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Why a cluttered desk kills your productivity — and how to fix it

In honor of National Clean Off Your Desk Day, experts look at five successful women’s desks and reveal what’s killing — and boosting — their productivity.
Image: Messy desk of young startup coworking business
Messy desk of young startup coworking businessilbusca / Getty Images/iStockphoto

You may not have heard of National Clean Off Your Desk Day, but experts say the Jan. 14 holiday is one worth celebrating — especially if you’d like to boost your productivity.

“When your space is filled up with things you haven’t organized, all of those things are constantly ‘yelling’ at you,” said David Allen, a veteran productivity expert and creator of “Getting Things Done,” a work-life management method.

When something catches your eye as you work (like a dirty coffee mug you want to clean or a paper that needs to be filed away), it may seem momentary and harmless. “But this drains your energy and focus, even if you don’t realize it,” said Allen, the author of "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity."

Compounding the issue is the more intractable mental clutter we all carry, said Penny Zenker, a strategic business coach and author of "The Productivity Zone."

“It’s phone notifications, emails, mental to-do lists that never seem to end,” Zenker said. "Clutter on our desks is the kind we can pretty easily fix.”

As Zenker puts it, “the issue is when you use your desk as storage or as a reminder of things you need to do – when in fact it’s meant to be simply a space for you to work.”

For some, the fix could merely be vowing on Clean Off Your Desk Day to take a few minutes every morning to de-clutter before you begin work.

But if you’re completely overwhelmed, Allen recommends grabbing four cardboard boxes to help get you organized. Label the boxes “trash,” “keep as reference,” “read and review later” and “do something now.” Simply file items into the appropriate box.

“That won’t fix everything, but it gives you a bit of sanity; it’s a place to start to work toward something more ideal for you,” Allen said.

What might those ideal spaces look like? Zenker reviewed photos of five successful women’s desks to reveal what’s killing — and boosting — their productivity.

Amirah Shahid, landscape architect in Denver, Colorado

Amirah Shahid's desk in Denver, Colorado.
Amirah Shahid's desk in Denver, Colorado.Courtesy of Amirah Shahid.

Grade: C

The bottom line: “We all have things out while we’re working,” Zenker said, “but the best practice is to keep out only what you’re working on. Everything else goes away to avoid any distractions.”

The pros, and how to grow: The sticky note reminder front and center is a smart move, and the huge desk space to work with is a major bonus, Zenker said. But the key here is organization. Little changes can help – like wrangling all of those loose pens into one container. But the big area for improvement is under the desk, where items can be placed into a unit like a shoe organizer. “Even though you don’t see this clutter under the desk, it is there and it creates unconscious mental distraction,” said Zenker.

Catherine Greenspan, co-owner of Two Sisters Writing and Publishing in Klamath Falls, Oregon

Catherine Greenspan's desk in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Catherine Greenspan's desk in Las Cruces, New Mexico.Courtesy of Catherine Greenspan.

Grade: B

Bottom line: “This desk is focused on the essentials!” Zenker said.

The pros, and how to grow: It’s great to have a journal out to “to prepare and process the day,” Zenker said. Keeping water in reach encourages hydration, and healthy habits can help keep you focused. Still, the working space can be cleared just a bit; items like mail take up a lot of real estate on this small desk. One quick fix: Add more lights to create a brighter space, which is more conducive to good work.

Daniela Pierre-Bravo, booking producer for “Morning Joe” in New York City

Daniela Pierre-Bravo's desk in New York City.
Daniela Pierre-Bravo's desk in New York City.Courtesy of Daniela Pierre-Bravo.

Grade: D

Bottom line: “This is a great representation of how things can accumulate – but don’t be discouraged!” Zenker said. “Simply taking the time to put the books up and away on a bookshelf will make a huge difference.”

The pros, and how to grow: Notebooks or journals support goals and activities for the day. But the big challenge is those books. “They provide a wall around the desk, keeping creativity bound in,” Zenker said. “Take 10 minutes to put the books where they belong, and you’ll feel so much freer.”

Lisa Sun, founder and CEO of Gravitas in New York City

Lisa Sun's desk in New York City.
Lisa Sun's desk in New York City.Courtesy of Lisa Sun.

Grade: D

Bottom line: “It looks like there’s a nice table and desk space available — when all the travel stuff is cleared away,” Zenker said.

The pros, and how to grow: If you have the space, “it’s great to have an extra table to move to if you feel like you’re stuck or stale” when working on a project at your desk, Zenker said. But everything needs a place, she added. “Your desk is not your closet, so it’s best to find another space to store your travel gear, jackets, etc.” If you absolutely must have those items in your workspace and you don’t have a formal closet, either invest in a freestanding piece of storage or at least choose a corner to pack away your gear neatly.

Nora Riva Bergman, author of “50 Lessons for Lawyers” and founder of law firm coaching company Real Life Practice in Tarpon Springs, Florida

Nora Riva Bergman's desk in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
Nora Riva Bergman's desk in Tarpon Springs, Florida.Courtesy of Nora Riva Bergman.

Grade: A

Bottom line: This desk is well set! Photos and other inspiring pieces are in sight but above the desk – and items like a headset are also accessible on the wall, again without cluttering the desk top.

The pros, and how to grow: The plants on the desk “reduce carbon dioxide levels, lower stress and improve creativity,” Zenker said, and she also approves of the ergonomic keyboard. There’s not much to fix here, but Zenker always advises caution with a two-screen computer setup. “I’m a fan, but make sure it is there to support your work,” she said, adding if you use it “just to have email open on one side, it acts more as a distractor than a performance enhancement.”