Every day is full of important tasks, major projects, and personal errands that you can no longer afford to put off. And that’s just the beginning of your never-ending “to-do” list.
Oh, and your desk is a mess.
The question is: Where do you start?
While every situation is unique, and various factors will play a role in how you organize your day, there’s a scientific argument for tackling one of these tasks before the others, namely:
You should start by cleaning your desk.
Cleaning up your desk (or office, or closet, or room) is a surprisingly simple way to exercise emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage emotions. But what exactly are the mental and emotional benefits of cleaning up your desk? How can doing so help you feel better about the path ahead, and help you to make better decisions?
Let’s break it down.
The scientific case for cleaning up
As I listened to a recent psychologist’s lecture, a powerful statement stuck with me:
“Landscapes that are cluttered by obstacles produce negative emotion.”
In other words, when we’re trying to accomplish something, every obstacle that stands in your way makes your task harder. Which means, the first step in getting your day in order-; or sometimes even getting your life in order-;is to start with the first obstacle.
That’s what makes cleaning up and getting organized so effective-; because every obstacle you get out of your way helps you to think more clearly. In turn, clear thinking leads to emotional well-being. Additionally, the accomplishment of cleaning up gives you self-confidence and motivation that you can carry forward.
There are tons of scientific research to support this conclusion. For example, consider the following:
Through techniques like brain imaging, scientists at Princeton University demonstrated how a person’s visual cortex can become overwhelmed by clutter, making focus difficult. In contrast, when participants uncluttered their work environment, they were less irritable and distracted, and productivity increased.
A study by members of DePaul University’s psychology department found that by at least one measure, clutter was the best predictor of procrastination and that it interfered with a strong quality of life.
In 2009, psychologists at UCLA found that subjects who felt their homes were very cluttered experienced increased feelings of depression and were measured to have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which researchers say can lead to negative health conditions.
As you can see, tidying up can positively influence your thoughts, emotions, and decision making. But how can you apply these learnings into your life?
Here are a few tips:
- Start small. Start each day by taking a few minutes to organize your space. Or even better, do this at the conclusion of your day, so you start the next day fresh. Do the same for your computer desktop. Later, you can take more time to do your office or your home. Taking on a larger job, like organizing your office, or even your house, may seem overwhelming…so start only with what you can handle. Focus on the parts of the areas you use most. Use the five-minute rule to work on one small task at a time: promise yourself you’ll do just five minutes and quit if you feel like it. This is another psychological device that “tricks” your mind into getting started because the task now feels manageable-; but many times, leads to getting much more done than you anticipated.
- Schedule “maintenance” time. Getting organized is one thing; staying organized is another. So, why not schedule time each day to spend on “organization maintenance”? You’ll find that just ten to fifteen minutes a day will work wonders for your productivity, and your mental health. In turn, this type of daily maintenance makes cleanup easier, so you’re not challenged with a huge cleaning project that seems too overwhelming to start.
- Make cleaning fun. For teams and organizations, Bond Business School Professor Libby Sander recommends establishing regular “spring cleaning” days for departments or teams, complete with pizza. Doing so “can create social interaction and support around a task that most people don’t enjoy,” Sanders says. She also recommends instituting a “clean-desk policy” to help keep shared workspaces tidy-; you can do the same for yourself, or your own “teams” at work and at home, including your family.
And what if all these suggestions seem like too much?
Do what you can, one step at a time. Each action you take is another step forward, and that’s progress you can be proud of.
So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a few minutes to organize your space.
Because the less cluttered your desk, the less cluttered your mind. By removing obstacles, you’ll also remove negative emotions-; and put yourself in a better state to handle the challenges that lie ahead.
Portions of this article originally appeared on the Inc. website.
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