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Research: Messy Home Offices May Lead to Burn-Out, Procrastination

Andrew Littlefield
A messy desk covered in crumped sticky notes

Looking to up your game at your job? Start by cleaning your apartment.

Most people know they’ll feel more relaxed and content in a clean, organized environment but psychological research shows that the benefits extend to your performance at work—a fact with even bigger implications in the work-from-home era.

Dr. Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DuPaul University in Chicago, has studied the psychological effects of mess, clutter, and material possessions and the results may be more far-reaching than you imagine. “The data show a clear correlation between clutter and lower levels of psychological well-being, mood disorders, low feelings about self, poor diet, and more,” says Dr. Ferrari.

Most people who have fallen behind on their cleaning schedule could probably attest to those findings, but what’s more surprising is the effect this can have on your work performance. “Clutter can really affect productivity at home,” says Dr. Ferrari. “People in a cluttered home experience more indecisiveness, poorer job performance, emotional exhaustion and lower levels of time control.”

Certainly not a recipe for standing out on the job.

To study this phenomenon, Dr. Ferrari’s team surveyed remote workers, asking them a series of questions that measured their tendency to procrastinate, job satisfaction, as well as their self-perceived level of clutter in their home office space. The results showed a significant relationship between high levels of clutter and indecisiveness and procrastination. That procrastination was related to low levels of job satisfaction and high levels of emotional exhaustion (ie - burnout).

These types of findings may give employers good reason to be cautious about a remote workforce. But working-from-home is more popular than ever, and forcing employees back to a 9-to-5 office schedule may do serious harm to a firm’s ability to recruit and retain talent.

Which raises the question: should employers help workers maintain a clean and tidy home workspace? Many employers have offered employees generous stipends to improve their remote set-up, while many multi-family developers have changed their strategies in order to provide remote work offerings in their buildings.

“We talk to a lot of developers, and home office space is an amenity they’re under pressure to provide from prospective tenants,” says Hasier Larrea, founder and CEO at Ori. “Renters are spending more time at home and need a comfortable place to work.”

An Ori Pocket Office open to show the work from home space inside.

While in the office, your company could be expected to provide cleaning and organizational help. But for most people working at home, that responsibility falls on themselves. And unfortunately for the work-from-home crowd, desks are one of the primary locations where clutter tends to stack up.

Amanda Scudder understands better than anyone how home offices can quickly become overwhelmed by mess and how that mess can start to affect all areas of your life. As a Certified Professional Organizer and researcher with Institute for Challenging Disorganization—a group of certified organizers with whom Dr. Ferrari collaborates with for his studies—she helps people tackle some pretty severe problems with clutter. “The fact is, stuff enters our spaces at an alarming rate,” says Scudder. “Without some careful gate-keeping and occasional clear-outs, it can quickly lead to overwhelm.”

Looking to tame that pile on your desk? Scudder of has three tips to get started:

Start with a Good Sort

The first step to get your workspace in order is to sort every item in the area. Scudder recommends keeping your categories fairly broad, lest you take too much time categorizing and not enough organizing—pens and pencils, paper, etc. This process will help you get an idea of what you have and how much you have of it. “Once you know what you have, you can decide what stays, what goes, and where each category will live,” says Scrudder. “Less is usually best.”

How many sticky notes do you really need? How about pens? Pick your favorite office supplies and let the rest go. “Treat yourself to drawer dividers and an easy-to-use, attractive filing solution to create a designated spot for every item that deserves to be in the prime real estate of your home office,” says Scrudder. “Once everything has a home, you will know where to look when you need it and you won't need to keep hundreds of backups around.”

A notebook sitting on the desk of an Ori Pocket Office.

Tackling the Pile of Paperwork

Paper is far and away the most common clutter culprit. It can be quite challenging, especially for people who want to keep thorough records. Thankfully, the advent of electronic tax filing, bank records, utility bills and more has made keeping many of these physical documents redundant.

Scudder advises keeping your sorting method for paper records simple, otherwise it will be too difficult to maintain and you’ll lose control over the mess all over again. Keep a recycling bin near your desk and immediately toss junk mail. Take what’s left and categorize it in one of three groups:

  1. Action: invoices to be paid, dates to save in calendar, contacts to save. Take care of these within a week.
  2. Reference: paid invoices, insurance/tax documents, articles to read. If it exists somewhere online or digitally, consider shredding the paper copy.
  3. Archive: old records to be saved. Keep these only as long as needed and clean out the archive once a year to discard records you no longer need.

Make Organization a Habit

Easier said than done, sure. But maintaining an orderly space is less about methods, storage bins, and big cleaning days and more about small daily habits that keep your space organized. Be a “gatekeeper” for your home office, says Scudder—don’t just let anything in. “Be a curious observer of clutter,” she continues. “Where and what kind of things are accumulating? The answers can help you find a solution.”

Of course, if your level of clutter reaches a level in which you’re unable to control it without assistance, the Institute for Challenging Disorganization is always there to help. They’ve got plenty of online resources to help you get started, or you can find a professional near you to lend a hand.

Looking for an apartment with your dream home office? Find apartments near you that offer the Ori Pocket Office!