The Coach's Corner

Clutter and your brain

The Coach’s Corner Newsletter #45

Clutter isn’t just one thing, it’s:

A confused multitude of things,

as defined by

Clutter shows up in many areas of life:

  • In your office – a desk burgeoning with files/loose papers, post it notes or coffee cups.
  • In your home – a sink filled with dishes, laundry piled in baskets or a closet that’s filled to capacity.
  • In your garden – dead leaves/weeds/tree branches that need to be trimmed or cleared to allow new growth.
  • In your digital space – emails in your inbox, documents on your home screen, too many open tabs.


Clutter makes it hard to find things because they’re hidden under a pile of whatever.

Sure, there’s a certain amount of clutter that promotes creativity. But the clutter I’m encountering in the lives of my clients is actually preventing some of them from being able to function well. Getting stuck is often linked to a paralyzing sensation when the overload from too much clutter/chaos/confusion grinds you to a halt.

That got me thinking. You know how it’s helpful to check out your body when you’re stressed and notice whether sleep, diet, emotions, lack of physical exercise or conflict is at its core?

Today I’d like to explore the impact clutter has in your work and life by noticing what it does to your mind. Then I’ll share a few thoughts on how to create order in the midst of that clutter, which has the power to change your focus and improve productivity.


Clutter and your brain

You’re probably aware that clutter affects your anxiety levels, sleep and the ability to focus.

Elizabeth Sander is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Bond Business School in Australia. Her research goes a step further addressing the toll clutter takes in the work environment:

Our physical environments significantly influence our cognition, emotions and subsequent behaviors, including our relationships with others.

Sanders points out that because our brains likes order,

The visual reminders of chaos drain our cognitive resources, reducing our ability to focus. The visual distraction of clutter increases cognitive overload and can reduce our working memory.

In 2011, Princeton University researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map the brain’s responses to organized and disorganized stimuli and to monitor task performance. As described in this Be Well News article from Stanford:

The conclusions were strong: if you want to focus to the best of your ability and process information as effectively as possible, you need to clear the clutter from your home and work environment. This research shows that you will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better with an uncluttered and organized home and office.

In our coaching sessions, Mike has been working on regaining more time to focus on his growing business. He discovered something had to shift when he misplaced a critical financial document and spent way too much time getting it reproduced. He shared how clearing the clutter around his workspace wasn’t enough to feel less chaotic.

I found that I was getting stressed just opening my computer. Not only was my screen filled with folders, random images and documents, you won’t believe how many tabs I was keeping open! So I blocked off time to do a digital declutter. I arranged my folders alphabetically, closed tabs when I finished what I was working on and now I’m tackling my email inbox.

This digital declutter, as he called it, provides Mike a sense of order. At least in one area of his life.



How order can improve your focus and productivity

Where do you begin?

If you’re struggling to take on the clutter that’s consumed the spaces in your work and life, here are suggestions from the professionals who know the power of bringing order into every part of your life.

  1. Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method:

    It uses a unique selection criterion – choosing what sparks joy! You are not choosing what to discard but rather choosing to keep only the items that speak to your heart. Through tidying, you can reset your life and spend the rest of your life surrounded by the people and things that you love the most.

  2. Joshua Becker’s Becoming Minimalist Method:

    Use the Four-Box Method. Get four boxes and label them: trash, give away, keep, or re-locate. Enter any room in your home and place each item into one of the following boxes. Don’t skip a single item, no matter how insignificant you may think it is. This may take days, weeks, or months, but it will help you see how many items you really own and you’ll know exactly what to do with each item.

  3. Megan Ludvinsky, About Space Organizing

    Work on your hot-spot first. Ludsvinsky suggests starting with a “hot spot” or commonly used room first. Start where clutter bothers you the most—even a little bit of clear space in that area will give you some peace.

    A hot spot is going to look different in every home. One way Ludsvinsky says to find your hot spot or first working room is to think of the area in your home you enter first and drop things off in.

  4. LifeHacker, Checklist to Declutter your Digital Life

    Declutter your phone: remove apps you haven’t used in the past month. Go through your photos/screenshots and delete anything you don’t need.

    Declutter your computer: go through your folders, sort and delete those you don’t need. Clear your cookies and browser cache. Clear off your desktop.

    Decluttering online: close unused accounts, unsubscribe from mailing lists, go through cloud storage and delete unnecessary documents and photos.


My takeaway

Last Saturday, my husband and I cleared our yard of the winter layer of leaves and mulch and debris that helped it to weather the climate in Colorado.

Underneath the debris, the hosta lilies were forcing their way through the earth. The green and reddish shoots of the peonies showed themselves. The forget-me-not flowers were blooming! Nothing was visible until the covering of leaves and debris was removed. Suddenly, all appeared orderly. Ready for this next season.

I’m taking this visual and carrying it with me through my office, different rooms in our house, even the digital clutter on my devices. Knowing the transformation I experienced digging under the leaves, I’m realizing that I can focus more clearly on what needs to be cleared or sorted. The work to declutter feels so much more productive than feeling the anxiety of the mess.

Clutter is not just the stuff on your floor – it’s anything that stands between you and the life you want to be living.

Peter Walsh

What might you clear away to live the life you want?

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