Clear desk, clear mind: Why you should be mindful of your working environment

Clear desk, clear mind

As we speak, I am sitting in a room that used to be my office but that now resembles a dog kennel. Blankets on the floor, toys scattered around and shredded paper everywhere. Next to me a snoring puppy. Speaking about “practice what you preach”… this room is an utter mess!

This is thankfully only a temporary situation as I have agreed to foster a puppy for a couple of weeks. But the effect this chaos has on me really highlighted how an environment has the power to influence the people in it. A good reason why we should be mindful of our working spaces.

A home for everything

Tidying has been all the rage as of late due to a few very popular self-development books that heavily promoted the connection between the state of your environment and the state of your mind. I have grown a little tired of the all-white, very aesthetic living spaces I see on social media, but I, too, am a believer that my living/working space and my productivity, motivation and thought processes are interdependent.

And I am not talking about my temporary puppy chaos – I am talking more about the underlying structure of, in this case, a working space. A structure needs to be in place to make the room tidy. It is far easier to keep something in order if that state “in order” is somewhat defined. Or in self-development book words: If everything in the space has a home.

The benefits of a structured workplace

There are the very practical benefits of a structured workplace like the time saved looking for things or the representative effect of a well maintained set up. But there are also emotional effects tied to the state of the workplace. Frustration levels, for example, can rise in a messy place, stemming from either not being able to find or use the thing one is after or from negative emotions attached to the mess like shame, guilt or pressure. This all promotes more stress and less motivation.
In general, a structured workplace and easy access to everything is more likely to promote feeling on top of the game or, taking it a step further, in control of the situation.

A very personal example of this for
me are wires. Tangled wires that connect who-knows-what to something will for sure rub me all the metaphorically wrong ways. Let’s say a device is acting up, I don’t quite understand why, it needs to be unplugged and I have to spend ages crouched under some piece of furniture, twisting my arm to reach what I think is the correct cable. This, for me, is a recipe for disaster. I will feel like the situation is controlling me, not the other way around. Just like me and the wires, everyone has their own personal triggers that make it seem as if we’re not on top of things.

This doesn’t only go for the physical workplace by the way. The computer or other devices are an extension of the workplace and the effects of decluttering and structuring are just as present as in the analogue world.

And how does this affect me?

Going a bit deeper from the emotional benefits is where the productivity theory implications lie. When comparing a cluttered workspace to a more minimal workspace, for example, you will find that distractions will become fewer as well. For those of us working on a computer with the internet on our fingertips obviously, there will always be distractions if we allow them. But physical distractions will be reduced if we are mindful of the purpose of the space we’re in and which objects we allow into this area based on whether they serve this purpose or not.

It has been shown that creative people are more likely to come up with equally creative problem-solving ideas in a messy environment (*1). The non-existent coherence of the place promoted thinking outside of the established lines and more daring approaches. But for the average person in the average situation, clutter reduces the ability to focus on the task at hand and therefore lying down structures that encourage a clear desk space increase productivity.

We all have a certain amount of willpower. We wake up in the morning with all our available willpower and throughout the day this reservoir gets drained. Drained by the super simple decisions like getting out of bed or hitting snooze, eating porridge for breakfast or toast or what to wear that day. It also gets drained by the big events like that phone call, answering all of your emails and then your actual work tasks. Having to actively tidy a desk, effectively adding another chore to your day, will also drain your willpower battery. So will looking for things on that desk that you can’t find. Making it easy to tidy and first and foremost making it a habit to tidy up every day after work will reduce that effect. It becomes the normal thing to do when leaving the workspace. Again, these habits are also applicable to your computer, your desktop and the tabs and windows that you have open.

Healthy habits

That will make it easier to get started again the next day as well. Especially when you are trying to exercise other productivity techniques like setting out your to-do list the night before. There is little use in being poised for the day’s tasks because you created your action plan the night before and then not being able to get started because you need to prepare your desk first. That kills a lot of momentum. Productivity experts argue that “eating the frog”, meaning tackling the hardest item on your to-do list first thing, will make you more motivated and effective for the rest of the day. Don’t let your desk become that frog.

Once you’re there and a structured, clear working space has become one of your healthy habits, you can even take it further and rethink other factors of your environment like air flow, temperature, lighting or your chair. Not all of it will be in your power to control, especially if you are sharing an office space with other people, but the effects of these factors on your work can be profound in terms of well-being, patience and error rate.

In short, we spend a lot of time in our workspaces. Making that time more enjoyable can certainly up the quality of that time.
Minimal or personal – or somewhere in the middle? What does your working environment look like? Share it in the comment section!



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