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Productivity in the Office: A One-Step Program

If cleanliness is next to godliness, then an uncluttered office is Nirvana.

My office is a mess. There, I said it. As they say, to fix a problem, you need to recognize that you have one.

I have a stand-up desk that has gone unused for days because the papers covering it will fall all over the place if I raise it. With hard-stop deadlines looming on multiple fronts, I can’t concentrate, can’t get any work done, can’t get through that to-do list faster than I add to it. I’m starting to panic. Even my desktop is overflowing with digital files and folders. Deep down, I sense that I would be more productive if I just cleaned up my office.

Intuition is great, but I wanted to see if there was any truth to the idea that an uncluttered office boosts productivity.

What is the psychology behind the idea that a clean office will make you more productive, or even, that a clean, clutter-free home and workspace makes you happier?

The naysayers out there will point to Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Mark Twain, all of whom were notorious for having messy and cluttered desks. I guess if you consider yourself on par with the creative genius of these guys, you can probably stop reading. For the rest of us, however, carry on.

You may have heard of the international bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. With detailed guidance for keeping only items that spark joy, the author promises that her KonMari method will help you “clear your clutter and enjoy the unique magic of a tidy home—and the calm, motivated mindset it can inspire.”

Great advice, but what about my office?

In a Huffington Post article touting the psychological benefits of what is actually called “Kondoing” your space, tidiness can help many stay focused and organized, relieving stress. Can’t we all do with a little less stress?

Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute concluded that when your environment is cluttered, the chaos of that cluttered environment interferes with your ability to focus and process information. Published in "The Journal of Neuroscience," their results showed that constant clutter is distracting, frustrating, and stressful. Many studies show a link between clutter and anxiety and depression.

So the answer is yes—clean that office!

The secret of Kondo’s method is to “start by discarding. Then organize your space, thoroughly, completely, in one go.” Read her book, and you’ll be spending the weekend gathering all of your clothes (then books, then papers) from every nook and cranny of your house, sorting them by function, and spreading them out on the floor. One by one you’ll pick up each item and intuit whether it brings you joy or not. Those that bring joy are kept; anything that does not bring joy absolutely must go. Before you know it, 80 to 90 percent of the clutter that surrounds you will be gone.

Now in an office, you may have to alter the idea of an object bringing joy. Those budget worksheets may not bring me joy, but I might need them. Criteria aside, I’m fascinated by the idea of purging and organizing in one big, earthshattering session—once and for all. Kondo insists that if you do it her way, it will transform your life.

Looking around my office, with just one room to tend, I think how long could it take? Most of what I have to deal with is paper. Although there is all that digital clutter, too . . . But there’s no dearth of advice on how to manage all that paper and digital information, post-purge. I imagine feeling transformed, feeling freer, happier, calmer—and ready to get through that to-do list in no time.

Take a deep breath, clean your office, and conquer the world!

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