If you’ve got stuff on your desk that should be in your inbox and crap in your inbox that should be in the trash, fear not: You’re certainly not the only person dealing with clutter. Here’s how to get it under control.
There’s a strong chance you’ve read this far because you’ve got a messy office you’d like to tame. We’ve all been there, and many of us still are there. You may think that the people behind your favourite productivity and organisation blogs are immune to such things like clutter and disorganisation, but more often than not we’re brimming with organisation tips, tricks and solutions because of our own struggles with disorganisation. Check out my extreme office makeover for evidence of my previously cluttered ways:
Everyone has to deal with clutter; some people just deal with it more successfully thanks to the way they were raised, their own personal tolerance for disarray, or by teaching themselves one good habit at a time to get it under control. You’re not a bad person or terminally disorganised if your office is a mess right now. You’re simply a person who hasn’t taken the time to learn new habits that help you keep your office as organised as you’d like. This guide aims to help you get started and give you the clean and clear space to serve as a launch pad for further organisation.
Before we continue there is one big element to getting organised we need to address. Anytime the topic comes up some people feel compelled to talk about how being messy works for them, that creative people are messy, and that being organised stifles creativity and it’s not for them. I generally consider those excuses and believe that being tidy has nothing to do with creativity.
Let’s use the ubiquitous capture method from the Getting Things Done system as a parallel example. People who are disorganised scoff at writing everything down (the core of ubiquitous capture) and say things like “I don’t need to write everything down! I have a great memory! I get by just fine!” We both know they don’t have as strong a memory as they claim, but the real issue is that it’s like someone saying “I don’t need to use that pulley! I can lift this heavy thing all by myself! I’m fine!” It’s a terribly inefficient way to go about things.
We invented pulleys — and notebooks to capture our thoughts! — specifically so we didn’t have to work so hard. You might get by with a filing system that consists of piling papers precariously on the corner of your desk and only throwing stuff away when it mounds too high for you to see your monitor, but it’s silly to argue anything but that you’d get by better if things were put away properly. I have never met a creative person who was disorganised that wouldn’t have more time to be creative if their life wasn’t a tornado of chaos and clutter.
Why Your Office Is Cluttered
No one makes it to adulthood without understanding what a garbage can is. Cluttered offices don’t happen because you simply forgot how to get rid of crap. We can’t tell you exactly why your office is cluttered, but we can offer you some things to consider and highlight trends among people with cluttered offices and homes.
Note: Don’t care about the why and want to skip straight to fixing the problem? Skip down to the where to get started section.
For some people it’s a matter of scarcity. They view possessions as a type of security, an insulator against change. As long as you’ve got stuff — even worthless stuff like too many Post-It Note refills in your drawers and junkmail piled up on the sideboard — you’ve got some barrier against scarcity and want.
Other people hate making decisions and would prefer to put off decision-making for as long as possible. Most of the time they can’t — bosses demand answers, utility companies demand payments, the government demands your tax return — but in the areas they control, like dealing with the stuff piling up on their desk, they can say “Not now!” Unfortunately the not now can easily turn into never, ever. Photo by tome213.
Other people are ineffective at managing their time. They want a clean office but they manage their time in such a loose fashion that there simply is never a window in the day where they can sit down and clear their desk to start fresh the next day.
This guide isn’t going to — and can’t — tell you exactly what the underlying force behind your office looking like a post-apocalyptic nightmare is but we offer some questions for reflection. If you want to get right into the cleaning and organising part you can skip this section, but we’d strongly recommend you don’t. Without a little reflection on changing your mindset and habits you’re simply polishing up your office to prepare it for another mess. Read over this questions and make note of your answers.
- How does my office make me feel?
- How do I feel when I throw stuff away?
- People with clean offices are… ?
- Clutter is OK when… ?
- My office would be clean if I only had more time/money/space/… ?
Everyone will have different answers, especially at different stages of getting their offices and lives organised. Years ago when my office was a cavern-like structure of shelves and piles even more cluttered than the photo above, I would have answered the first question with “It makes me feel like I’m going to be crushed to death under all my stuff”. but now I’d answer “It makes me feel happy and in control of my workflow”. It’s up to you to work through the questions and decide if an answer like “People with clean offices are uptight *@(!%$^es!” is contributing to you not getting your office to the level of organisation and efficiency you would like it to be.
