Across the years, I have found myself a little envious of people who are naturally organized. For example, I remember being in awe of one of my coaching clients who mentioned that her closet is color-coded, her pantry is alphabetized, and that her filing system includes printed labels, dated ticklers, and elaborate and systematic use of sticky notes. I have also occasionally found myself looking through Real Simple magazine, fascinated by the pictures of makeovers of refrigerators, closets, and even bulletin boards.
Why the fascination, you ask? The truth is, I am someone who wasn’t born with the organization gene. (My new year’s resolution to keep my bedroom clean dates back to elementary school). Although the demands of graduate school, work with senior executives, and having a family have definitely caused me to up my game in the organizing department, the truth is, these are skills that I consistently have to work on.
Intuitively, something always told me that there were benefits to organization and a lack of clutter, and recently, I’ve discovered that science also backs up what my gut was telling me. So, if you, like me, could benefit from some additional motivation to stay organized, read on to learn what the research says:
1. Clutter reduces your ability to focus
In one study, Princeton researchers conducted fMRIs on the brains of research subjects as they completed tasks requiring attention. In the different experimental conditions, the amount of visual stimuli to which people were exposed was varied, to see how it would affect their ability to perform the task. The researchers found that the more visual distractions that were present, the more the subjects’ attention was hampered. In other words, having to ignore visual distractions took mental energy, and this caused the subjects to perform more poorly on the task. Bottom line? If you need to focus, you will likely be better able to do so in a calm and clean environment.
2. An uncluttered environment can cause you to make healthier choices
In another study, subjects completed questionnaires at either an orderly desk or a messy desk, and then were offered the choice of an apple or candy on their way out the door. Those who had been at the clean desk were three times more likely to choose the apple, suggesting that the clean environment promoted other desirable behaviors.
3. A clean desk is associated with more generous behavior
In the same study, subjects were also given the opportunity to donate to charity. While only 47% of those in the the cluttered environment donated their own money, 82% of those in the clean environment made charitable donations. So, if you could stand to be more giving, an organized environment might help you out.
4. Clutter can be related to stress
A UCLA study of families found that increased clutter in the home was associated with higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in women. (Men, however, were unaffected). For me, the results of this study beg the question as to whether the clutter itself was associated with the stress levels, or the different sexes’ attitudes about a messy environment (and perhaps, who was supposed to clean it up) caused the different reactions. Still, the takeaway is that for women, cleaner surroundings are associated with greater wellbeing (so, even if it doesn’t bother you personally, if you are a man in a relationship with a woman, make sure to pick up after yourself)!
5. Clutter can decrease productivity
While I don’t have an article to back this one up, I think we can all intuitively agree that clutter can frequently cause inefficiency. The time you are spending looking for a lost email or misplaced file is time you could be devoting to other constructive work (or even relaxation). Having organized surroundings reduces the odds that you will find yourself spending unnecessary time tracking down your things.
What to Do About Clutter
With the caveat that I make no claims of being an organizing guru, here are a few strategies that work for me:
1. Get rid of unnecessary clutter
Periodically, I will go through my closet, desk, or other offending area and get rid of items I no longer need. I have found that asking myself the question “Does this still serve me?” and answering honestly lets me know if I should toss, donate, or keep each item.
2. Declutter in phases
My husband has 14,583 unread emails in his inbox (Unfortunately, this is not an exaggeration). As you might imagine, the thought of sorting through those emails is a pretty daunting task for him. If however, he decided to go through, say, 2,000 a day until he got through them all, that would make the task seem much more doable. So, to avoid overwhelm, break down your decluttering projects into manageable sections, and before you know it, you will have dealt with the mess. (As an aside, I also just discovered an awesome website called unroll.me that allows you to unsubscribe to unwanted emails in one fell swoop. Needless to say, he put that to good use)!
3. Have a dedicated space for important items
While organizing experts suggest having a place for everything, I have found that it is more practical and realistic for someone like me to ensure that my high use or important items have specific locations. That way, I can easily find my keys, essential files, and official documents.
4. Do it now
While it can be nice to rationalize that you will “get to it later,” odds are that if you let the stack of files pile up on your desk, you may not get to them until much later (like when you are engaging in step two above, dealing with a much bigger job). Guard against procrastination by taking the few seconds required to hang up the sweater, throw away the piece of paper, or put the file in its place. Doing so will keep your environment cleaner, which as we learned above, promotes healthier, more constructive behaviors.
Finally, if you’ve read all of this information, convinced that it would be a good idea to deal with your clutter, but are unsure if you will be able to keep it up, take heart! Although orderly environments encourage people to stick with convention and do what is expected of them, research has shown that messy environments are associated with more creativity. So leave your desk messy, innovate, and call it a day!
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These valuable tips are all based on research, and my 10+ years of experience working with successful senior executives.