a little, you're still aware that a screaming toddler is also vying for your attention. The annoyance also wears down your mental resources and you’re more likely to become frustrated.

[Image: Flickr user Ben Lipkowitz]

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53 Comments

  • dutchspartan

    Clutter certainly can be a distraction.  But let's talk about distractions, numerous experts on productivity like Jennifer Glass, Robbie Slaughter, and the good folks at Gensler have written about what a productivity thieves distractions are. They cite visual and auditory disruptions that are increasing with the removal of walls in offices set up for "benching." As much as we like selling benching solutions, too many studies say that increased distractions lead to lower productivity and that office workers are retreating to Starbucks or anywhere else they can go for  "heads-down-work time." 
    The solution that a lot of corporations and government agencies are turning to is an increase in home-officing or teleworking, where such distractions can be controlled if not eliminated. Providing people with the equipment they need....a commercial desk and chair, plus a computer can save their firms millions in terms of facility costs and productivity.         

  • Casper

    Cluttered desk = cluttered mind
    It goes same way for desktops, valets, wardrobe, to name few.  

  • Gerry Caden

    While there is merit and  common sense in sentiments expressed in the article,it ignores the fact that there is a move towards a standard desk or office, particularly amongst the larger organisations.
    The effect of this move is that , for instance, no family photos are allowed space on the desk or no favourites may be used as screensavers except for the official one ; the telephone must be located in the same place on each desk ,ditto for every other permitted piece of equipment.
    Any hint of individualism is to be " knocked out" of the office and "personalising" to be avoided/ frowned upon at all costs.
    Great pity and an inevitable spin off from political correctness gone mad. 

  • Chaz

    Our company built an new office building. Once we move, we were told very little personal stuff in new building. This is due to space issues AND  to reduce clutter. I expect to be working a lot more...

  • Nikaawa

    If I could just get one sentence and perhaps include a graphic. That would be a big step. That advance stuff for me is for later,  much later.

  • Craig

    forget your desk, unclutter your mailbox, way more effective at clearing your mind space,

  • Raven.Gypsy

    I need to unclutter my desk and my mailbox to get some peace.  The ease of communication these days is awesome but it does create a very big challenge for me.  Some day I hope to get a handle on it.

  • Yogesh Mhatre

    Yes I totally agree, a cluttered desk will keep you from being productive and will occupy most of your time searching for the exact item you are looking for, some people think that a cluttered desk might give an impression to the visitor that you are busy but I am of the opinion that it gives the visitor an impression about you as an unorganized person.

  • Raven.Gypsy

    Today I had a totally cluttered desk.  I started out the day with a sense of control over things then it was one thing after another, one intrusion after another and I let myself get swept into the maze.  It was not fun after awhile.  Before the end of the day I took some time to re-group and when I left, my desk was back to looking organized - yeh!  Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever get it... the not allowing myself to get swept into the maze - it seems one really has to close and perhaps lock their door to get anything done.

  • Ting

    I think tidy desk does good to me. but if someone thinks another desk is messy and  help  clean the desk, then maybe the holder would not find his/her files... ;different people has different opinions about the "messy / tidy desk", he/she thinks his/ her desk is tidy, that is tidy.

  • D_amymarie

    When I first went back to college, I centered the coffee table, with the laptop, printer in reach, and never knew there was a living room on the other side. I had to force myself to sit elsewhere. Otherwise, I always felt stressed, and compelled to be constantly involved with my school work. My ol'man calls it my "cockpit". Sigh. It really is hard to sit elsewhere. I think making another area of the living space "just for", helps get sleep at night. 

  • Baz

    i recently read that the more cluttered the desk the more creative the person? Sorry if that turns out to be hyberbole...

  • Angel Luis Cartagena

    The clutter competes for your attention in the same way a toddler might stand next to you annoyingly repeating, "candy, candy, candy, candy, I want candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy. . . . "

    If you have any brains, listen to the toddler.

  • Lois

    Personally, I like an uncluttered desk.  However, it not always that way.  There is one thing that I do, I keep a nice pad and about four pens set aside   just in case the boss says, "can I speak to you, please come into my office and bring a pad and pen.  I can always say to myself, 'hey, I'll got  this"