The important thing is you figure out what the underlying cause of the clutter is. Your office isn’t a wreck because you magically forgot how to use the rubbish bin. It’s a wreck for some other reason, and the piles of unattended to paperwork, the tangle of cables and the soft-drink cans lined up along the windowsill are just the after effects.
With a good portion of the hard work behind us — and trust us, digging at your own brain to figure out the hidden factors contributing to your office disaster is hard work — it’s time to look at the physical side of things. Photo by mzacha.
We’re going to enter this phase of saving your office with the mantra “Everything must go.” Ultimately you won’t be getting rid of everything, but you need to shift your perspective. Right now you hang on to too much stuff for too long. Doubtful? Look at that pile of crap on your desk. When you keep stuff past the point it should have been shredded, recycled, thrown out or put back into storage you’re operating under a “just in case” mentality which will always lead to clutter and disorganisation.
We don’t live on a remote island with once a year mail service. We live in the modern world where you can buy anything, anytime, and either have it that day or overnighted to your house. Holding onto something “just in case” is a mild form of hoarding. The mantra for decluttering and reclaiming your space is “Everything must go”.
Your office might be a total wreck or it may just be a few weeks overdue for a good threshing. You’ll need to adjust some of the following rules to suit your situation. Don’t wimp out on them though! It’s not “adjusting to your situation” if you decide not to do something because it looks too hard or time consuming. You’ll never get an organised office by saying “Hmmm cleaning out the drawers doesn’t really apply in my situation, I like my drawers full. I’ll just skip that step.”
Supplies: Get together some simple supplies. You don’t need a whole lot to get the job done, despite what the massive catalogues of organisation specialty shops might have you believe. While we’re on that topic, never buy any organising tools until you’ve lived with a clean office for awhile and found that Organiser XYZ or Laptop Stand ABC would actually benefit you. Buying organisation stuff before you’ve know you really need it is just asking for more clutter and chaos.
You’ll need, at minimum, three containers of some sort — sturdy laundry baskets are great — some heavy-duty garbage bags, some Ziploc bags — the kind with the label space already on them are awesome — and some masking tape and a sharpie. We need containers to put stuff in, bags to bag things, and the marker and tape to label.
Blocking The Time:Cleaning out a cluttered office takes time. You can clean even the most cluttered office out in a weekend but you have to put aside the time to do it and you have to be committed to getting rid of the clutter. You need to set aside a block of time where you won’t be interrupted and you need to commit to using that time effectively. Remember the mantra. Everything must go.
Setting Up: If at all possible, if you can completely empty your office that’s ideal. When I did my office makeover, I emptied my entire office right down to the tile floor. It makes it so much easier to control the flow of what goes back into your office space when the room is completely bare from the start. If you can’t empty your office because there’s nowhere for the stuff to go or your boss would frown on you upending your office into the shared hallway, you can work within the space — you’ll just need to be more diligent about not letting stuff creep back into your space while you’re working.
This is where the three containers comes in. One container is for stuff that’s going straight to the trash, one is for stuff that you’re keeping but doesn’t actually belong in the office, and the third is for stuff you’re going to donate. Let’s get something clear here, however. Donating is great (and we really do recommend it), but if donating the item really means you’re just going to move an item to a pile you’ll never get to, you just need to trash (or recycle) it. The cluttered office is evidence enough that you’re crunched for time, why make yourself feel guilty over a box of stuff you’re going to take three months to get to the donation centre? When in doubt, just trash it. Everything must go.
How do you decide what to trash? Start from the default position that everything absolutely has to get the hell out of your office. Everything. If you can’t justify the existence of something in a concrete and immediate fashion it’s headed for the dumpster. Use these two simple questions to decide if something is allowed back into your workspace:
Is it necessary for your work? If you can’t do your job without your computer and a legal pad, fair enough, you can leave them. That drawer full of miscellaneous and half-used pens and multi-colour sticky tabs you’ve been accumulating but rarely using since the Clinton administration? Dump it out.
