For a healthy mind, body and business

How your messy desk is affecting your brain

messy desk with clutter
Photo: Cottonbro

You may have heard the phrase: A tidy home means a tidy mind. The saying really does bear some truth so we ask how clutter affects your brain, and what can we do about it?

First, think about how you feel when everything is clean and tidy. Decluttering is not simply about getting rid, but about finding new joy in what you already have. It can free up space and breathe new life into forgotten objects.

There is a reason decluttering shows such as Sort Your Life Out or Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up Netflix show prove so popular. We gain a sense of satisfaction from seeing surfaces and rooms magically go from chaos to calm. It might be why Instagram accounts such as Effective Spaces have millions of followers. There is something not just mesmerising about the rhythmic folding or wrapping but also a pleasure from seeing the results. Our brains want more. There is a certain thrill from a beautifully-organised drawer or a colour-coded shelf. We might even feel motivated to do it ourselves.

You may know from personal experience, the precious minutes, even hours that can be spent hunting for a missing object. Whether it is keys that have been buried under paperwork or a phone that has slipped between cushions, it is infuriating and time wasting. It can have a huge ripple effect on how we feel and behave, causing anxiety, shame and stress.

The same of course applies to our workspaces and in particular our desks. We might lose minutes searching for pens, a particular notebook, a phone, or piece of paper that had that vital phone number or password scribbled on. Research commissioned by Samsung found in the UK the average person spends 140 days of their life looking for lost items – and can spend up to £5000 replacing them.

The Homeworker founder Louise Goss on improving your productivity at home

WATCH: Productivity distractions – how to ensure your environment does not make you less productive.

Part of a mini productivity series for subscribers. As part of this episode we share tips and simple ways to keep your workspace clutter free.

The impact of clutter on your brain

A good clear out can be therapeutic. It can even make you some money but interestingly, reducing clutter can have a significant impact on your cognitive load. Clutter can affect your brain and how in control you feel.

Our brains like order and clutter is a visual representation of disorder and chaos. Those piles of documents, the junk drawer bursting at the seams, the to-do lists and notes, have all been shown to heighten our cortisol levels, making us feel more stressed, particularly for women.

For some people, when their surroundings are a mess, life can feel in a state. It can prove harder to make an effort to dress well, stick to a routine, do the workout, or even eat well because, what is the point? Everything is a mess! This is not an uncommon thought spiral. Research shows that this mindset can lead to unproductive behaviours such as choosing more unhealthy foods to snack on. Clutter also makes it harder to relax, and as this article states, it tells us our work is never done.

When it comes to how we behave, another impact of clutter can be on our tendency to procrastinate. Clutter can draw our attention away from where we need our focus and with the time taken searching for missing items, it gives us more scope to become distracted. This study has shown the correlation between procrastination and how cluttered our homes are. When it feels overwhelming to start a task because things are too messy, avoiding it entirely might be more appealing.

READ: What type of procrastinator are you?

Clutter not only affects your brain and mental state. Research from Indiana University found those with tidier homes are also physically healthier, possibly as they are more active keeping their homes clean. It also posed the question: “Are the types of people who take care of their bodies the same types of people who take care of their homes?”

man on laptop sorting digital clutter
Photo: Karolina Grabowska

Simple steps to reduce digital clutter

The other clutter that can have a significant impact on our lives is digital clutter. Invisible to everyone apart from you as you search your devices, digital clutter affects your brain in a similar way to physical clutter.

How do you define digital clutter? Think of that messy desk top, those files all over the place, the thousands of photos, the overflowing email inbox. However, all of those items may still be necessary or useful at some point. “Clutter is anything that doesn’t serve you, doesn’t serve you in its current state, or doesn’t serve you in its current location,” says lifestyle coach and professional organiser, Jessica Barclay.

In a live talk with The Homeworker, Jessica shared a range of actionable tips to help restore order to your digital life. You can also apply these steps to physical clutter.

Steps to cope with clutter

Systemise: Simple processes that can help you keep on top of clutter. The key with digital clutter is to not let it accumulate but when it does, to not let it stop you taking action. Create simple systems that mean digital clutter doesn’t build up. This could include creating a series of folders or setting up automations for regular emails to your inbox.

Organise: Allocate time to sort, delete and organise so it becomes a part of your routine. This is taking time to save time. Schedule some time each day, week or month to go through and check your systems are working. You can use the time to delete photos and emails, reformat documents, or file items away.

Categorise: With systems in place, you can start to categorise your digital items and where they belong. From naming your folders and putting some structure into your naming conventions so things are easy to find, to thinking about where a particular item ‘lives’. Does the digital file need to be on your laptop, your desktop and your hard drive? Or can you access that item on the cloud?

Minimise: Stem the flow of digital clutter by minimising the avenues it can enter your life. Jessica suggests simple things we can do include unsubscribing from emails we no longer need, reducing the amount of unnecessary emails we send and being more conscious of what we save to the cloud rather than deleting it.

digital decluttering live talk with Jessica Barclay

Watch the full replay of the live webinar with Jess on decluttering your digital life.

Watch here in the Subscribers Lounge

About the author

Louise is an award-winning journalist and speaker who focuses on working from home, remote work and wellbeing. She is the founder of  The Homeworker, which is dedicated to helping you thrive when you work from home. The Homeworker publishes articles that are designed to keep you healthy, happy, fulfilled, and more productive in work and life.


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