Clean Your Desk: Those Past Projects Are Holding You Back

Does one of your employees work out of an office littered with the wreckage of failed initiatives and plans that fell short of their goals? If so, you may want to suggest some spring cleaning. And not just for the sake of aesthetics. According to a new study from the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, your pack rat will perform new tasks better if he or she stashes these remnants of disappointments out of sight. You might consider doing the same if your own desk resembles a dumping ground.

Rotman professor Dillip Soman, who co-wrote the paper with colleagues from the National University of Singapore and City University of Hong Kong, became interested in this line of research several years ago. He and a graduate student were attempting to begin a new project, but they never got far without returning to a discussion of the old one, which sat in plain view atop Professor Soman's desk. Finally, the graduate student suggested that they stash the previous project in a drawer. This literal closure allowed the two to move on. Similarly, study subjects were able to execute tasks, such as solving math problems, more quickly and accurately if they enclosed their previous tasks, written recollections of past negative experiences, in an envelope.

These results don't surprise Barry Maher, a speaker who offers programs on communication, leadership, management, and handling stress. During the banking crisis, Maher was asked to create a stress management program for CEO members of The American Bankers Association. At the start of one session, he asked the CEOs to write their top three stressors down on a piece of paper, crumple the paper, toss it in the garbage, and scream. "I did it as a joke," he says. But the attendees told Maher they actually felt better after engaging in this ritual.