What does a cluttered desktop mean?

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Is your desktop so frequently cluttered with icons and folders that its hard to find room for new files or projects? Do you wish that your desktop was more organized or that you had more room to breathe? This posting explores some aspects of what a cluttered desktop means.

It argues that it is important to have a clean, organized desktop at least some of the time, and suggests a methodology of keeping your desktop organized.

Having a cluttered desktop can mean many different things. Over the years I have observed the desktops of people that I knew well; bosses, co-workers, friends, and of course my own (frequently very cluttered) desktop, and have come to the conclusion that there are both  positive and negative interpretations, as follows:

What does a cluttered desktop mean4

  • [The Positive take] A cluttered desktop can mean that you’re in “flow”: i.e. in that zone of enjoyable mental concentration described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This is what you experience when working on something that you find engaging and you’re hitting your stride. I typically experience this the night before a project deadline, wherein not just my desktop but my physical desk might look like a war zone, with my desktop being literally taken over by the files I am using for my project. However, this is mostly enjoyable and I do not feel cluttered or overwhelmed.
  • [The negative take] A cluttered desktop can mean that you’re over stretched and over worked: in which case, you should press on the brakes as soon as you can. Items left on the desktop are often deferred decisions (“I will figure out what to do with this later, so I will leave it on the desktop that it is within sight and I do not forget it”). What makes things worse is that many items that are left for a long time are likely to be resolved on their own; many will simply become outdated and irrelevant; in the meanwhile, the icons linger on and on, occupying space and competing with more important things for your visual attention.

A desktop cleaning methodology:

If your desktop is cluttered because you are actually producing and in flow (the ‘positive take’ above), then you’re in a good place, keep focusing on your work. Once your project is done you can deal with the artifacts on your desktop.

Otherwise, if the clutter is endemic and counter-productive, do the following.

  • Make an appointment with yourself: once a week at the end of the working day, give yourself a half an hour to organize your desktop (what does an ‘organize desktop’ mean? read on).
  • Take the appointment seriously. It has to be at the END of the last day of the current week, not at the beginning of the first day of the next. This will bring ‘closure’ to your week and will actually raise a lot of issues that you may have forgotten about or that you need to deal with. You will have a much better and productive next week as well, since your subconscious mind will have had time to digest and sort though those issues; you will feel like you are starting a new week, as opposed to reliving the old one.
  • When sorting your icons, do ALL THREE actions mentioned in the ‘how to organize your desktop’ section below: which is to say do some of all of the following (1) organize your icons into groups or piles, (2) move some icons into folders, and (3) delete some icons.
  • That’s it!

How to organize your desktop:

There are THREE actions that you can take to organize a desktop, as follows:

  1. Sorting your icons into various piles or groups on the desktop. This is what most of us do by default, each pile or group being relegated to an area of the screen. This is remarkably effective and easy to do, and does not involve making too many decisions.
  2. Sorting your icons into various folders: involves making some decisions about whether you can afford to stash them out of sight. But take heart; though icons stored in folders are no longer visible, don’t worry too much about the risk of forgetting about them altogether; chances are you are actively filtering them out of attention anyway AND suffering a cluttered environment at the same time. Go ahead and do it; sort your icons into folders. However, make sure that not all of your folders end up on the desktop; some files belong in folders that exist elsewhere on you hard drive.
  3. Deleting icons: deleting is cathartic and feels good. Some icons need to be deleted. Delete a handful every time you organize your desktop.

Freeware tools to help organize your desktop:

The BEHAVIOR described above are more important than any organizational tools you might use. But using tools is fun, value-added (hopefully) and can sometimes be a  trigger or aide in making the icon organizing behavior happen.

If tools are what you are after then check out my recent article entitled “Ten free tools to better organize your desktop icons”, where include screenshots that show the kind of result you can get with each tool. Also look for the rating that I gave each tool (at the bottom of each mini review), which can be helpful.


Do you have any thoughts or strategies that relate to organizing desktop icons? Please share them in the comments section below.