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How To Combat Unhealthy Office Clutter

Your workspace is more than just a place. It’s a symbol of your mental health.

Imagine you walk into another professional’s messy office. What assumptions might you make about that person? You may think she seems overworked, stressed and even a little out of control.

Now imagine your own thoughts and feelings as you sit in that imaginary office. You probably feel distracted (because there’s so much to look at) and uncomfortable (because all that stuff is oppressive).

Back in your own office, clutter works in the same way. You just don’t notice because you’ve grown accustomed to the mess. You work around it physically and mentally. Meanwhile, the mess is sending you a subliminal message that you’re the one who’s overworked, stressed and out of control.

Experts at the Mayo Clinic say that clutter is a visual cue that tells your brain that your workload is unmanageable.

Barbara Hemphill, founder of the Productive Environment Institute in North Carolina, defines clutter as postponed decisions—choices we want to put off for one reason or another. We delay making decisions when we need more time to think, because we need additional information, or because we feel confused or full of dread.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that surrounding yourself with all those unmade decisions can cloud your thinking and decrease your productivity.

Health Costs Of Clutter

Clutter is one of the leading causes of stress in the workplace. (Just think how frustrated you feel when you sift through piles of papers to find the one you need.)

International workplace psychologist David Lewis says that clutter-related stress is an epidemic. In a survey of 2,544 office workers in the U.S. and Europe funded by the Esselte Corporation, 43 percent of Americans admitted that they felt overwhelmed by their own disorganization.

Stress can cause a whole spectrum of health problems, including heart disease, sleep deprivation, obesity and clinical depression.

Stressed-out bodies produce high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline. When your body makes too much of these substances, its regular processes go haywire. Your blood pressure rises, your immune system weakens, and your mental acuity plummets. And that’s just in the short term.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, a messy office can actually cause you bodily harm. Piles of stuff invite dust to accumulate, which is especially hard on people with allergies and asthma. If those piles spill over from surfaces to the floor, they might trip you up—literally. Extreme cases of clutter can even be a fire hazard.

Other Costs Of Clutter

Office clutter can also cost you time, money and your good reputation.

Consider these sobering statistics:

  • The National Association of Professional Organizers estimates that Americans waste almost an hour each day looking for misplaced items.
  • The Delphi Group, a team of strategic advisors in Boston, says that 15 percent of all business paperwork gets lost.
  • And consultants for Gartner Inc., an information technology research company in Connecticut, calculated that every lost piece of paper costs businesses $120.
A disorganized office can cause all kinds of mishaps, including lost business cards, misplaced files, blown deadlines and forgotten appointments. If these problems become chronic, your professional reputation is at risk.

That goes double if you invite clients into your unpleasant workspace. Even if your work is stellar, the chaos might shake clients’ confidence in your ability to get the job done.

Every time you interrupt your work to find a missing file or an errant scrap of paper, your productivity slows. Often, that lost time translates into working overtime, which can cause poor nutrition, missed sleep and familial strain.

Such problems are only going to up the stress factor in your life—a vicious, tiring and expensive cycle that diminishes your health . . . and your morale.

Clear The Clutter

The good news is that clutter, unlike many causes of stress, is completely within your control.

Anyone can have a tidy office. If you think that you don’t have time to get organized, consider how much more efficient you’ll become once you have a space that works with you instead of against you.

Here are a few tips that will help you get started.
  • Concentrate on one area at a time. It’s important to break your organizing project into chunks so you don’t get overwhelmed or distracted. Focus your full attention on one drawer (or corner or shelf) and finish it before you move on to the next thing.
  • Find a place for everything. Putting things away is easy when every object has a home. That way, every time you reach for the stapler, you’ll know exactly which drawer to open. Bonus? Tidying up is easy when you don’t have to decide where each thing goes. 
  • Limit the number of items you keep on top of your desk. This surface is the most precious real estate in your office. Pare down as much as possible; then think of ways you can minimize the footprint of whatever’s left. A lamp that clamps on to the side of your desk will buy you a few extra inches, while wireless electronics will eliminate thick tangles of cords.
  • Don’t shop until you have a clear sense of your needs. You might be tempted to run out to The Container Store for bins and file folders before you dive in. Instead, wait until you’ve sorted through your clutter so you can buy the perfect filing cabinet (or shelving system or paper clip holder—you get the idea). Staff at retail stores that are dedicated to organization can help you plan your space.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help from the experts. Professional organizers’ fees vary, but you can expect to pay at least $50 an hour. If your budget is limited, choose one area that you can tackle in an afternoon. A good organizer can help you get started even if he’s not there to see the job through to completion.
File For Your Health

Paperwork is the leading cause of clutter in offices. Because it’s so personal, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all filing solution. A thoughtful filing system takes your workflow (and the work itself) into consideration.

Here are a few principles you can apply as you organize your paper files. You can also set up a similar system for the electronic files on your computer.

Every office should have at least two main types of files: active and archival. Active files are those that you need to access on a day-to-day basis. Archival files are those that you access infrequently. Store the active files somewhere close to your desk for easy access. Archival files can be tucked away in a cabinet or closet.

Your file system should be based on making things easy to access. That means they should be organized according to categories you actually use and that are applicable to your work. Make a short list of general subjects that apply to your business. Assign each subject a color so you know what kind of file it is at a glance.

Now stash your paperwork in the files, writing the individual file headings as you go. (Make sure those headings are inclusive enough to build a healthy-sized file, but specific enough to be useful.) When you’re finished, make a master list of all the file names so you’ll know what you have at a glance.

That list will come in handy when you decide where new paperwork belongs as it comes across your desk. Be decisive; everything should be filed, thrown away or shredded then and there. Create new files as you need them and add the headings to your master list.

Finally, avoid the temptation to let files linger on your desk through the duration of a project. Keep them stored and access them when you really need to—after all, you’ll know exactly where to look.

Cultivate New Habits

The key to combating clutter over the long term is to transform not just your workspace, but also your behavior.

Here are a few changes you can make to your routine that will make a big difference in your work environment (and your peace of mind).

  • Consolidate your calendar, lists, notes and other bits and bobs into one planning tool (paper or electronic). You can minimize your paper trail and streamline your life if you use that tool exclusively for noting deadlines, appointments, tasks and errands.
  • Make appointments with yourself. Good habits don’t form themselves, so at first you might want to schedule a regular time for unpleasant or tedious maintenance tasks such as filing, shredding and processing mail. Eventually, it will become second nature.
  • Take a few minutes at the end of each day to put your desk in order. Return any errant items back to their homes and file away any papers that have crept up during the day. That way, you’ll start the next morning with a clean slate.
  • Forgive yourself. When your new systems fail, don’t give up; tweak them and try again. Even the most organized people are faced with an unsavory pile now and again. If your office gets messy, set aside a few hours and clean it up. A little effort will reap big rewards: better health, improved productivity, and a sense of well-being that improves your workday and your life.

For More Information

Find more information on organization and your health at these websites.

The Mayo Clinic on decluttering and stress management

A national directory of professional organizers maintained by the National Association of Professional Organizers