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Does a Cluttered Work Environment Impact Your Productivity?

Everyone's relationship with clutter looks different, and so does their ability to thrive among the chaos of a messy desk.

By Joshua Rapp LearnFeb 14, 2024 8:00 AM
Messy and cluttered office desk
(Credit: thodonal88/Shutterstock)


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Anyone who spends their time in a messy office has likely heard it before: “I don’t know how you can work like this.”

And in some ways, it seems to make sense. Piles of junk have a way of capturing our attention, whether it’s the half dozen sticky notes, the empty coffee cup or the collection of bobbleheads behind your laptop. Then again, others swear they can’t operate without the pile of business cards and scores of open browser tabs. Some of us thrive in chaos.

But what does the science say about clutter and productivity? Does a clean, orderly environment produce good worker bees? Ultimately, that depends on whether you think it does or not, says Sabine Kastner, a neuroscientist at Princeton University.

“How a person deals with clutter depends a lot on how that individual’s attention system is set up to deal with clutter,” she says. “Each brain is different.”

How Do Our Brains Process Clutter?

Productivity isn’t an easy thing to test for empirically, Kastner says. But as a sort of proxy, she typically examines how our brains process visual information — or filter it out — in order to function.

At any given time, our brains filter out most of the things our eyes can see in order to focus on whatever interests us at a given moment. “From the perspective of a neuroscientist, we all live in an incredible mound of clutter,” she says.

For example, if this article you’re reading right now is indeed your focus, then you may not really be paying attention to the coffee cup sitting on your desk beside your laptop, or the cat behind your phone — your brain naturally filters all this background information out.

“The attention system actually operates on clutter,” Kastner says, and without a cluttered system, it wouldn’t operate at all. “We can only process relatively little information at one point in time.”

As a result, the filtering system in our brains helps us select important information, which then gets forwarded into a memory system for further processing.

Read More: Why Do We Hold On To Clutter?

How Have Our Brians Evolved to Filter Out Clutter?

This filtering system has been important for human brains for far longer than we've been sitting in cubicles trying to meet deadlines. The thing is, nature is cluttered. When the task at hand was to hunt our next meal, that meant navigating a cluttered environment, like a forest.

And in order to focus on foraging for the right berries, or capturing prey, our brains had to filter out the chaos around us, whether that meant buzzing insects, fluttering leaves or a host of other distractions.

Completing office tasks, however, is a little different than chasing down your next meal, and it's unclear how our ability to process visual information may have changed over time.

“Our brains are attuned to [clutter], but some brains may have lost some of that capacity in the modern world,” Kastner says. “It’s not about that level of survival anymore.” She also notes that it’s difficult to reconstruct our ancestor's precise conditions, so understanding how people filtered visual clutter in the past, and to what extent, is pure speculation.

In any case, the thing that best dictates our ability to focus in a cluttered environment is our ability to filter this other information out.

“Each brain is different,” Kastner says, adding that there is no scientific consensus about whether clutter impacts our ability to be productive. Some people thrive in it — namely Albert Einstein, who once asked: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Read More: How Our Ancient Brains Are Coping in the Age of Digital Distraction

Does Clutter Encourage Creative Thinking?

Still, clutter may be better for encouraging certain tasks, or even ways of thinking. In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers had participants complete different tasks in both cluttered and uncluttered offices.

The scientists found that those who worked in cluttered offices were more likely to choose a healthy snack and donate to charity after completing a survey. In other words, they did what they were supposed to do, said psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs in a press release at the time.

By contrast, those working in a cluttered office came up with more creative solutions to a problem presented to them. “Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of: creativity,” Vohs said.

Read More: Is a Messy Desk a Sign of Genius? Here's What the Science Says

Does Social Media Count as Visual Clutter?

Indeed, social media can be considered a more insidious form of visual clutter for those who prefer a cleaner, simpler work environment. “This is now a special form of clutter, it’s a high-level form of it,” says Kastner.

For the moment, neuroscientists don’t know as much about this kind of complex clutter as they do about simpler forms of visual clutter. Still, Kastner suspects that our ability to process a scrolling social media feed is also handled by our brain's filtering systems.

And just like other kinds of clutter, some people can likely filter it out (and ignore it) better than others.

Read More: What Is a Social Media Cleanse?

Should You De-Clutter Your Workspace?

If you do sometimes struggle to filter out distractions, Kastner says that working in a cleaner space may help you focus better on work.

Other fixes might include closing your blinds or curtains — that way, the visual clutter outside your window won't distract you as much. Turning off social media for a period of time can help, too.

In any case, Kastner says that it’s important to recognize whether you thrive among the chaos, or whether you prefer a tidy workspace, and adjust accordingly. The best part? It's likely something you already know.

“People figure that out very intuitively," she says. "They shouldn’t feel bad about it one way or another."

Read More: A Cluttered Room May be Impacting Your Sleep and Mental Health

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