What's the Cost of Computer Clutter?

@@A cluttered computer doesn't just look ugly; it 's also costly.@@ For one, there are cognitive costs. A study by researchers at Princeton University found people performed poorly on cognitive tasks when objects in their field of vision were in disarray as opposed to neatly arranged. The same effect applies to digital environments according to a study published in the academic journal, Behaviour & Information Technology. 

Furthermore, @@extra distractions coax us to do unimportant tasks@@ -- costing us time and focus. Every errant icon, open tab, or unnecessary bookmark reminds us of things left undone or unexplored. With so many triggers, it's easy to click away from the task at hand. But moving from one thing to another, according to Sophie Leroy at the University of Minnesota, hurts our concentration by leaving what she calls an "attention residue," which makes it harder to get back on track when we try. Removing unnecessary triggers frees the mind to work on what's critical.

And there's yet another price you are paying for all that clutter -- sluggish computing. Every open tab in your web browser, for example, utilizes your machine's processing and memory resources. Yes, there are technologies that stop unused tabs from sapping resources, but really they're band-aids that address the symptom, not the disease.

Removing Distractions
So I knew I had to get rid of the distractions!! First, I dumped everything on my desktop into a folder called "everything" (I know, it's not a particularly creative folder name).
It felt weird stuffing all those unsorted files into one folder, and I wondered if I wasn't just displacing the mess somewhere else. But I reminded myself the idea was to remove visible distractions.
I assured myself that if I needed one of these files, it would be easier to find it using Spotlight (the Mac OS built-in search feature) rather than hunt among them on my desktop. And the files I use every day, like particular Word docs, easily found under the "Most Recent" tab anyway.

 Wenzel Desktop

Wenzel Desktop

Next, I changed my background photo to a muted boring grey and made the app dock auto-hide. I also found a program called Bartender 2 to organize all the apps running on the menu bar at the top of the screen. Now I start my work day with a blank slate the color of actual slate.

 Notifications Turned Off

Notifications Turned Off

Desktop cleared, I looked for more ways to declutter. I decided to disable all notifications on my laptop, making sure no apps could interrupt me. I also set a permanent "do not disturb" by setting it to turn on at 7 a.m. and off at 6:59 a.m.



Then it was time to tackle the serpent's den of distractions--my web browser. The first problem was how to deal with all those open tabs? The issue is particularly troublesome because the more tabs I have open, the less likely I am to reboot my machine and web browser, preventing updates and further slowing down my computer. I've gone months without a cleansing restart until finally my Mac freezes up and crashes -- typically taking down unsaved documents in the wreckage.
I needed a new way of doing things. First, I realized that all my tabs fit into four categories:

    •    Things related to current, active work.
    •    Articles I'd like to read later.
    •    Sites I might need in the future.
    •    Social media and email communication tools.

The solution was simple -- I needed to make a routine of sorting tabs where they belong. For example, instead of leaving websites related to a current project open day after day, I'd cut and paste the URL into the relevant document -- typically a Google Doc or slide presentation. Next, articles I'd like to read later are never read in the browser. Before I have a chance to get sucked into the time-wasting vortex of reading one article and then another, I quickly save it to Pocket where I can read the article at my leisure or listen to it while driving or in the gym. Finally, the open tabs I worry I might need some day go into Evernote with just a tap of a button on the toolbar of my browser.

Here again, although it seemed like I was just pushing the mess around, it was important to remember that the quantity of digital stuff I wasn't the problem -- it's the visual distraction and clutter that saps productivity and focus. The idea is to get stuff out of sight and out of mind until it's needed. Interestingly, the same categories I used to sort through tabs worked just as well for eliminating many of the bookmarks that polluted the chrome of my browser.

But what about email and social media? Perhaps the worst time-suck of all is the endless stream of messages, notifications, and updates that sap focus and keep us busy with pseudo-work. These services are like chocolate -- they're best kept hidden because the more we nibble, the more we want.

Given how distracting they are, I try never to leave them open while not in use and I use attention retention tools like StayFocusd and Freedom to block access to my email, Twitter, and Facebook during my morning writing time when I most need to concentrate.

Staying Vigilant
Now that I've removed as much distraction from my laptop as possible, @@I schedule fifteen minutes every Friday for a "Friday Flush"@@ to clean out any clutter that may have accumulated over the week.

 Achieving desktop Zen has made me happier and more productive. Today, my desktop couldn't be more pristine. I’ve replaced the wallpaper of my kids playing and hundreds of icons with simple white letters on a black background.
For me, the hardest part of removing all that desktop clutter was the emotion of taking the first step. There was real trepidation involved in doing a clean sweep. But what we fear most is usually what we most need to do.

Here's the gist:
    •    Distraction and clutter take a heavy psychological toll and can keep us from doing our best work.
    •    When it comes to our personal technology, there are several things we can do to clean house.
    •    Clear your desktop by putting all your files in one folder instead of strewn across your screen.
    •    Turn off desktop notifications and remove distracting triggers like app icons and unnecessary bookmarks.
    •    Leaving too many tabs open in your web browser slows down your machine and is distracting. Instead, save articles to Pocket to read later. Use Evernote for pages you may need someday, and paste the URLs for websites inside the application where they're needed.
    •    Schedule 15 minutes on your calendar every week to do a desktop cleanse.