If you notice yourself getting distracted more often than you’d like, it might be time to declutter your work environment. Many different studies show that working in a minimalist, decluttered environment is beneficial to your ability to focus, thus making you more productive.
If you’re anything like me, your work environment can get a little messy from time to time. The problem is that every object or element in your vision fights for your attentional space, making it harder to focus intensely on the work at hand. That’s why, for the sake of our productivity, we need to start decluttering our work environment.
How Our Brain Deals With Clutter
For each object in our environment, there are two options for the brain to choose from:
- Ignore the object and filter it out to protect our focus for the work at hand.
- Direct attention towards this object or element in the form of thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
The first option is the most common. Most objects and elements are filtered out to protect our focus. If the brain weren’t able to do this, we would be just like cats — getting distracted by every little movement or noise in our environment.
However, this filtering process drains energy from the brain. And, according to scientists at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute, the more cluttered our physical and digital environments are, the more energy the brain needs to spend on this filtering process.
This energy is finite — and every bit you dedicate towards filtering can’t be dedicated towards more productive functions such as thinking, focusing, and solving difficult problems.
If there isn’t much that needs to be filtered, more mental resources will be available for productive matters.
The second option, however, is the most distracting of all. Objects or elements in our environment can cause thoughts, feeling, or emotions to arise as the brain directs it’s attention towards it.
From a survival standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. The brain’s primary purpose is to keep you alive. And since your environment could be filled with dangers and threats, the brain is always scanning every element to ensure survival. This was even more important in the ancient days when a sabretooth tiger or angry tribe member could attack you at any minute. Even though this mechanism is useful for survival, it’s harmful to our productivity.
For example, the files of another project on your desk remind you of unfinished to-dos, causing you to feel stressed and overwhelmed.
Or seeing your smartphone tempts you to quickly check your messaging app, leading to thoughts completely unrelated to your work at hand.
This is much more costly than it appears at first. Most people assume they’re able to shift from a distraction to their work quickly without any negative consequences, but that’s not true.
First of all, these new inputs can lead to procrastination. We might drop the important work without being aware of it and work on another task instead, simply because that’s what popped up.
Second of all, our ability to focus is impaired whenever we switch between tasks and distractions. Every time your attention gets pulled away from your work towards a distraction, it takes (according to research) on average 23 minutes before your full attention is back on your task at hand.
By then, most people have usually found a way to distract themselves again. In other words, most people never reach their full focus potential.
This concept is called ‘attention residue,’ which implies that some of your attention is ‘left behind’ at the previous task or distraction it was dealing with. The brain can’t shift effortlessly from task to task — or from distraction to task.
This is why it’s essential to work in a decluttered environment in which there aren’t any objects in sight that can distract you. Not only will you save valuable mental resources, but you’ll also avoid the ‘attention residue’ that we talked about.
Declutter Your Digital Work Environment
Decluttering your work environment isn’t just about the objects that are on your desk. It’s also about the apps on your phone and the tabs on your computer. This form of ‘digital clutter’ might be even more distracting than physical clutter.
When you keep your email, messaging, or news tabs open while trying to do deep work, the visual reminders of these tabs lead your mind to wander.
Would this potential client have already emailed me back?
Would my girlfriend have already responded to what movie she wants to watch tonight?
Would the news regarding this political event already be out?
These thoughts are all subconsciously caused whenever you see the slightest hint of your email inbox, messaging app, or favorite news website.
Whenever these thoughts arise, you need to fight for your attentional space. You need to use your willpower to resist the psychological urge of these distractions. This drains valuable energy from the brain, which impairs your ability to think, solve problems, and focus deeply.
That’s why you don’t want to find yourself engaged in this fight at all. The solution is to eliminate these distractions before you start working.
When there’s nothing left to distract you, it’s just you and your work. You free up all your mental resources for creating the best work possible, and there’s no way to procrastinate anymore.
Bottom-Up Attention vs. Top-Down Attention
I always do my deep work in a clean, minimalist environment (I prefer to work in hotel lobbies). Furthermore, I remove all unnecessary objects from my desk, and I close all email, social media, and messaging tabs. My phone is out of sight and on flight mode.
If it doesn’t have anything to do with my important task at hand, I eliminate it from my environment. This way, I’m able to direct and sustain my attention on what I choose to focus on. This is called ‘top-down’ attention.
In a messy environment, however, I notice I get restless. My mind is getting cluttered with thoughts, ideas, and worries. In other words, external objects or elements are pulling for my attention and occupy my mental resources. They take my attention away, even though I don’t want it. This is called ‘bottom-up attention.’
This is quite useful for when you cross the street and notice a car approaching at high speed, but when you’re trying to do deep work, it’s not desirable.
All in all, if you want to sustain your top-down attention and protect your focus for the important stuff, it’s critical that you declutter your physical and digital work environment before you start working.
When A Messy Environment Is More ‘Productive’
Working in a decluttered and minimalist environment is especially useful for when you want to focus intensely and work more efficiently. However, working in a messy environment isn’t all bad.
Research suggests that working in an environment with many objects and noises can spark more creativity. All the objects and sounds that your brain needs to process spark thoughts, feelings, emotions, and past memories. The combination of these factors usually leads to creative ideas.
When your goal is to brainstorm an idea, it’s probably better to be in a rich environment. And when your goal is to get important work done, it’s better to be in a decluttered and minimalist environment.
Now Do It
For your next deep work session, I encourage you to declutter your physical and digital environment so you can experience the focus enhancing benefits yourself.
To Your Personal Growth,
Founder Personal Growth Lab