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Your Desk Setup Could Be Hurting Your Mental Health: Here's What You Can Do About It

  • 5 min read

Your Desk Setup Could Be Hurting Your Mental Health: Here's What You Can Do About It

In the scope of a happy life, a messy desk or an overstuffed coat closet is a trivial thing, yet I find - and I hear from other people that they agree - that getting rid of clutter gives a disproportionate boost to happiness.” - Gretchen Rubin

You know the feeling: you have a rapidly approaching deadline at work, but you don’t even know where to begin. You feel overwhelmed. Your thoughts are disorganized and scattered. Although this feels like a purely mental battle, your frustration may actually have a much more physical cause. Look at your workspace: is it messy? Cluttered? If so, your workspace’s disarray may be partially responsible for your chaotic state of mind.

Lately, researchers have been investigating the correlation between workspace organization, productivity, and mental health. One such study, conducted by Grace Boyoun and Rui Zhu and published by The University of Chicago Press, found that a cluttered desk may lead to “self regulatory failure” or, in layman’s terms: your desk setup could be hurting your mental health.

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Is A Messy Desk Harmful To Productivity?

Here’s an illuminating (paraphrased) example from the same study: 100 people were asked to work on a challenging task. They worked on the task in two different environments: messy and neat. Those who worked in the neat environment were found to exert themselves for 1.5 times longer on the problem vs. those in the messy environment. Boyoun and Zhu concluded that those in the messy environment were more easily overwhelmed by the challenge than their neat counterparts.

That’s a pretty eye-opening phenomenon. We all want to be able to work as efficiently as possible and to stay focused for as long as it takes to complete a task. Below, we’ll look at 5 common scenarios contributing to workspace disorganization and suggest improvements.


“I work too hard and have too much going on to keep my desk organized.”

Many people feel this way, but it may actually be a self-defeating rationale. According to Boyoun and Zhu, people who work in cluttered, disorganized spaces tend to be less efficient in their daily tasks. If you’re less efficient, you’re going to have less time in a given day to perform your essential job tasks, let alone tidy up your desk, so it becomes a cycle. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, block out a specific time to get your workspace in order. Add it to your calendar just like you would block out time for a meeting, and then stick to it. Once your workspace is cleaned up, you’re allowing yourself to start afresh - stay on top of it by taking twenty minutes at the end of each week to do a quick tidy, and it won’t become a huge, daunting task again.

 “It may look like a mess to you, but know where everything is.”

This may be true, and we’re all very impressed by your spatial memory, but there are a couple reasons it’s still valuable to explore a more organized desk setup:


    1. Your colleagues or supervisor may consider your piles/messes unsightly. You may know that they do, and time you spend wondering what other people think about your messy workspace is not a great use of your time. Also, if you work in close quarters with other colleagues, your mess may be a distraction to them, whether or not it’s a distraction to you.

    2. Getting in the habit of seeing something that's disordered and putting it into order is actually an essential behavior at the heart of many of our jobs. For instance: A writer with a chaotic pile of research about clutter/desk setups and mental health who must streamline and present that information in an organized manner. How am I doing?


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 “I don’t even know where to start.”

A cluttered workspace can seem like a daunting challenge to organize, but you have to start somewhere. One good organizing principle is asking yourself “is this distracting? and “do I really need this?” Things like business cards, post-its, file folders and uncompleted projects are common items that sap our focus in subtle ways. Throw out what you don’t need, and consider purchasing a filing system or desktop organizer to help ensure your day-to-day items have a designated place. Often times employers will provide these types of office accessories, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you need - especially if it’s going to make you more focused and efficient!

 The Snowball Effect.”

You’ve experienced this phenomenon: you’re stressed at work, you’ve got an important project due and you’re not sure you’ll be able to get it done, AND your work environment is a mess. That mess reinforces your feeling that things are out of control — it is the physical representation of the difficulties you're experiencing mentally. Staying on top of the situation can provide a mental salve and have you thinking clearly and positively about your project in no time. Plus, restoring your workspace to a neat condition is a good way to get that little jolt of dopamine before you move onto more difficult work — that feeling of getting something done can build momentum for the rest of the day.

 “But Einstein had a messy desk, right? I have a messy desk. Therefore, I’m Einstein?”

A tempting conclusion, sure, but there’s a more sensible underlying principle at work. According to a study conducted by Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota and published in Psychological Science, there is evidence suggesting that a cluttered space can improve the potential for creative or breakthrough kinds of thinking. The theory here is that you are more likely to have digressive thoughts in a space cluttered with post-its, idea boards, etc — think about every detective movie ever with the crazy bulletin boards and intricate web of suspects and leads… then… eureka! 

Ultimately, these recent studies about work environments and desk setups are just confirming what we’ve already known and experienced for a long time: your work environment has a major effect on your mental health and how you work. 

While Einstein may have been a pretty sharp guy, we’re left to wonder: was he just one desk-tidying makeover a way from cracking his Grand Unified Theory?

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