Why a Cluttered Desk Kills Your Productivity — and How to Fix It

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By: Julianne Pepitone for Know Your Value/NBC News, picture by ilbusca / 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.

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