Picture this: a client walks into a financial advisor’s office. There’s a tsunami of loose papers on top of the advisor’s desk, as well as receipts and other items scattered among them.

This example of a cluttered office would certainly impact clients’ perception of that advisor. But, more important, the clutter already has taken a negative toll on that advisor’s mood and productivity.

In fact, scientific studies have confirmed a direct correlation between mess and stress. When people see clutter, their brains interpret that clutter as multiple stimuli, which ultimately compete for a brain’s attention all at once. The brain then gets overloaded, according to a January 2011 study conducted by researchers at Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute, entitled Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex.

For advisors, clutter on a desk can be a source of great frustration, says Joanne Ferguson, co-founder and president of Advisor Pathways Inc. in Toronto: “[Advisors] will spend most of their time looking for files rather than working on them. This is counterproductive and can add unnecessary stress to their practices.”

Clutter also can impact the brain subconsciously, says Sherrie Bourg Carter, a psychologist in Miami and author of High-Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout: “In our minds, we view this clutter as unfinished business, a constant reminder that our work is not done and, in cases of chronic clutter, never done. The lack of completeness or closure is unsettling and stressful to most people. However, we often don’t make the direct connection between mess and stress, which makes it challenging to identify.”

Ironically, some advisors may believe that a cluttered environment works for them, Ferguson says: “I’ve heard advisors with cluttered offices say, ‘It’s an environment that works for me.’ However, I’d challenge that because I don’t think it works for anyone, especially not for serving clients.”

Clutter is more than a stress inducer; it is a business risk, Ferguson adds: “When client information is left out in the open, advisors are not ensuring or respecting client confidentiality.”

If you aren’t convinced of how clutter could be impacting your business, Bourg Carter suggests the following exercise: close your eyes and visualize an office with files strewn across the desk and disorganized boxes all over the place; then, visualize an office with a nice clean desk and everything in its place.

“Just visualizing the messy office will make most people feel tense compared with how they feel visualizing the clean office,” she says. “So, just imagine how it would feel actually living or working in a messy space.”

To keep clutter at bay, try these daily tips:

Start getting “fat.” Getting “FAT” isn’t related to body weight. Instead, it stands for: “file it”; “act on it”; or “throw it out.”

“Take action with those scattered items in your space and tackle them head on,” Ferguson says. “If you don’t take action, they will keep building up and remind you of your ineffectiveness in getting things done.”

Random papers strewn everywhere is Public Enemy No. 1 in stressful clutter, Bourg Carter says: “We are inundated with mail, flyers, magazines, memos and the like. The key is being conscious of what you and others bring into your workspace and to go through it as soon as you can.”

This is how using FAT keeps clutter to a minimum, Ferguson says: “It’s important to make the decision consciously about when you’re going to read that pile and try to do so immediately rather than toss it to the side and tell yourself you’ll read it later – because the likelihood is that you won’t.”

Designate spaces. Create designated spaces for frequently used items and supplies. But make sure these designated spaces are “closed” spaces, such as drawers and cabinets, if possible, Bourg Carter suggests: “Storing things on open shelves or on top of your desk does not remove those visual stimuli that create stress and lessens the amount of open space your mind sees.”

Get your assistant’s help. For advisors who are tactile, collecting clutter is a predisposed condition, says Ferguson.

“These advisors cannot organize clutter themselves, and this is where an assistant is needed,” she says. “He or she can help to develop an organizational system and objectively keep your clutter in check.”

Declutter your primary workspace before leaving. Although it’s normal to pull things out while you’re working in a space, try to make a habit of cleaning off your workspace before you go, suggests Bourg Carter: “Not only will this give you a sense of closure when you leave; it also will make you feel good when you return to a nice, clean space.”

© 2015 Investment Executive. All rights reserved.