Stacks of paper, overflowing inboxes, and cluttered desks are major contributors to stress. To regain a sense of calm, you need to take control of your space. Here’s how to do it.
Make Sure You Can See the Door
“Come around here like the good lad and sit facing the door. It’s not that I think there’s any danger in the castle; it’s just a habit I want you to form.” —Thufir Hawat, Dune
Much like a zebra at the watering hole, you want to know when a predator (or an angry boss or client) is on the prowl. Whenever possible, place a wall to your back with the door in your line of sight. You should also arrange your furniture so you can see who walks by and enters your office. Attorney and Feng shui master Liseanne Kelly notes that sitting with your back to the window or door can create a lot of subconscious stress and tension.
Rearranging your furniture also comes with the bonus of reducing neck strain because you won’t have to crane to see who is coming.
Deal With the Clutter
Piles of stuff in your office can cause stress. Research confirms that seeing too many things at once can stress the mind’s processing abilities. To make your desk less stressful, you need to manage the clutter.
But that doesn’t mean clearing your desk entirely. Instead, Kelly advises that you classify your piles into three groups: a homeless clutter, a “woulda, shoulda, coulda” clutter, and a trash clutter.
The homeless clutter isn’t necessarily bad; you just need to find a home for it. Create files, binders, and labels to find a home for your items. Be careful not to create an overly extravagant filing system, though, because that can also cause stress. People who get too fancy with their organization systems still won’t find anything because they can’t remember how their system works.
Fancy filing systems also mean you have to spend a lot of time putting things away. Another time suck in your time-starved world is not likely to reduce stress.
“Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda” Clutter
The “woulda, shoulda, coulda” clutter is a bigger problem. It consists of things you meant to do but haven’t. These are things like unread bar journals or projects you have not started. For many people, this clutter causes feelings of being overwhelmed and guilt—a reminder they never get through their to-do lists.
To address this clutter, Kelly recommends creating a single repository. When it gets full, go through the whole box in a single sitting and decide whether to use it or trash it. But don’t let this clutter accumulate where you see it every time you sit down to work.
This third category of clutter is generally harmful. “It [trash clutter] increases stress, wastes our time and contributes towards a feeling of being stuck,” Kelly explains. Trash clutter is all the stuff you don’t need and don’t use, but you keep anyway. Just get rid of this clutter. But Kelly cautions there may be emotional reasons you haven’t trashed this stuff yet, and it’s worth paying attention to why you are hanging onto something you don’t need anymore. “Try to identify why you thought it was necessary to keep the coffee mug you received from a court reporting firm 10 years ago, but you’ve never actually used,” she says.
If you aren’t ready to part with your trash clutter, then box it up, date the box, and stash it out of sight for three-to-six months. When you go back to the box, tossing the clutter inside is usually easy.
Go Green (Literally)
Perhaps the easiest change you can make is adding plants to your workspace. Plants have been shown to reduce stress. In one study, hospital patients in rooms with indoor plants reported less stress than patients in rooms with a painting on the wall. Another study of 385 office workers similarly found that the more plants employees could see from their desks, the less sick leave they took. The same study indicated that workers who have plants on their desks are less stressed and have lower blood pressure than those who don’t.
There is No Gain to Pain
Physical discomfort can contribute to the stress cycle because pain and stress are closely linked. In a vicious cycle, stress can cause pain, which itself becomes a new stressor. To break the pain-stress cycle, make sure you work in comfort. Keep key objects close by, ensure that your chair offers good lumbar support and permits your feet to comfortably rest on the floor, and place the top of your monitor just below eye-level.
Though the psychological benefits of stand-up desks have not been thoroughly researched, early adopters’ anecdotes suggest stand-up desks may reduce stress. A stand-up desk forces you to engage in stress-reducing physical activity and may encourage stress-reducing postures.
Get Creative with Your Space
Customizing your space is one of the most effective ways to make it less stressful. According to the Journal of Environmental Psychology, people who design their space according to their preferences show greater satisfaction. Another study found that offices with no decorations were the worst for people’s psyches—worse even than offices where management controls the décor. Simply put, people who exert personal control over their workspaces have higher job satisfaction and less stress.
Think about what personal touches would make you feel calm, happy, and productive. Maybe a picture of your family, a lovely landscape, or a souvenir from your vacation. Consider lighting, temperature, and furniture choice. You are the person who has to work here, and taking control over your space is likely to lower your stress.
Choose Colors Wisely
Colors in your environment can play a big role in creating moods. Kelly notes that, generally speaking, blue, green, and indigo help create a calmer environment. A Minnesota State University study confirmed green and white rooms provoked lower stress responses than red rooms. If you are seeking calm, try green and blue and be cautious with red—which can stimulate energy and become overpowering.
When it comes to color, Kelly cautions, the most important thing to remember is that it is extremely personal, and you should consider how you react to a particular color. Orange, for example, tends to evoke strong reactions: people either love it or hate it.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, background noise aggravates stress responses. Clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine, which is associated with stress response. Even worse, the study found that people in noisy environments made fewer ergonomic adjustments than they would in private, which contributed to the physical discomfort that can be an independent stressor.
Office noise is a stressor because you can’t control it. Try reintroducing control over the noise with noise-cancelling headphones or your own music. If you can, consider talking to your office mates about the value of quiet working space.
In the end, Gretchen Rubin, lawyer-turned-author of The Happiness Project, is right: one of the greatest “secrets of adulthood” really is that “outer order contributes to inner calm.” And there’s no better place to start imposing outer order than at our desks.
Originally published 2015-02-04. Republished 2017-01-20.
Featured image: “Closeup view of a very cluttered businessman’s desk” from Shutterstock.