Like thousands of other people all over the world, you might have suddenly found yourself working from home. The work-from-home life can feel like a double edged sword. On the one hand, it feels great to be able to relax on the couch in your pajamas, snacking on your own food and spending time with your family. On the other hand, it’s hard to get any work done that way! You might find yourself pulling out your hair trying to get any work done in an environment that makes it seem impossible. If you can relate, this article is for you.
One of the biggest obstacles to productivity is clutter. By and large, homes have a great deal more clutter than offices. You might even be so used to ignoring it in your own home that you don’t even notice it anymore. Clutter has a way of blending in when you walk past it enough times. However, research has shown that a messy workspace affects your ability to do your job whether you notice the clutter or not.
Here are three ways that cleaning up can help you focus while working from home:
Reduce Mental Clutter
Visual clutter creates mental clutter. That’s right – what you see around you occupies space in your mind.
Imagine trying to work on a desk that is covered in papers, a few framed photos, a wrapper from a chocolate bar, two empty coffee cups, and some crafts made by your adoring children. Sure, you might be able to clear off a small spot for your laptop and get some work done, but your brain is processing all that visual stimulation every few seconds. You wonder why you’re having such a hard time focusing. Unrelated thoughts are constantly popping into your head. You feel tired, frustrated, and overwhelmed with everything around you. You feel like you need a short break, so you watch a video of some cute cats on your phone, which leads to another video, and another.
Now imagine the same desk, with a clear surface except for your work laptop, a few pieces of paperwork that you’re currently working with, and maybe a framed photo of your family or a loved one. Now you can focus on what you’re actually doing, and the only extra visual input you’re receiving is a photo that subtly reminds you why you’re doing it. You get your work done and go give your daughter a quick hug before starting your next task.
The Princeton University Neuroscience Institute performed a study in which researchers monitored an individual’s task performance when placed in an organized environment, compared to a disorganized environment. They found that the subjects were less productive, more irritable, and more distracted in the disorganized environment, where they were under increased stress. Many people who move from an office environment to a home environment report similar experiences. By cleaning the home environment, these negatives can be avoided.
A messy home office overloads the visual cortex, competing for attention in the brain and impeding its ability to process information effectively. Have you ever felt sluggish, like everyone else was thinking and working faster than you? Like you were a Core i3 processor surrounded by i5s and i7s? This brain fog is largely attributed to your work environment. Your brain cannot handle an overwhelming amount of input – well, it can, but it will spend all its processing power trying to process each input, and have no power left to actually complete the task at hand.
Stop Wasting Time
Have you ever needed something specific, such as a stapler, tape, or an empty binder, and you were sure you saw it somewhere but you just couldn’t remember where? Or maybe you needed a specific piece of paper for your boss, but it was buried under all of the other paperwork from the last week (or month), so you had to search through the whole pile to find it?
Each time you have to stop and look for something, whether it takes five minutes to find or an hour, that time adds up. One study showed that workers lose up to two hours each week just searching for lost documents!
Keep this rule in mind when cleaning your home office: “a place for everything and everything in its place”. With a proper shelving and storage, and good cleaning and organization habits, you can stop wasting time looking for things and focus on your work.
But a messy home doesn’t just lead to lost or buried items, it also encourages procrastination. Researchers at Cornell University found that increased clutter triggered avoidance behaviors like snacking on junk food or binge-watching Netflix. When your work environment is stressful, it’s hard to resist the temptation to escape. Reducing clutter reduces stress, and leads to more focus and productivity at work.
Create an Office-Like Environment
It can be hard to do anything in an environment that’s set up for something else, so when you get started working from home, make sure you take some time to set up your workspace in a manner that’s conducive to actually doing work.
Whatever makes work easy and seamless at the office should be mirrored in your home office. If your filing system at the office is near your desk, keep your filing system at home near your desk as well. If you have a lot of meetings at the office, create a dedicated area of your home office for video calls. That way you won’t have to spend time setting it up each time you have a meeting. In addition to thinking about your ideal office layout, consider that your work office probably isn’t covered in crumbs, and the floor is likely vacuumed at least once a day.
The most difficult part of working at home is that you also live in your home. It’s bound to get messy more often, simply because there’s more life happening in it. The problem is that with more life happening in it, you also have a greater cortisol response to a messy environment than you would in your work office. You spend a whole lot more time in your home office than you would in your work office, and you have closer proximity to vices that tempt you away from your work throughout the day. This makes it all the more important to dedicate time every day to make sure your home office is clean, organized, and tailored to getting work done.
What Can Be Done?
If you take only one thing away from this article, let it be this: stress leads to clutter, and clutter leads to more stress.
It’s a vicious cycle and a tough one to break. Who has time to clean the office after working a full day and managing a household? It’s so easy to relax at the end of the work day, by spending time with loved ones, watching a good movie, or taking a nice long bath. Mental health breaks like these are necessary for wellness, but a messy environment is also detrimental to good mental health.
Regularly tidying your workspace is the best way to keep clutter at bay. A tidy environment is also easier to keep clean. It’s much easier to disinfect a clutter-free work surface than it is to disinfect one that’s covered in old paperwork. It’s also easier to vacuum or mop a floor that has nothing on it. When you take the first steps to clean your home, you’ll find that it takes less time to maintain as your habits become ingrained.