10 Tips for Keeping Your Desk Clean and Tidy

A messy desk is a sign of creativity and imagination. This is the excuse I gave myself for the mountain of papers, knickknacks, and San Pellegrino bottles normally piled on my desk at work. Truth is, I’m just lazy. When I started wasting more and more time looking for lost items instead of being a brilliant creative person, I knew I had to do something. I got my desk organized, and have been miraculously keeping it clean for the past three months.

1. Use a system to manage paper

Most of the clutter on my desk is paper. In a recent post, I wrote about a system for organizing files on the computer. The same system can be modified to work with physical files:

Setup: A place for everything

First, you’ll need a few items:
  • Inbox
    This is a standard stackable letter tray. Put documents that don’t yet have a place in here. This may be items like memos, print-outs, and random things placed on your desk by random people.

  • Incubate box
    On top of your Inbox tray, stack another letter tray to put items that are “on hold”. These are items you aren’t yet ready to do or complete in here. They may be articles you’re thinking of reading, sketches for potential projects, and information about events you might attend.

  • Action & Tickler file
    For this, Merlin Mann of 43 Folders recommends an A-Z accordion file. Put papers requiring an action that takes more than 2 minutes in here. This may be items such as forms to fill out and documents to proofread. You can also use a tickler file to supplement this. Check out Merlin’s tutorial for more details.

  • Current projects rack
    For this, use a file rack or small file box to hold folders for active projects. Create one folder per project.

  • Filing cabinet
    Put completed projects, general reference items, and anything else you might want to look at again in a filing cabinet. Use simple flat folders organized from A-Z, instead of hanging folders.

  • Dump boxes (trash can, recycling bin, shredder)
    I avoided throwing away paper because I didn’t have access to a trash can, felt guilty about tossing recyclable paper, or was afraid of throwing away confidential materials. Having a trash can, recycling bin, and shredder for each of these situations eliminates these hesitancies.

Usage: Process, Organize, Review
You’re now all set and ready to clean your desk. The steps below are adapted from David Allen’s GTD system:

  • Process
    Put all papers on your desk in your Inbox tray. If it doesn’t fit, just put it next to it for now. Go through each file one by one. Ask yourself: can I act on this file? If yes:

    • Do it
      If it takes less than two minutes, just do it.

    • Delegate it
      If you’re not the right person to do it, then send it to someone who can.

    • Defer it
      If it takes more than two minutes to do, but it in your Action or Tickler file. Or if it’s project-related, put it in your current projects file rack.

  • Organize
    If the file has no action for you to do, you can:

    • Trash it, recycle it, or shred it, if you don’t need it.
    • Put it in the Incubate tray if you’re not ready to deal with it.
    • Archive in your filing cabinet for later.
  • Review
    The most important part of the system is setting up reviews for you to process your Inbox and organize your files:

    • Daily
      Process your Inbox as often as you like throughout the day, but do it at least twice a day: once around noon and again at day’s end. You must empty it at the end of the day, so that your inbox is nice and fresh in the morning.

    • Weekly
      At the end of the week, move completed projects into your filing cabinet. Go through your Incubate tray and decide if you’re ready to act on any of the files, following the steps you would to process your Inbox. Take items in your recycling bin to the main recycling bin in the office.

    • Monthly
      At the end of the month, go through your filing cabinet and prune any files you don’t think you’ll ever need again.

2. Banish Post-it notes

Stop Using Post-its to remind yourself of important information. They’re just to easy to lose and they’re ugly when plastered all over your monitor. Instead, keep a little notebook on your desk to write down reminder notes. Better yet, use GTD tools such as the hipster PDA and kGTD to keep track of what you need to do.

3. Trash those printouts

After printing a file and completing the action associated with it, throw it away. You already have a copy of it on your computer, so you don’t keep it lying around on your desk.

4. Keep blank file folders and a label maker at your desk

The reason while you don’t file is because it’s so tedious to find folders and label them. With a stack of blank folders and label maker within reach, you have no excuse.

5. Ritualize your reviews

Schedule time in iCal or other calendaring program to clean your desk at the end of each day. After two or three weeks, the habit will stick.

6. Throw away pens

Why do you need so many pens? Throw them all out except for two or three. If it doesn’t have a cap, toss it.

7. Say no to schwag

Yes, it’s hard to resist the ugly free crap at conferences and internal office events, but avoid taking them just because they’re free. This includes all those cheap pens, stickers, free magazines, brochures, postcards, and anything else that will likely end up littered on your desk. If you need a reminder of a particular vendor, take your PDA or notebook with you and write the company’s name and URL down.

8. Take your books home

Take home any books you don’t use on a regular basis for work. You’ll have more space to work, and if you have to leave your job for any reason (heaven forbid), you’ll have fewer heavy items to pack.

9. Eat away from your desk

Eating at your desk encourages trash like paper bags, cups, and utensils to stick around your desk. I’ve been guilty of this and have the crumbs in my keyboard to prove it. To prevent this, eat somewhere else. Preferably, out of the office. Doing this also allows you a mental break from work where you can enjoy your meal without phone or computer interruptions.

10. Limit photo frames on your desk

Pictures of loved ones remind us of what’s important in our lives. More than three on your desk, however, is a distraction. Instead, use Flickr to store photos which you can view in a slideshow during a break.

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