Lab Rat: Does Desktop Minimalism Drive Productivity?

Lab Rat is an ongoing series where we test out new approaches to productivity – the more extreme, the better – and report back.

Inspired by a post on Zenhabits entitled “Ugly Productivity: 5 Steps to a Distraction-free Workspace“, I recently decided to clear my desk of every single item other than my keyboard and mouse. While I’ve never had a problem keeping an orderly desk, I began to wonder how the collection of knick-knacks, framed pictures, and burgeoning pen collection that cluttered my desk affected my ability to work productively.After packing up all my personal items, and sweeping work essentials into an adjacent filing cabinet, my desk felt disconcertingly bare.  My boss even called me up after work to make sure I hadn’t hastily quit.

While it was theoretically nice to have less stuff taking up both mental and physical space in my work area, I eventually moved toward the middle ground of incorporating a few items back into the mix. There’s a vast difference between a functional, uncluttered workspace and complete minimalism:
1) For at least a few weeks, I felt like my work had taken on an aura of impermanence. There’s a definite stigma attached to having a completely clear, personality-free desk.  For no other reason than reducing the subconscious anxiety of being pink-slipped, I found it’s important to have an area in which work is clearly being conducted.
2) At the very minimum, there are items you’ll need to conduct day-to-day business: a telephone, a pen, a notepad, etc. From a functional standpoint, it made much more sense to keep a pen and paper handy, knowing I’d need to reach for them each and every time the phone rang as opposed to packing them away in a drawer for the sake of maintaining an aesthetic. I recommend taking quick stock of the items you need to conduct everyday business, then make sure these are within quick grasp.
3) I’ve never found extensive amounts of visual inspiration necessary to my workflow. However, the momentary meanderings that a few personal pieces encouraged were actually beneficial.  Orders of magnitude less distracting than Twitter or email, my prints and photographs allow a quick jolt of “different” – enough to change my mindset, but not enough to lead me down a divergent path.
Ultimately, desks are highly personal spaces: What works perfectly for one person can present a perfect mess for another. So tell us: What’s your desktop strategy? Do you think there’s value in clutter?

More insights on: Focus, Workspace Design
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