How Clutter Affects Your Productivity, And What You Can Do About It



I read many blogs to get inspired, learn, and see what other people are doing. I’ve noticed that more people have been writing about productivity over the past few years. This makes sense because, as entrepreneurs and business owners, we always look for ways to improve our productivity – or get more done in a shorter time. I often see posts and articles focusing on apps, devices, open offices, and other external technologies to help increase productivity. Such things are often helpful. For example, you can increase your productivity by not snoozing your alarm every morning. However, when we rely only on external assistance to help us solve a problem or achieve a goal, we are only partially helping ourselves.

The truth is that we must learn how to rely on ourselves to strengthen our own weaknesses because we created those weaknesses or at the very least, allowed them to fester. For example, when it comes to productivity, timers and to-do lists rarely can change what happens inside our brains. After all, we easily trick ourselves into thinking that being busy is the same as being productive. John Jantsch, a leading small business marketing expert, explains:

I think a lot of entrepreneurs fall into the trap of being busy and calling it being productive. Busy is really easy – productive is really hard.

Busy is checking email, reading Facebook and listening to podcasts. Now, some of that may actually be productivity inducing, but real productivity is probably more like focusing on important strategic relationships, finishing that new product or completing the proposal for that new client.

Fortunately, science can help us uncover productivity gains that we typically ignore. For example, psychologists and researchers have discovered that one stands out among external factors that impact our productivity: clutter.

In an article for The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute published results from a study on organized and cluttered living:

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.

The researchers discovered that when there was too much stuff in sight, people had a significantly and measurably more difficult time being productive. This translates into lower levels of productivity and even more clutter. Basically, clutter caused people to lose focus and brain processing power – even when they were accustomed to working in a messier area.

Why should you care?

Think about your workspace. It’s not uncommon to walk into an office and see desks with laptops, pens, paper, notepads, trinkets, glasses, coffee mugs, and more covering the top of the desk. All those things piled up and laying around are causing your brain to have to work overtime during the workday when you need it to focus. Your messy desk is disabling your ability to work at your maximum productivity.

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But it doesn’t just stop with your desk. We often hold onto lists, information, and problems – uselessly crowding our brains with too much thought. June Saruwatari, author of Behind the Clutter explains that mental clutter is just as bad for your productivity as is physical clutter. She warns that even when you put physical clutter away, it doesn’t really go anywhere:

If you put it into a closet and shut the door, you are still carrying that with you. It’s important to get to the root cause of that one item and not just shove it under the rug.

Saruwatari explains that mental clutter is often caused when you clear physical clutter but don’t necessarily deal with it. This couldn’t be more true – especially for busy business owners and entrepreneurs who find themselves multitasking with endless tasks. Sometimes putting away those notes from the meeting you still have to review doesn’t help, especially if that stays on your mind for the rest of the day until you complete the task. For this reason, Saruwatari suggests a mental dump 1-2 times a day. This translates into creating a to-do list each morning and prioritizing it. Then, at the end of each day, a moment of reflection and reorganization of the to-do list. Since it’s impossible to get everything done in one day, it’s crucial that we can keep everything in its own mental container, only opening the lid when we are ready to deal with it.

In fact, even how we dress can help. Becky McCray, a leading expert on rural small business, writes:

You’ll get more work done when you’re dressed professionally. Why? Because you feel different. You feel more professional when you are dressed to match.

I even find shoes make a difference. If I’m wearing shoes, I get more done than if I’m relaxed with my shoes off. Weird, huh? But it works.

Psychology helps us to understand that we can game our own brains to be more productive. So whether it is physical or mental (or both), how you set yourself up for your day truly determines how productive you will be. By taking a few extra minutes out of our day to organize ourselves physically and mentally, we will find ourselves making up for those minutes (and more!) when we become more productive.

Image credit: Swati

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