I was chatting with a musician recently who was housesitting for a friend, and finding it surprisingly difficult to practice in this new environment. Some of it was the heat (no air conditioning), but more than that, they found it surprisingly difficult to focus amongst all of the clutter.
I was reminded of the saying that a cluttered desk is a cluttered mind, and it made me wonder…could this be true?
Because there are times when a sudden obsession with cleaning is really just a procrastination strategy. At least, I’m assuming that the voice in your head who says you ought to steam-clean the microwave or whiten the grout in your kitchen floor tiles before practicing is a universal phenomenon…
Anyhow, I thought this might be worth looking into. Like, how important is it really to maintain a tidy practice area or teaching studio? Can clutter really disrupt the level of our focus during practice, or even how much learning takes place, in a significant way?
A learning study
A team of Carnegie Mellon researchers recruited 24 kindergarten students to participate in a two-week learning study (Fisher et al., 2014).
Six times, over the course of two weeks, students went to the authors’ research lab to receive a 5-7 minute lesson on topics like volcanoes, the solar system, and bugs. They’d sit on the floor in a semi-circle while a guest “teacher” would read aloud from a book, and show the students illustrations of what they were learning.
Two versions of the same classroom
On half of their visits, their “classroom” was decorated to resemble a typical kindergarten classroom – complete with colorful signs and science posters, maps, portraits of presidents, artwork created by the children participating in the study, and more.
On the other half of their visits, the room was sparsely decorated. Everything that was unrelated to the lesson was taken down. Which was pretty much everything, leaving just a bare room with blank white walls.
So….the first question was, how much of an impact did these posters and decorations have on students’ ability to focus on the lesson?
How distracted were they?
The researchers videotaped each lesson, and used this to calculate how much time each student spent looking at the teacher or the book. It’s not a perfect measure of focus, but as long as students’ eyes were on the teacher, they were considered to be engaged in “on-task” behavior.
The researchers also calculated how much time students spent “off-task.” Where they were no longer looking at the teacher and clearly distracted by something else, whether it was their shoelaces, another classmate, or a poster on the wall.
Was there any difference in their level of on-task vs. off-task behavior between these two room setups?
Differences in focus
Well, in the decorated classroom, students were distracted by other things in the classroom (like posters on the wall, etc.) 20.56% of the time. Whereas in the sparsely decorated room, they were distracted by other things in the room only 3.21% of the time.
To be fair, when the room was stripped of decorations, the students did find other ways to get distracted. They spent significantly more time during these lessons being distracted by themselves (e.g. playing with their clothes), or by fellow classmates.
Still, students’ focus was significantly higher overall in the sparsely-decorated classrooms, as they stayed on-task about 71.58% of the time (distracted only 28% of the time). Compared to when they were in the fully decorated room, where they stayed focused on the teacher and lesson only about 61.42% of the time (distracted 39% of the time).
Ok…but did this have any impact on learning? Maybe they were still listening intently, even if their eyes didn’t show it?
Differences in learning
All of the students took a test before the study began to see how much they already knew about the lesson topics. And then after each lesson, they took another short 6-question quiz to see how much they learned.
On the pre-test, students got an average score of 22.7%. With pretty much the same performance on the topics that would be taught in the sparsely-decorated room (22%) as the topics that would be taught in the fully-decorated room (23%).
When it came to the post-test, scores did improve in both the fully and sparsely-decorated classrooms. However, students seemed to learn better in the sparsely-decorated room, as they got an average score of 55% in the sparsely decorated room, compared to 42% in the fully-decorated room.
Ok – that’s all very interesting, but hold on a sec. Aren’t kindergarteners notoriously distractible…?
Does this apply to adults too?
Yes, they can be indeed! And we definitely do get better at focusing past distractions and ignoring task-irrelevant things around us as we go through childhood and become adults.
However, a 2011 study (McMains & Kastner) found that even as adults, our brains still like things to be orderly. And it takes mental effort to ignore disorder around us, which detracts from our ability to focus on the task at hand.
So at the end of the day, it does appear that there could be some truth to the idea that a cluttered desk equals a cluttered mind!
But does this mean that a minimalist aesthetic is essential for your practice area or teaching studio?
Or could this be the science-based excuse you’ve been waiting for, to finally give yourself permission to splurge on everything you’ve ever wanted at The Container Store?
Well…that’s probably a bit extreme, because there are likely individual differences in perception of clutter and distractibility. At least, based on my wife and I and our kids, there does not seem to be a universally agreed-upon clutter standard.
Is it clutter?
Like, is this stack of books clutter? Or decorative?
Is this pile of half-folded t-shirts on your bed clutter? Or a cozy napping spot for the dog? (Ok, I’d argue that the answer to that last one is much more cut and dry, but have a family member who would disagree. 😆)
Also, the study took place over just two weeks, so it’s possible that over a longer span of time, students might have gotten used to or “habituated” to the distractions in the classroom. Where it may have become easier to ignore the things around them and focus more of their attention on the teacher.
But still, over the two weeks, the amount of time students spent off-task didn’t change much. It dropped a tiny bit – from 48% to 46% – but I suppose that’s something that will have to be studied further in a future study.
Clutter is sometimes ok?
And if we really wanted to play devil’s advocate, there is a study which found that a cluttered desk may not always be bad, but that seems to be a bit of a special case, related to creativity…
So what can we take away from all of this?
Well, overall, my take is that if you feel like you need to tidy up before practicing, or if you’re having difficulty focusing and your surroundings feel a bit cluttered, it’s probably not just a procrastination tactic or an excuse.
The clutter or visual distractions around you could very well be related to the amount of time your brain spends going off-task.
So if your practice space or studio could use a summer cleaning, give yourself permission to do a bit of uncluttering and organizing this week. See if a less-cluttered practice space helps with your focus, or maybe even makes sitting down to practice a little more enjoyable.
But do be sure to set a time limit so you don’t suddenly become fixated on organizing your scores or digitizing your CD collection and avoiding practice altogether!
Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1362–1370. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614533801
McMains, S., & Kastner, S. (2011). Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(2), 587–597. https://doi.org/10.1523/jneurosci.3766-10.2011