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Cluttered Workspace: What, Why & How to De-Clutter

cluttered workspace
Photo by Samantha Gades on Unsplash

If you’re like most human beings, you have a cluttered workspace. Yet, you may not know you do, why it’s important, and how to fix it.

What’s Considered a Cluttered Workspace?

You have your phone, a pad, and naturally, your keyboard and mouse. But what else counts as clutter on a desk, in a cubicle, or inside an office?

It’d be easy to say “anything not essential” but that’s a given. Often times, we get into a cluttered mindset because we struggle separating what is essential versus what can be put away. So, let’s start with how to know if you have a cluttered workspace and that you even need to do some decluttering to begin with.

We’ll look at the most common types of clutter, the meaning of clutter, and how you can turn the corner on tidiness.

The Textbook Definition

It’s a bit of a trope to quote definitions in order to explain something, but it’s never a bad starting place. Let’s take a look at the noun form of the word “clutter.”

a crowded or confused mass or collection


This definition speaks to an aspect of clutter that is truly crucial to understanding what “clutter” means. It’s both crowded and confused. Crowded because it impedes your productivity. If you can’t find what you’re looking for because in a stack, it’s crowded. Confused because it doesn’t have much logic or structure. Banana peel from three days ago next to an open box of staples? That’s certainly confusing.

Clutter Needs Company

This brings us to a principle that’s important to touch upon. Clutter needs company. One loose object on a desk is not clutter. It’s the only thing on the desk. But two objects increase the chance for clutter. Three objects, you have an even higher chance, regardless of what the objects are, of it being clutter.

So, in essence, you can see that there’s a causal relationship to the fewer objects you have in a workspace making for a less cluttered workspace.

Hopefully you have a better idea of what clutter actually is, so let’s now look at an interesting way to define the many types of clutter.

Why is a Cluttered Workspace Harmful for Productivity?

We know you’re thinking. So what if you haven’t seen the top of your desk in months. You know where everything is, right?

The old saying goes, “cluttered space, cluttered mind.” Well, this also turns out to be true for a cluttered workspace. Psychologists have discovered that clutter causes our brains to focus on multiple things in a rapid fire cycle pattern, disrupting our concentration on any singular task.

But Isn’t Clutter A Sign of Creativity?

Yes, creativity has been linked to clutter. But that’s a correlation, not necessarily a causation. In other words, it may very well be that creative folks just don’t develop the skill to organize things neatly because it doesn’t benefit them as much as someone who relies on structure. Meaning, you don’t get creativity from clutter, you just clutter up things because you’re creative.

But that’s good news. It means you can learn to break the habit. Have your creative cake and keep your workspace neat too.

How Do You Kick the Clutter Habit?

There are so many methods you can use (see: below), but the key is to pick one and stick to it. Follow the steps, commit to completing them all, and do the hard work.

6 Decluttering Methods to Kickstart Your Tidying

  • KonMari – Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering as described in her book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” It’s separated into phases, and includes piling together every thing in a certain category. You then sort through the items one by one to find the ones that spark joy, put them to the side, and discard the rest… after thanking them, of course.
  • The Minimalist Game – This method gamifies decluttering. Created by The Minimalists, Ryan Nicodemus, and Joshua Fields Millburn, the “game” boils down to removing a number of items equal to the day of the month. You start with 1 and can go all the way to 31, potentially removing 496 items.
  • Four Box Method – Perfect for folks who need a visual example of structure, this game involves separating every item in an area into one of four categories, or boxes. Whether you use actual boxes or not, the categories are “put away,” “give away,” “throw away,” and “undecided.”
  • One Method – Simply get one of one thing every day for a period of time of your choosing. “One” is a broad term, that can mean one item, one box of items, or one bag of something like clothes.
  • Packing Party – Another one from The Minimalists. Invite your friends over and everybody helps pack all of your belongings into boxes, as if you were moving. Then, you only take items out of the boxes as needed. Anything left in a box after three months? Sell or donate it.
  • Closet Hanger Method – Best for clothing, naturally. Turn every hangar to face the same direction. Every day, you place whatever you’ve worn back in the closet on a hangar that faces the opposite direction. Unworn clothes? Time to sell or donate.

The 6 Most Common Types of Clutter

In the Spruce article The 6 Most Common Types of Clutter, they helped delineate the categories that make up clutter.

  1. Clutter Without a Storage Space – This is reasonable clutter–it just needs a home
  2. Trash Masquerading as Clutter – There’s a home for this–the trash can, or maybe the shredder
  3. Bargain Clutter – BOGO sometimes just means you get two things you don’t need instead of one
  4. Abundance Clutter – Your pencil hoarde may last you a decade, but they sure do take up a lot of space
  5. Aspirational Clutter – That Spanish-to-English dictionary that you never use or that dumbbell you never lift
  6. Sentimental Clutter – We all have this to varying degrees so don’t stress–just save this for last and honor your memories with respectful storage or generous donation

This is one way to figure out whether you have clutter to begin with. Anything fit on that list? Nope? Then, you’re good. But if so, it might be time to admit you have a clutter problem.

Cluttered Workspace: Conclusion

We’ve gone over a lot today. What does and doesn’t constitute a cluttered workspace, why cluttered areas can be harmful to our goals, and how to get our spaces into shape with some tidying activities.

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