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
load comments (21)
  • Scarfo

    if you are going that fare put your self in an empty square room with the lights off.

  • Jess

    All I have on my desk is my laptop, monitor, keyboard, and wacom tablet. Behind me I have another desk where I have my sketch pads and my office phone. If I ever need to get away from my computer I simply turn around and draw. It is this minimalistic space that helps me function. I used to have an inspiration wall but I would stare at it way to much. If I really need to focus I will go down to just having my laptop only on my desk and plug in my headphones.

  • Matthew Carson

    Interesting. But at what point does this spartan work environment become a distraction as well? My desk is a bit cluttered and definitely needs improvement, but I’m not sure that empty is better either.

  • justin zane

    I am a strong believer in the “cluttered desk, cluttered mind” mentality. That being said, a certain amount of strategically placed items are crucial both in maximizing daily efficiencies and in maintaining the sometimes necessary “busy” look of the workspace that keeps the bosses from thinking you don’t have enough to do.

  • Elspeth Maxwell

    Working on a laptop has similar effects on my productivity â?? when my laptop is in front of me on a (clean) desk I can work for hours, but when it’s on my lap I have trouble staying focused and usually end up back on the newsites/email/twitter cycle.

    Same thing if I take it to a busy cafe â?? too much clutter means too many distractions.

  • Solly

    I’ve been trying to clear my desk often, particularly after finishing a project, or at least reaching a certain milestone in the creative process. You gotta keep things FRESH! There is something to be said though about balancing neatness and clutter- the clutter can be inspiring at times, but in the way at others. There is no right way…only a a sum of productivity or lack there of.

  • Fashion Luvr

    I totally agree. I try to keep everything off my desk except some water or whatever else im drinking.

  • french ben

    Intersting article.
    It’s funny to read your point of view. I totally agree the fact that it’s a very personal, depending of the worker, his work and habits…
    Personnaly, I’ve already try to have a perfectly clean desk, and noticed that it don’t work at all for me.
    I felt a strange feeling of anxiety, it was difficult to focus on my work and 2 days later my desk got back this messy order…

  • Jason Moss

    As a highly minimalist person/designer, I do keep my desk clutter free daily as well. But during the coarse of a project I try to keep everything pertaining to the project on my desk to focus! (products, sketches,etc)

    My latest approach (not every job, but the more challenging) is to research (web) and choose five images and five words that relates to the job and printout all on one sheet of paper. Then I will have it in front of me to glance every once in a while and on most occasions they would trigger an idea or something.

    This seems to work for me but may not do a thing for someone else!

  • Nitin Garg

    Nice Topic.
    Its very true, that workspace and productivity relation variate highly from person to person.

    Personally, i like to keep my desk clean, just my system and my notebook or some other relative document about the project i am working on. For me, what matters most the soft-board behind my screen, which is fully covered with all kind of images, design inspirations, doodles, my own artwork printouts & even few family photographs.

    IMO your ambiance definitely affects your productivity. It should be inspiring & refreshing but not a clutter.

  • rebecah

    This is a great piece. It made me think of my own habits regarding my work space. Everyone has a different style but I find that though I like to have some things around me when I’m working, I also like to put them away at the end of my work day. It’s sort of a ritual. When I start work I take them out and when I’m finished I tuck them away.

  • Iamzozo

    Nice article, i’m googling some articles, photos, websites about creative workspace-s. Like bigspaceship’s ceo said, that the clean and polish workspaces doesn’t mean it leads to productivity.
    I’m a big fan of miminalism, and i like the photo of your desk :), but i have to admit it, that it’s too less. So like yours, i have a mouse, a keyboard and a notebook with a pen. Btw, one of the best and most useful thing is paper and my hand, so it shouldn’t miss any desktop :). I would like to try another way – im working on a creative field – when changing the desktop periodicly and trying different moods, or if its possible, create a space which build uppon the project mood (stuff, lightning, pictures) – i think it will only work at home :)

  • ris

    i like my desk to the minimum look, it keeps me focused, not distracted by unnecesary stuffs over it.

  • Daniel

    Currently in process of moving into new flat, and I thought it’d be a good opportunity to simplify the studio. Initially it was just like your pic â?? Mac, mouse, that’s it.

    But you’re right. This leads to a feeling of nothing being done. You need something, even if it’s just a pen and paper â?¦ and some Pez â?¦ and a couple of books â?¦ and that letter from the council that I really have to deal with â?¦

    And damn it my desk is a mess again.

  • Chris

    What about a workspace where you are able to work at any desk? We often have to do that. All that matters is the people and the environment of the whole studio to create a nice work space.

  • Paul Gailey


    Can we have please a follow up article about “real life” doodles, like sentimental paperclips bent into god know what, favourite fluff, and useless posticks you can´t bring yourself to chuck out.

    I can´t be the only one who gradually collects and creates real life doodles.

    Is something missing in my life?

  • Smashley

    Organise your workspace however suits you. Whatever gets into ‘the zone’ the quicker (and doesn’t distract you out of it)- the better :p

  • ElixirBlack

    I fight off the prejudice against clean workspaces every day.  I still don’t get why having a cluttered and potentially disorganized desk means you are working harder.

  • DinoDinosaur

    If a “cluttered desk = a cluttered mind” then you have to consider an “empty desk = an … Mind”. Sorry, but that type of thinking is a non sequitur. Everyone has different thought processes and different organizational systems. Personally, I want the information on projects that I’m working on close at hand. A perfectly bare desk impedes my productivity. I can understand that for some people it helps, but why force others to use your systems if they don’t come naturally to them.

  • Thadeu de Paula

    I think in a way to bring comfort to all the tasks… some colored pens, a notebook with squared paper to do doodles, diagrams, planning or simple fast task lists (I use the color pens to take control of this!).

    Simple little paper blocks just to do that kind of notes for anyone that come to my desk. And my computer only. Keyboard and mouse as little as possible to let me have more empty space.

    Compulsive note taking as this, makes me think more comfortable to take decisions and to concentrate on the work. So, very minimalist desktops, can hide some useful items that can improve my attention on work.

  • Guest

    Let your conscience and inner-thought solve the matter.

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