Digital Wellbeing - Digital Literacy Dover

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Digital Wellbeing

Talking with a colleague about some of the common behaviours that we witness in terms of the working habits employed by students throughout the school when they need to work on a screen.  Interestingly, completely separate from each other, and working in very different areas, we had similar concerns. I’ve always approached this from the point of view of inefficiency and a general lack of organisation, but she had the clever insight that maybe what we should really be concerned about is their well-being. 

With that I set off on a literature review to find out what I could, and sure enough there is a considerable amount of material that has been written in this area, generally organised under the category of ‘clutter”.  

Obviously, as is usually the case with these things, clutter is a problem whether it is digital or non-digital. But what I am noticing is that effectively the clutter that is commonplace in students' laptops  is a big issue, because while this clutter it is largely effectively invisible to the teachers and parents, but

...the negative impact in terms of stress as noted by the research is the same, regardless or not whether clutter is in a physical work environment or a digital work environment.

I regularly encounter many (if not most) students (and adults!) who have normalised a cluttered digital work environment; their norm is to work in a browser with far too many tabs open, lots of different applications open at the same time, work scattered all over the desktop, with files very poorly organised and therefore very difficult to find whatever they need to work on, especially when they have opened the same file multiple times without being aware of it...

These key areas are encompassed by what I call the 'Fundamental 4" four simple areas to review regularly—ideally once a week. Check you are signed in properly, clear your desktop, close all/most of your tabs (bookmark the ones that are important to return to), and tidy up your drive, move loose files into folders.

Ignoring all of this is easy, and understandable, but as we all know, clutter accumulates without requiring any assistance at all. The longer you leave it, the worse it gets, combining to create a lose-lose scenario: an ineffective work flow, that undermines wellbeing. But don't take my word for it, I've collated the essential arguments below (my emphasis in bold): 

Clutter’s Impact on Your Brain

Whether it be your closet or office desk, excess things in your surroundings can have a negative impact on your ability to focus and process information. That’s exactly what neuroscientists at Princeton University* found when they looked at people’s task performance in an organized versus disorganized environment. The results of the study showed that physical clutter in your surroundings competes for your attention, resulting in decreased performance and increased stress.

... Similar to what multitasking does to your brain, physical clutter overloads your senses, making you feel stressed, and impairs your ability to think creatively.

Clutter Isn’t Just Physical

Files on your computer, notifications from your Twitter and Facebook accounts, and anything that goes “ping” in the night competes for your attention. This creates a digital form of clutter that erodes your ability to focus and perform creative tasks. Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy, a New York Times best seller on controlling the flow of information in the digital age, put it best when he said:

"Bits are a new material."

When you have to-do items constantly floating around in your head or you hear a ping or vibrate every few minutes from your phone, your brain doesn’t get a chance to fully enter creative flow or process experiences. When your brain has too much on its plate, it splits its power up. The result? You become awful at:
  • filtering information
  • switching quickly between tasks
  • keeping a strong working memory

The overconsumption of digital stuff has the same effect on your brain as physical clutter.

If you work on a computer, having a cluttered desktop every time you turn on your computer can give you a constant uneasy feeling. At the end of each day, remove every file from your desktop.

Clutter, whether physical or digital, is something you’ll always have to deal with but it can be controlled. Finding ways to steer the streams of consumption in your favour will give you a sense of power and a freed mind… 

When your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter makes you distracted and unable to process information as well as you do in an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment.
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other physiological measurement tools to map the brain’s responses to organized and disorganized stimuli and to monitor task performance. The conclusions were strong — if you want to focus to the best of your ability and process information as effectively as possible, you need to clear the clutter from your home and work environment. This research shows that you will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better with an uncluttered and organized home and office.

The science of focus

From our computer desktop, to our car, to our kitchen counter and fridge—clutter is clutter, and it affects us whether we think so or not.

In a study by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute*, researchers monitored task performance when an individual was surrounded by organized versus disorganized environments.

Overall, subjects were more productive, less irritable and distracted in the clutter-free environment versus the disorganized environment where their stress increased.

The brain has a limited capacity to process information. To filter out extra stimuli and focus on what we are trying to achieve at any given moment, the top-down and bottom-up attention mechanisms compete. By mutually suppressing each other, brain power is exhausted, and ultimately we lose focus. 

Cognitive Clutter

Humans are bad at multitasking. It’s a hard fact to come to grips with, especially in a society that values professional productivity so highly. We’re encouraged to work on multiple projects at once so that we can get them all done faster, but science has shown us that this actually slows us down — working on a single task is much more efficient than trying to direct our attention in multiple directions.

This is related to why clutter has such a negative effect on our mental capacities. Just seeing a cluttered desk or home adds to the number of things that we have to expend mental resources on to process, both visually and cognitively. This adds to the load placed on your brain. Using more mental power requires more energy, which is why clutter can make you feel more fatigued.

Think about your digital workspace. Decluttering your Windows or Mac desktop, clearing your inbox, and even your declutter browser tabs can make you feel a lot better. It encourages you to back up your old files, and cleans up your workspace. It may even help you find things that you’ve lost — old notes in Evernote or old articles in Pocket that are really useful or more applicable now than when you saved them.

Digital decluttering is a great way to bring new energy to your life.

Digital clutter is a real thing. Keep your digital life organized by using the same principles as you would with physical clutter.

Managing disorderliness is good for health. It reduces your stress, prevents feeling guilty about your cleanliness, and keeps your brain from getting overloaded by unhelpful things.

Clutter robs you of mental energy, leaving you feeling anxious, tired, and overwhelmed.
  • It frustrates you.
  • It makes you lose things and waste time.
  • It ruins your focus and concentration, drawing attention away from what’s important.

Why Your Brain Loves Order

The human brain is wired to respond positively to order.

Psychotherapist and professional organizer Cindy Glovinsky says that order feels good, in part because it’s easier for our brains to deal with.

In an organized space, your brain doesn’t have to work so hard.

This leaves you feeling calm and energized.

When you enter a pleasing, uncluttered space, you can more readily concentrate and focus.

Why Clutter Is Killing Your Focus (and How to Fix It)

What should you hope to improve by decluttering in your personal or professional life?

Better focus.

Evidence* suggests that when multiple visual stimuli are competing for your attention, you have a harder time narrowing your focus to only one of them. That means the clutter in your life is making you unfocused. You’ll have a harder time staying on task at work, and you won’t be as “present” in your home life, either. Decluttering brings better focus back to your world.

Academic Note for Boffins

*The study (McMains & Kastner, 2011) referenced by many of these articles is one of the most flagrant examples of academic gibberish I have ever encountered. Here's a taste:

"Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system."


I have read the article, it wasn't easy, and it took a lot of determination—but I can confirm that it largely supports the claims made above. In fact I would argue it goes further than they do, in that it finds that stimuli in the environment (bottom-up) compete with whatever we are trying to focus on (top-down), but what is more of concern is that they find the environmental stimuli ‘win’ as these are subconsciously prioritised by our brain, regardless of whatever the work is that we are trying to “spotlight“. 

Image by Mikhail Grachikov and Gst via Shutterstock.

McMains, S., & Kastner, S. (2011). Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(2), 587-597. 


  1. Sean, I think I am one of 'those' adults you encounter! I completely agree with the benefits of turning the mess into form.

    1. Let us bring wellbeing to the world together!

  2. I completely agree. Thanks for sharing.