How Clutter Cramps Your Productivity

Want to get more done? Princeton neuroscientists say it’s time to clear your desk.

How Clutter Cramps Your Productivity

Need a reason to purge your workspace? Writing on the ooomf blog, Mikael Cho gives us a good one: clutter makes you less productive.


How so? Because, as Princeton neuroscientists found out, the more stuff you have around you, the more each piece of stimulation competes for “neural representation”–that is, your attention.

So the more clutter you have, the harder it is for you to filter information, switch between tasks, maintain your working memory, and otherwise focus on your work.

Why? Unclutterer captures a cluttered experience well:

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.

To defray that frustration, then, we need to take care of the clutter that accumulates–otherwise it can become a messy kind of debt. But, as Cho notes, not everybody has the same picture of a productive desk.

Everyone’s tolerance for clutter is different,” Cho writes. Researchers have found that a totally spotless space can be read as a “dormant” area, an unlovingly unused space where no thinking gets done.

The key, then, is to realize the optimal amount of random stuff you want to have around you to get your best work done–so long as you’re not going to use your work floss while you’re sitting at your desk.

Hat tip: ooomf


[Image: Flickr user Caden Crawford]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.