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Tidy desk, tidy mind: Myth or reality?

Tidy desk, tidy mind: Myth or reality?

5 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep
  • The science of learning

Have you ever heard the saying “Tidy Desk, Tidy Mind”? 

If you ask anyone, they’ll probably know some sort of variation of this age-old phrase. A lot of people even use it as their life’s philosophy and swear by it. But is there actually any merit to it? 

With a never-ending to-do list piled with assignments, looming deadlines and a sleep schedule that makes you want to cry, the thought of taking 5 minutes to organise your desk seems too impossible a task. 

However, before you write off the idea too quickly you need to think of the bigger picture. Having an organised workspace can have many benefits on your stress levels, productivity, and overall well-being. And with our tips, you’ll realise that decluttering your workspace is a lot less daunting than you think.

What research says

A study carried out by researchers at Princeton found that working in a cluttered environment can affect our ability to focus. They believed that we process our cluttered environment unconsciously which takes up some of our brain’s attention. As a result, when we combine our cluttered environment with tasks that need our full attention – like revising for an exam– they compete with each other for space in our brain’s cognitive load.

Research also shows that people who tend to procrastinate more may work in messier environments. This is because their messy environment can cause them to get easily distracted. With 75% of students labelling themselves as procrastinators, this may be something you can relate to.

Why do students have such a hard time organising themselves?

Tidying up your room is easy enough and doesn’t require you to learn any new fancy techniques. It is pretty straightforward and can be done straight away. So why do we find it so difficult to organise ourselves?

They’re emotionally attached

We’ve all been there. Rummaging through our desk, finding mementoes from 5 years ago that we forgot we had and don’t particularly need or use. But because of the ‘emotional attachment’ you may have to that note your friend gave you in Year 7, you find it difficult to let go. If you want to hold onto things with sentimental value, why not take a photo? 

They ‘don’t have the time’

One thing a student will relate to is “I don’t have the time to do this”. You need to remind yourself that working in a cluttered environment makes you less productive as you’re surrounded by distractions. By working in a cluttered environment, you essentially waste time in the long run. 

It requires effort

The thought of organising can either bring out our procrastination tendencies or is just too much for assignment-fried brains to handle. Students become so overwhelmed by the clutter that’s already there that they keep avoiding it until it’s out of control. 

Boost your students’ study skills and give them the best chance at academic success, with an evidence-informed workshop.

Why is it important to declutter?

Revising effectively isn’t just about familiarising yourself with different learning strategies like retrieval practice or spacing your revision. It’s also about the environment you choose to work in. Research shows several benefits to a decluttered workspace…

Lower stress levels

An article published found women who described their living environment as cluttered had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and were more likely to report being depressed and tired. Although the study used adults, the same principle can apply to students.

As a student, it can be stressful to come home to a workspace that just reminds you of everything you still need to do. It can make the assignments more daunting than they actually are. This is because your brains mimic your surroundings. So, if your workspace is cluttered, your thoughts will also be cluttered. 

However, by taking the time to organise your desk, you’ll feel more relaxed, better motivated to complete tasks, and more mentally organised. 

Better time-management

If your desk is particularly messy, it can take you ages before you actually find your notes for the assignment or your favourite pen. 4 minutes here, another 6 minutes there and you’ll find the time starts to add up quite quickly. 

Having a tidy desk can boost your efficiency at getting a task done due to being surrounded by fewer distractions. When surrounded by clutter, you lose the ability to focus and be productive, causing you to procrastinate. 

Having an organised desk, keeps your focus on the task at hand, ensuring your revision sessions are a lot more effective. 

5 ways to declutter your workspace

5 ways to declutter your workspace

5 ways to declutter your workspace

Now is the perfect time to make sure your workspace is clutter-free. These top tips will help you find where to start so you can appreciate the benefits of having a clear desk in no time. 

1. Throw away anything you don’t need

Bin any assignments, notes or drawings you no longer need. This gives you the space to work on tasks that actually need your attention. 

2. Make sure everything has a place

Determine which items you use regularly and keep those in the same place on your desk or in one of your drawers. Separate assignments into the following two piles: ‘Started but haven’t finished’ and ‘Still need to start’ as it makes it easier to find them at a later date. 

3. Use desk organisers

These are a cheap but effective way of keeping your desk tidy and your mind clear. This ensures everything in your workspace has a designated area. 

4. Have a display

Invest in a whiteboard or wall display so you can have your to-do list right in front of you. This ensures you don’t feel overwhelmed and are on top of your assignments.

5. Do a daily clean

Take 5 minutes to clean up your desk at the end of a study session. If you feel you’re overwhelmed, take 10-15 minutes each week to have a deep clean. Out with the old, in with the new. 

Final thoughts

5 minutes a day keeps the clutter away.

Tidying your workspace doesn’t require fancy techniques, impressive skills or even much of your time for you to feel the benefits. You shouldn’t view cleaning your workspace as a chore, but rather a necessary step to having more productive revision sessions. 

For further help with revision strategies, have a look at our Best Ways To Revise page with links to more articles and resources.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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