If you have to scale a mountain of papers just to make it across your office, you’re not doing your career—or health—any favors. Princeton scientists say that physical clutter in your environment negatively affects your job performance and raises your stress. And according to a joint study from Harvard and Stanford, work stress contributes to 120,000 deaths every year.
With stakes like those, it’s time to make a sweep. But annual spring cleaning won’t cut it. Instead, here’s how to use the ancient Chinese art of feng shui to reorganize your office and re-energize your life.
Step 1: De-Clutter Your Desk
The goal of feng shui is to optimize your space to promote success, says Alex Stark, a top feng shui consultant whose clients include Whole Foods, Hyatt, and Conde Nast. You may not have an office, but you definitely have a desk. Start there.
Make your desk as bare as can be, Stark says. Leave only your laptop, a notepad pertaining to your current task, and a lamp, and store the rest of your stuff in a filing cabinet or closet. This doesn’t just tidy up your space—it unburdens your brain.
“As much as you think you can multitask, you really can’t,” says Stark. “Most people can only hold one thought at time. But when you put four or five objects on your desk, they all become new thoughts. They distract you and reduce your optimal output for the one task you’re supposed to be doing.”
Step 2: Play Use It, Love It, or Lose It
Think of your office like your teeth: It needs a serious cleaning at least twice a year, says Stark. And just like scheduling a date with your dentist, make an actual appointment on your calendar to overhaul your office—you’ll never organize it on the fly.
“This forces you to really, truly think about what’s in your office,” Stark says. “Because even though you look at your stuff every day, you don’t actually see the objects you’ve accumulated. Most of the things that once mattered to you are completely meaningless now, and sucking up all your energy.”
Follow Stark’s “use it, love it, or lose it” rule: Unless you’re actively using the item to reach an immediate goal—such as a public speaking guide that will help you nail a huge presentation—or it’s fundamentally important to you, like that letter opener your dad gave to you after you published your first paper, throw it in storage or the trash.
Step 3: Feel Your Furniture
When choosing your furniture, pick materials that are symbolic to your industry, Stark says. For example, if you’re in finance, go with metallic, glass objects. “Metal signifies strength and glass is translucent, so this combo gives you the sense of adaptability within very difficult but coherent financial structures,” he says. “That’s the reason why a lot of corporate environments have this kind of furniture.”
If you work in healthcare, select softer, more casual pieces, like an armchair. “This kind of furniture shows nurture toward the patient,” Stark says.
Step 4: Purge Your Past
Your office walls are probably filled with personal accomplishments like diplomas and awards. While you should feel proud of your past, you shouldn’t live in it, says Stark. In fact, he recommends packing up any relic that’s more than two years old.
“These are just old victories,” he says. “The more you see them, the more you rest on your laurels. You always have to think about what you’re going to do tomorrow—not what you did yesterday.”
Instead, pick stimulating, inspiring decorations that reflect and reinforce your goals, Stark says. “Everything in your office should trigger thoughts of success in your field.”
You can take this as literally as you want, says Stark. Work in real estate? Frame a photograph of the New York City skyline to inspire you to think big. If you’re a writer, hang portraits of your literary heroes or posters of their best-known books.
Step 5: Add a Touch of Nature
Every office should have a plant or water fountain, Stark says. Both have calming, restorative effects, and Washington State scientists say even just being around a plant can help you destress.
One suggestion: a potted lemon balm. An Ohio State study shows the lemon scent can boost your mood.
Just make sure to place the item in the far left corner of your office, as seen from your door. Stark says this is the spot that draws the most natural energy, since the sun rises in the east (your left) and humans have been conditioned for millions of years to associate energy and productivity with the left side of any room.