National Clean Off Your Desk Day: Exploring the Link Between Clutter, Stress and Productivity

Jan. 19, 2021


Do you have a desk or dedicated work space at your job, or even in your home office? If you do, take a moment to examine it the next time you’re using it.

What does it look like? Is the surface clean and ready for use, or is it covered in dust and dirt? Is it tidy and well organized, or are there papers, writing utensils and other supplies scattered about haphazardly? Most importantly, when you look at it at the beginning of your day, does it make you feel calm and ready to get to work or stressed and ready to go back to bed?

The second Monday of every January is National Clean Off Your Desk Day, an invitation to begin the new year right by tidying up our work space. This isn’t just for the sake of cleanliness, however. Maintaining an organized desk or work space can help us focus on our work—and it can even have beneficial effects on our mental health and wellness.

In this blog post, we’ll explain how a simple task like cleaning off your desk can have a significantly positive effect on our peace of mind. A neat, clutter-free work space can be beneficial in two main ways: by decreasing stress and increasing productivity.

Clutter, the Enemy of Calm


We often associate stress—in this case, the negative form of stress, which is called “distress”—with high-stakes situations or demands on our attention. Think of an important job interview, a heated argument with a family member, or even a big date with a romantic partner, and you’ll know the discomfort that stress can create.

However, even a chaotic environment can cause us stress if we spend a lot of time in it. For example, one scientific study found that women who described their homes as cluttered also had heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In addition, “Women with higher stressful home scores had increased depressed mood over the course of the day, whereas women with higher restorative home scores had decreased depressed mood over the day,” the authors wrote.

Living in a state of chronic stress is not only unpleasant, but it can also have negative long-term effects on physical and mental health. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress may lead to anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleeping problems, weight gain, or impairment of memory and concentration.

Finally, a cluttered home environment can even negate the psychological sense of well-being that our home normally provides. “We conceptualize psychological home as a reflection of one’s need to identify self with a physical environment,” wrote the authors of one research study. “Findings reveal that…Clutter had a negative impact on psychological home and subjective well-being.”

This last point is especially relevant for the home offices and work-from-home environments that have become more common since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

How Chaotic Environments Affect Productivity


Working in a messy environment doesn’t just make us more susceptible to stress; it can also affect our ability to concentrate on our work. This can make us less productive than we would otherwise be in a clean, well-organized work space.

Human beings can only pay attention to so many things at once. For example, it’s often said that people can only hold 5–9 items or ideas in our short-term memory. According to the authors of a study on visual working memory, we can typically remember the details of three or four visual objects at a time, but this number decreases when other objects in our visual field distract us.

In short, items in our work space that are unrelated to the work we’re doing can pull our attention away from the things we ought to be focusing on. Some people are naturally good at ignoring these distractions, but other people aren’t quite so good at this. As the authors of the above study write, “Individuals [with high working memory capacity] actively suppress salient distractors, whereas low-capacity individuals are unable to suppress salient distractors in time to prevent those items from capturing attention.”

Whether you have a relatively large or small visual working memory, there’s a simple way to improve your focus: by removing unimportant items from your view. Another study on attention and the visual field found that “attentional modulation was greatest when neural competition was little influenced by bottom-up [stimulus driven] mechanisms.” In other words, it’s easiest to focus our attention on a task when there are fewer objects in our line of sight.

As it turns out, then, there is some truth to the old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Fewer items in our view means fewer distractions and a greater ability to focus on our work.

Tips and Suggestions for Cleaning Off Your Desk


So you’ve decided that your desk or work space could use some tidying up, but what should that look like, exactly? How can you transform something that makes you feel stressed and distracted into something that makes you feel calm and focused?

Here are a few simple steps you can follow to put your work space in order:

  1. Remove everything from your desk or work space. While it’s cleared off, use a rag and cleaning solution to wipe away any dust, dirt and grime. This will ensure that your new work space is not only organized, but also clean!
  2. Take stock of everything that was on your desk. Think carefully about what you actually need on your desktop and what you don’t need.
  3. Replace all items that you truly need on your desktop each day. As you do so, wipe down hard surfaces with your rag and cleaning solution. You should also be sure to organize the items so you’ll know where to find them later. Group similar items into categories such as writing utensils, paper documents, and office supplies, and place them on your desk neatly.
  4. If there are any items that you still need for work but don’t necessarily need on your desktop, file them away in a drawer or other storage area. Again, clean each item before you put it away, and try to store everything in a logical, organized manner.
  5. Throw away any items that you no longer need for your work. If you don’t need them anymore, there’s no sense hanging onto them!
  6. Finally, if you use a computer for your work, take the time to clean off your virtual desktop, as well. Group your application icons neatly, consolidate infrequently used shortcuts into folders, and delete any shortcuts that you no longer need.

Any environment that we spend considerable time in can have an effect on our mental health, and our work environment is one that many people encounter frequently! Cleaning off your work space is a small thing anyone can do to decrease the amount of stress and distraction they experience in their work environment. We encourage you to start your year off right by tidying up your work space and seeing if you notice a difference in your peace of mind. You might be surprised!


Looking for more tips to help you manage and bolster your mental wellness? You might enjoy our blog posts on “flow” and WRAP below!