I like to keep both my desk and my computer desktop clean and clutter free. I’ve found that when there is less visual noise, I’m able to better concentrate and focus. In the article “The Proximity Compatibility Principle: Its Psychological Foundation and Relevance to Display Design”, Wickens and Carswell outline scientific principle’s that back up my personal preference.
Unless I’m actively working on a project that requires papers, my desk has nothing on it except my notebook, my computer, and a pen and pencil holder. Likewise, my desktop on my Mac is normally free from files, icons, and distracting wallpaper. If there is a file on my desktop, or if the trash needs to be emptied, I find that my attention is drawn to those cues, and I wind up dealing with them right away.
I always thought it was just because I was picky, but in the article it says
“It is clear that the negative influences of confusion and clutter will be enhanced to the extent that the contributing elements are both salient (bright, distinctive) and cannot be easily discriminated from the relevant ones. (In the visual search literature, this is known as target-distractor similarity.)” (Wickens, and Carswell 473-494)
To me, this is saying that when there are distracting visual elements, like a bright and colorful wallpaper, it takes additional mental effort to concentrate on the task at hand. Furthermore, the article also states
“Added clutter is known to disrupt visual scanning, whether this scanning is carried out by movement of the eyeball or by movement of an internal ‘attention pointer’ (Thorndyke, 1980). It is evident that the costs of scanning over (or filtering out) this clutter will be greater when there are added burdens of integration.” (Wickens, and Carswell 473-494)
When writing, or entering commands into a terminal, I find it much easier to concentrate on the task at hand when there is a single window open on my display, and the background is a neutral grey, and all non-essential visual elements are removed or hidden. I was very glad to read about Information Access Cost, it is good to know that there is actually hard science backing up my personal preferences.