Could the items on your desk be hurting your productivity? Experts say yes. Whether it’s creating clutter that makes it hard to find what you need or providing a distraction that ruins your focus, the items you keep nearby have an impact on your work performance.
“Visual clutter can be incredibly distracting,” says productivity, time management, and leadership coach Alexis Haselberger. “People think it blends into the background, but it really doesn’t. With my coaching clients, we often speak about what to keep, and not keep, on your desk.”
A UCLA study found that when we’re in a cluttered space, our cortisol levels rise, heightening our fight-or-flight response and stress levels. Clutter overloads your senses, just like multitasking overloads your brain, causing you to feel stressed out and anxious. This can lead to distraction and inability to focus, says Haselberger.
Another way messy desks can affect your productivity is through wasted time. The average American spends 2.5 days a year looking for misplaced items, according to a study by the location app Pixie.
What to keep on your desk
So, what should you keep on your desk if you want to be productive?
“Nothing—or at least as little as possible,” says Erin Clark, who writes the productivity blog Refined Revelry. Most of the time her desk only has her computer on it—and probably a cup of coffee.
If that’s too extreme, Haselberger recommends keeping your desk streamlined to these items:
- Your computer, mouse, and keyboard
- A pad of paper and a pen, to jot down a note when you have a thought or to help you think through a project if you are a “paper person”
- A beverage
- Tools you use on a regular basis that you would otherwise waste time getting up to access, such as a stapler, tape, or scissors
“If you can keep these off the surface of your desk and in a desk drawer, that’s even better,” says Haselberger. “The clearer the surface, the easier it will be to focus.”
Lucidchart, a project-management platform, recently polled more than 1,000 U.S.-based office workers and compared the desks of productive “go-getters” to less productive “coasters.” Productive people are 9% more likely to keep sticky notes on their desks, 9% more likely to have a photo of their children, and 8% more likely to keep healthy snacks on their desks.
What to keep off of it
It’s counterintuitive, but the first thing that has to go is your phone, suggests Haselberger.
“Keep it in your bag or purse,” she says. “Or keep it in your desk drawer if you need it at the ready. Our phones are one of our biggest distractors, and it’s not enough just to turn it on silent. We want it to be out of sight and out of mind because we are so used to mindlessly checking our phones. Put your phone away, and you will instantly see productivity gains.”
Clark agrees. She’s intentional about keeping her phone off her desk unless the task she’s doing requires it.
She also keeps her to-do list put away. “This one surprises people, but I want to be focusing on the task at hand, not everything else I’m going to have to work on later,” she says. “I’m so easily distracted and stressed out by clutter, so I make sure there’s none in my field of vision.”
Also, keep messy papers off your desk surface. Put those in a pile, tucked away in a desk drawer. “For focus, you want a clear surface,” says Haselberger.
The best way to design a desk that makes you your most productive is to remove everything and add back only what you need and use.
“When I’m working, I want 100% of my focus to be going to the task at hand,” says Clark. “That means clearing my desk of all possible distractions.”