Does A Cluttered Workspace Paralyze You?

Does A Cluttered Workspace Paralyze You? Here I sit at a very messy dining room table. I’ve been trying to get down to writing for about an hour now, but the distractions just keep piling up — and this time, most of those distractions are objects.

Yes, physical objects. Objects within an arm’s reach. Objects that I know should be put (or thrown) away.

A small sampling of the goodies scattered about my dining room table at this very moment:

  • two dead AA batteries
  • an open sleeve of crackers
  • seven pens
  • a pill splitter
  • two Bed Bath & Beyond mailers
  • a Calvin & Hobbes book
  • a cup of pistachio shells
  • coupon circulars
  • two empty cups

The rest of my house doesn’t look much different, sadly. There’s an explosion of unfolded laundry in my living room. A few hangers are scattered on the floor. Same goes for dryer sheets.

And the kitchen? Ugh, the kitchen. Dishes. Some rotting vegetables in the fridge that I swore I’d eat. A cup of colored water on the windowsill from my painting project that I wrapped up six days ago now.


Clutter is a siren call that tries, often effectively, to lure me away from my work. Is it the same for you?

“Organize me!” it sings.

(They’re the only lyrics, repeated ad infinitum.)

In fact, between the previous paragraph and this one, I’ve:

  • organized some paperwork
  • thrown the dead batteries away
  • shuffled some cutlery around in the sink
  • wiped down (part of) my bathroom counter
  • stared blankly at the growing pile of need-to-be-wrapped presents clustering around my Christmas tree
  • stared blankly at this half-finished blog post

Elapsed time between paragraphs: 45 minutes.

I’ve succumbed once again.


In her blog High Octane Women, Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D. shares 8 reasons why clutter can cause so much stress. But if you don’t have the time (or the attention span) to cut the clutter right away, is there a way to actually get any work done?

I think there is. (After all, I’m getting work done right now by writing this blog post, right? I stand proudly as a proof of concept.)

From Carter’s post on why “mess leads to stress”:

“Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.”

Temporary solution: isolate yourself from the excessive stimuli. If you’re trying to do sit-down work (laptop work, paying bills), do it at a desk that’s facing a blank wall. Considering wearing noise-reducing headphones or perhaps downloading an app (like Relax Melodies) that can play white noise.

Also from Carter’s post:

 “Clutter distracts us by drawing our attention away from what our focus should be on.”

Temporary solution: with practice, mindfulness meditation can train your brain to gently discard unwanted thoughts. Can’t keep focused on studying for your chemistry final because you’re too busy thinking about all the laundry you need to wash?

Podcasts like Meditation Oasis can help you to practice the art of “catching” yourself when you find your mind wandering. It’s not exactly a quick fix — meditation takes time and practice — but listening to just a single podcast can introduce you to this very helpful technique.

“Clutter constantly signals to our brains that our work is never done.”

Temporary solution: sit down and think of everything you’ve accomplished in the past 24 hours. Write it all down, line by line, on a piece of paper. Then, one by one, think about your accomplishments while crossing them off. Do it slowly and mindfully.

Review the list — see how far you’ve come? You’re not behind. You’re not playing “catch up” — you’ve gotten a lot done, and now it’s simply time to continue.

“Clutter creates feelings of guilt (‘I should be more organized’) and embarrassment, especially when others unexpectedly drop by our homes or work spaces.”

Temporary solution: ditch the word “should”. Write down the word “should”, “must”, and “ought to” on a piece of paper — and then crumple it up. Step on it. Rip it up. Toss it in the can. Words like “should” are very powerful and painful. Whenever you find yourself using the word “should”, try replacing it with the word “want” — and if the sentiment still rings true, follow through.

Consider the conceptual difference between “I should do the dishes” and “I want to do the dishes” — doesn’t the latter sound lighter? And perhaps less painful and burdensome?

Photo: KatB Photography (Flickr)

Does A Cluttered Workspace Paralyze You?

Summer Beretsky

Summer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. She contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral and has written for the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.

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APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2013). Does A Cluttered Workspace Paralyze You?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Dec 2013
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