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Desk makeover: I redesigned my work space to boost my productivity and mental health

Stark and barren spaces make us just as stressed out as a cluttered space. When it comes to our work environment it's all about striking a balance.
Image: Working desk in a domestic room
A good rule of thumb is to have 4-5 items on your desk, so that you're stimulated by your work space, but not overwhelmed.Linda Raymond / Getty Images

Starting your workday off in a good mood improves productivity, according to a recent study published by the Academy of Management. Of course, there are plenty of factors that are out of your control — a traffic-filled commute, oversleeping or forgetting something important at home can all easily shift your mood to the negative. To combat this, I've spent the past few years adorning my desk (the first thing I see when I enter the office) with items that make me happy: personal photos, sweet notes from coworkers and cats. Lots of cats.

Recently, this has gotten out of hand. Instead of starting my work day feeling happy and energized by looking at my decor, I'd immediately feel stressed out and overwhelmed at clutter (and the number of cats) staring back at me.

This issue (not cat specific) is apparently common — something that professional organizer Corinne Morahan helps clients work through every day. "We can surround ourselves with things that are pretty and make us feel good, but then there's the tipping point where the clutter starts to weigh you down," she says.

As applied environmental psychologist Sally Augustin explains, this is due to our need to process all the visual stimuli around us. "Our brains are still conditioned to be looking around in our environment regularly the way we did as an early species to identify predators,” she explains. According to Augustin, stark and barren spaces make us just as stressed out as a space with a lot going on. To strike the right balance for productivity, you need to find just the right amount of visual complexity.

Here's a look at how to redesign your work space for productivity — what to add, what to avoid and the right way to display everything to get the most out of your desk this year.

Page's cluttered desk before the makeover.
Page's cluttered desk before the makeover.

Tip 1: Strike the right balance of visual complexity

Augustin recommends having your desk space emulate what's known as moderate visual complexity, like the interior designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. A good rule of thumb is to have around 4-5 items on your desk, as well as a handful of neatly arranged items on your bulletin board, so that you're stimulated by what's on your desk, but not overwhelmed.

"Keep a few personal items out that send desired messages about who you are and what's important to you," says Augustin. Displaying what you value about yourself to others in your office actually reduces stress levels and makes it easier to communicate with coworkers. "Stress is always diverting your mental processing power, whether you realize it or not," Augustin continues. "You can focus more effectively on what you can get done knowing your space is working for you to convey that information."

1. Nixplay Seed 10-Inch Wi-Fi Digital Photo Frame

Have more than a few photos you'd like to display? A digital picture frame can free up real estate on your desk.

2. Reusable Cable Ties

I had a tough time deciding what to eliminate, so Augustin suggested I put the remaining items in a non-transparent box under my desk, so that I could swap out items each month. Loose chords are another common offender when it comes to visual clutter (something I hadn't even noticed behind all these cats on my desk). The solution? Chord ties. "Chord ties are a way to neaten up your space and make it feel intentional, it can make such a difference to making the space look tidy," says Morahan.

Tip 2: Add items that improve your workflow

Once I paired down my cats and put away my chords, Morahan had me look at the items I use most throughout the day. In addition to my computer, I'm usually grabbing for something to write with and plopping down the occasional paper before or after a meeting.

1. Poppin Letter Tray

To keep papers organized, Morahan suggests having a letter tray or organizer that's easily accessible, where you keep papers you're going to need that week on top, and any you'll need to hand off on the bottom so that you know where everything is, and don't need to spend time searching for things.

2. Poppin Pen Cup

I went through each of my writing utensils to make sure they were still in working order, then separated pens, pencils and markers. Since I most frequently use pens and pencils to write, I put my markers in a side drawer organizer, and used this pen organizer to separate pens from pencils.

3. The Container Store's Clear 3-Section Vertical File

If your job requires more paperwork than a simple in/out box, Morahan suggests an organizer with more space for categorizing documents.

Tip 3: Choose soothing colors and shapes

When looking for new desk accessories, Augustin suggests incorporating calming colors that aren't oversaturated (like sage green, dusty blue, pale pink) that mimic colors found in nature, as they tend to have a calming effect. "At work, we're typically energized — we want to do a good job," she says. "Bringing in a few items that are calming can help balance that out to help you be more productive." Augustin also explained that cylindrical shapes tend to be soothing, while rectilinear shapes promote efficiency, so I made sure my desk had a mix of both.

Tip 4: Add a plant

Studies have found that simply adding plants to your desk decor can improve productivity by up to 15 percent. I’d cast my neglected cactus to the side, but Augustin convinced me to move it into my direct line of view to reap these benefits.

1. The Sill Snake Plant

If your office doesn't get a lot of direct sunlight, opt for greenery like the snake plant. You can go up to 3-4 weeks between waterings and it can thrive even if there's absolutely no natural light.

Tip 5: Hang photos of nature

Being in nature has plenty of health benefits — but if you can't get outdoors during your lunch hour (or your office has an anti-plant policy), Augustin says being able to glance at a photo of calming greenery can be the next best thing.

1. Nature’s Radiance 2020 Wall Calendar

"Looking at an image of nature helps you restock your levels of mental energy after you've run them down doing work; it uses a different part of your brain to take it in than the part of the brain you use when you're working," she explains. I took her recommendation and added a photo of a field with trees to my bulletin board as well.

Tip 6: Include a scent

There's a reason why we light candles when we want to relax in the bath or spritz on perfume before date night — pleasant smells make us feel good. And they don't have to be relegated to after hours. Scents like citrus, vanilla and lavender tend to be universally enjoyed (and unlikely to offend your coworkers).

1. Enviroscent Stix + Stand Starter Kit

Make sure you're not going overboard — the scent should be only mildly noticeable. These reed diffusers get the job done, look calming and are eco-friendly.

Page's redesigned desk — with a healthy dose of cats.
Page's redesigned desk — with a healthy dose of cats.

The results

Sitting down at my newly updated desk made me feel immediately calmer. Coworkers can now tell that I have a cat, instead of trying to guess which one is mine. I have a place to put papers so they aren't cluttering my space, can grab a writing utensil quickly and know it will work, and don't have to play detective about where I put that last spreadsheet print out. And when things are particularly crazy at work, taking a beat to take in the forest scene really does wonders for my stress levels. I am buying into the notion that your physical space reflects your internal environment — and mine is finally a whole lot calmer.

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