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A psychologist explains how to organise your computer desktop for optimal productivity

Dog computerWikipedia CommonsWe all have our own desktop preferences, but everyone should follow these general tips.

In the digital age, the state of our computer desktop is arguably more important than that of our actual, physical desk.

Yet, we constantly neglect them — we litter them with old documents, photos, and folders we no longer need, and fail to clean them up as often as we should.

The problem with having a messy computer desktop is, it can negatively affect our productivity, says psychologist Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, California.

“A clean desk or desktop can be like taking a deep breath, allowing you to focus,” Rutledge says.

On the other hand, when your computer desktop is cluttered, it takes more time to find important documents and locate icons, which slows down your workflow. Staring at an overwhelmingly disorganized desktop all day can also affect your mood — it can make you anxious or frustrated — which, of course, also impacts productivity.

If you want to give your computer an end-of-the year clean-out that will help you achieve optimal productivity, follow these five tips from Rutledge:

1. Select the right wallpaper

Natalie Walters

Leave the default background or personalise it?

Rutledge says a desktop wallpaper photo should meet these three criteria: it doesn't camouflage desktop icons (no highly active or busy wallpapers); it's visually pleasing to you (think mountains or subtle patterns); and it doesn't strain your eyes (no highlighter colours). 'Most of the standard wallpapers do not fit this category,' Rutledge says.

While research shows that the colour red is energizing and stimulates analytical thinking and blue is calming and enhances creativity, Rutledge says that a small desktop screen is 'unlikely to have that profound effect.'

2. Delete (or hide) every desktop icon you don't use on a regular basis

Screenshot

We all have that one coworker whose desktop makes us openly cringe (or maybe that person is you) -- and it's usually because they don't clean out their desktop files.

Rutledge says having too many files on your desktop can make them harder to find, which can slow you down and increase your frustration level. Plus, it uses up your computer's resources, which slows its processing speed down.

Delete (or remove from your desktop) any old files you don't use on a regular basis, or won't ever need again.

If you like having your files -- even the old ones -- in an easy-to-access location, Rutledge suggests creating a 'filing system' by grouping them into four quadrants: folders, documents, apps, and things to be filed into your documents.

Rutledge says you can also use aliases, or tiny files that can be saved in more than one place and that automatically open up another file, and organise them into 'buckets.'

3. Limit the number of web browser tabs you have open at once

Natalie Walters

If it takes you longer than 10 seconds to close out of all your tabs or internet windows, then you may have a problem.

Like icons, too many tabs or windows can also drain your computer's processing power and make locating a specific page difficult, Rutledge says.

She suggests creating bookmarks on your browser or clipping pages to create a notebook in Evernote, a note-taking app, which can ease your anxiety about not being able to find a certain tab again, while also clearing out the unneeded ones.

4. Don't leave your email or social media sites open on your desktop all day

Natalie Walters

Leaving your email open so you can impress your recipients with your lightening-speed response time is not the best use of your skills -- or your time.

Our brains are 'hardwired to be social and to notice something new,' Rutledge says, which means that every new notification that we see on our browser is going to distract us from our work and tempt us to check it.

She says that our brains are 'lazy' and would rather perform an easy task like answering an email and receive an immediate feeling of accomplishment rather than making a spreadsheet or writing an article or a report and having to wait for that rewarding feeling.

'In the long term, the report will be more rewarding because you will be doing your job better (or keeping it),' Rutledge says.

Social media can also be distracting -- and addictive -- because making social connections 'triggers the release of dopamine in the reward center of the brain,' she says.

To determine whether communication tabs are too distracting for you, Rutledge suggests working without them for a while, and when you feel the urge to check them again, ask yourself why you want to.

'For me, it's usually because I'm working on something difficult, and I'm trying to escape the task,' Rutledge says.

While social media can be distracting, Rutledge admits that everyone needs a periodic mental break. 'Just balance the mental vacations so that they are supporting your productivity, not hurting it,' Rutledge says.

5. Play music that relaxes you, but minimise the program on your desktop

Natalie Walters

If your workplace lets you listen to tunes, it may lead to an increase in your productivity level -- or it may just lead to you Googling different song lyrics.

'Music, for many people, helps regulate mood and focus attention,' Rutledge says.

If this is the case for you, then music can increase your productivity while also triggering the release of dopamine in the reward center of the brain (like social connections), Rutledge says.

But, if you catch yourself mouthing the words to the song, Rutledge says you should immediately change the song or your brain will focus on the song lyrics, rather than your work.

'Contrary to popular beliefs, our brains cannot multi-task,' Rutledge says. 'We can task-switch and do it very quickly, but that takes additional cognitive effort.'

Another tip: Minimise the iTunes, Pandora, or Spotify apps so you don't get further distracted.

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