What do these things have in common?

-A cell phone display showing 23 missed calls and 11 unopened voicemails.

-A computer screen showing a half-completed Word document, 10 open web-browser windows and an open instant-message chat.

-A computer monitor with 300 icons on the desktop, dozens of which are partially or completely covering other icons.

Answer: These are all examples of digital clutter.

And digital clutter is still clutter.

As the great organization and productivity guru David Allen tells us, clutter negatively affects our productivity, and for several reasons. First, a cluttered workspace simply makes it more difficult to work and to find the tools you need when you need them. Second, clutter creates stress, because we know we should be dealing with it and we’re not, and that saps our creative and productive energy.

Digital clutter, I’d argue, has a similar effect. If you look down at your cell phone and see that you’ve missed a half-dozen calls and now have six new voicemails — any or all of which could be important — your first instinct might be simply to avoid all of them and put your phone away and procrastinate for a few more minutes of peace.

Plus, as you listen to your first voicemail, some part of your brain will be processing “Five more voicemails! And they could all be important! Hurry up — get to them!” When you get to your second new voicemail, here comes your brain again: “Four to go! Hurry!” How stressful. How counterproductive. How awful.

Same thing happens when you fire up your computer monitor and see a desktop screen loaded with files, icons, programs and images — all in no particular order — and you’ve got to hunt down the thing you need to open. Even before you begin the task you sat down to accomplish, you’ve already put yourself at a disadvantage by giving your brain a glance at all the potential loose ends and unfinished business sitting on your computer.

And now as you begin your task, your brain begins processing a constant hum of stress — “Need to finish that email message;” “Don’t forget to review that graph slide;” “Where’s the screen grab I took for Stacey?” And that hum of stress will stay with you as long as you’re at your desk.

What to do?

Clear the digital clutter.

Writing an email message? Clear your desktop of all the other stuff you’re not working on at the moment. Make that email message fill the entire monitor — so your eyes can’t wander off and spot something else you should be doing.

To your productivity!