Whether your workspace is miles from your home or right there amongst your books and Battlestar Galactica figurines, it probably has something in common with at least a few other Lifehackers' (and mine)—the ability to attract clutter, make important documents and objects hard to find, and, over time, become time an actual impediment to getting things done. Some of us are able to work in a way that doesn't leave things a mess and clean as you go, but for those of us who can't trust our instincts, a system that corrects itself is needed. Today I've rounded up a few of our best tips for getting your workspace in order and keeping it that way without a cerebral transplant. Take one last look at your paper piles and empty coffee cups and read on for inspiration. Photo by frischmilch.
Banish (or resurrect) your junk drawer
Having an extra, hidden-away place to stash things is just a giant fix for a clutter junkie. Take a look inside, and you'll likely find the remainders of a whole bunch of organisational equations you refused to perform—extra parts, novelty schwag, hardly-used tools, and similarly hard-to-file gear.
Inspired by Peter Walsh's It's All Too Much, our own Jason Fitzpatrick trashed or put away the gear in his kitchen's junk drawer, then put it to better use (as an easy-to-select tea drawer) and, through a little space-shuffling, found a way to speed up cooking with easy-to-grab pots and pans. The same principle—sort, return, re-purpose—applies to a workspace, but you don't have to give up on a junk drawer or shelf entirely. The Apartment Therapy blog recommends adding order to your junk space with dividers:
We like bamboo drawer organizers from the Container Store or Bed Bath and Beyond but you can use silverware trays, small jars, gift boxes, muffin tins, food storage containers or a combination to create order.
Dividing the space removes the feeling of "anything goes," and makes it more likely you'll think about where a plastic fork can actually be found and used before pitching it in your former catch-all. Photo by littledan77.
Make your desk actually usable
My co-editor Adam knows a good deal about repetitive stress and workspace discomfort, and his guide to setting up a healthy workspace is a great place to start. Just adjusting my office chair to line up better with my laptop screen was worth the read for me, but learning how to mouse goofy—or switch to my left hand when the right feels stiff—will find a place in my schedule. Once I actually felt better while working, applying some basic principles of Getting Things Done to my stuff—keeping things I regularly need close, things I hardly ever use (stacks of business cards, blank CDs, checkbook) farther out—I was less tempted to grab things and clutter my desktop. As sad as it sounds, sometimes just putting something out of reach can be the tipping point for your motivation to mess with it. Still, I had to deal with ...
The perennial problems
Some stuff seems like it's work-related, yet it doesn't actually do much other than creep onto your desk—a problem that can hurt your image at work, and leave you feeling overwhelmed, rather than creative and ready for anything. Paper is the most perennial clutter culprit of them all—if you're not using at least some of Productivity 501's tips on desk organizing, you're missing out. Cables are another seemingly inescapable desk-messer, but there are many creative solutions for them, too. Assuming your normal workflow and gadget set-up is under control, let's tackle the rest.
For everything that's not daily work, try a modified version of the six-month "maybe" box. Get a shoebox (or larger, if necessary) and put nearly every non-essential item from your work area into it, and put it somewhere you'll actually have to get up and walk to. Stick to a plan to review its contents in, say, two weeks. Did you manage to get by without these goods? Did you find a better way when faced with the idea of getting up? Than it really wasn't necessary. Properly put away all the stuff in your box, but consider chucking or donating anything you didn't know you didn't need.
Finally, the filing cabinet
As our commenters have noted, the filing cabinet is like the hard drive that can keep your short-term memory—your brain and your desktop—from having to hold onto stuff that's not necessary at the moment. A good filing system is partially a personal preference, but setting up all those tabs and remembering to put your stuff back ain't easy. Luckily, we've run down the science of sliding folders more than once. Here's some tips on how to:
- Stage an Extreme Makeover, Filing Cabinet Edition: For tips on why a filing cabinet should only be 75% full, and why you should bite the nerd bullet and get a label maker.
- Make a table of contents for your files: Because actually seeing that there's a folder for that receipt you're holding is a lot more effective than hoping you don't toss it in a frenzied clean-up.
- Hack your bill archives with letterhead: Use all that money corporates have spent on embedding their logos in your head to good quick-filing use.
- Fight sliding folders with binder clips: Because feeling like you might tip out a mountain of paper on every pull is a good way to keep your desk cluttered.
This is just one of a number of decluttering projects I plan to undertake, so I'll be testing what works and what doesn't, and posting picture proof, soon enough. But let's hear from our veteran readers and clean-deskers: What's your system for keeping yourself from letting things go? What do you do differently that your more messy-minded colleagues obviously don't? Tell us your take in the comments.