Is it beautiful or uplifting? A well cared for office plant and pictures of your family aren’t technically necessary for your work but they keep most people from hanging themselves in the break room with a length of CAT5 cable. If you’ve got dead plants they’ve got to go. Par down the family pictures and update them. Keep the things that make you happy but do it in moderation. Your desk is for working not for tending orchids or archiving your kid’s soccer accomplishments.
If you answer both of those questions honestly, you’ll immediately be able to weed out mountains of crap. Do you need multiple USB mini-pin cables to work? No. Do you need 40 pens? No. Do you need faxed memos from five years ago? No. Be relentless. There is very little in most offices that is mission critical and needs to be archived and preserved with the same care reserved for footage from the moon landing. Be liberal in your casting aside of unused objects. Photo by nkzs.
The exception to chucking unused things are those extremely infrequently but necessary things. We all have the odd cable we only use now and then for syncing this device or that and replacing it would be a huge pain. This is where the Ziploc bags come into play. Even if it would only cost $US5 to replace the cable the hassle of finding it online, ordering it and waiting for it far outweighs the small amount of space the properly labelled and stored cable will take up. Put in the Ziploc bag and label it clearly like “Panasonic Camcorder Cam-to-Composite AV Cable” to avoid any future “What is this?” moments during future cleaning sessions.
How To Keep It Going
If we haven’t made it abundantly clear by this point the “Everything must go” rule has few exceptions. You need to shift your mindset from that of someone who keeps things to that of someone who gets rid of things. You want to look at every object in terms of “Is this useful? No? Then how can I get rid of it as quickly as possible?” No amount of cleaning tips or tricks can avoid the necessity of shifting your mind set as I discovered years ago with my office makeover. Photo by lusi.
The first thing I had to do before I so much as cleared off my cluttered desk was admit that what I had previously called getting organised was actually just cleaning. When the organisation bug would bite, I’d tear apart my office and spend a whole weekend thinking “This is it! I’m getting organised!” only to find that the next week led to a big pile of mess. I had no system for dealing with anything: paperwork, incoming projects, digital files, not a thing. I had to sit down and adopt the mindset of an unclutterer. All the calendars, planners, and containers didn’t help one bit until I took control of my environment.
It’s not enough to just clean off the space, dust the desk, and call it good. That’s why we so strongly emphasised your internal monologue in the first section. Cleaning your office — or your car or your house or any other of your spaces — doesn’t address how it got messy in the first place and expecting it to stay clean is like expecting a gambler not to spend all the money you just gave him. If you want to keep things going you’ll need to not only clear off your desk to get started but have a system in place to keep it cleared. Consider the following questions:
How does paper move in your office? If you’re like most people weighed down with a cluttered office you don’t know the answer to that question. Paper needs a workflow. You may have one workflow for paper or your may have multiple workflows based on where the paper is coming from. The most basic of workflows for paper is the paper is put in your Inbox, you remove the paper and assess the value of it, and it is then filed or immediately discarded. Sounds painfully elementary, right? If it was as elementary in action as it is in the retelling then the only people who would be reading this would be the ones gloating from their pristine desks.
Now is the time to decide if the filing system you’re using needs an overhaul or if you should abandon it for something simpler like the one-box system. While you’re at it make sure to set up a record retention policy to guide how long you keep things in your filing system.
Does your office have immediate and deep storage? Your actual workspace should be clear of everything but the work you are actively attending to. Your desk drawers and storage areas within reach of your desk should only have the equipment you use for your daily work. Use a labeller every day? It can go in your desk drawer. Use a pouch laminator once a month? It should be stored in a closet or cabinet in a less trafficked area of your office.
If putting things away is a hassle and there is no rhyme or reason to the manner in which you’ve stowed things away, then you’re going to be very resistant to doing so and things will just end up on your desk and sideboard all over again.
Is purging part of your weekly and monthly review? Right now it likely isn’t. In the future it will be. You didn’t work so hard to get all the crap out of your office just to let it accumulate again. From here out when you do your weekly and monthly reviews — or at a similarly scheduled time — you’re going to purge. If something shows up on Monday and by next Monday it hasn’t proven to be useful then chuck it out. Once a month take a look at your office and ask yourself what was useful and uplifting that month and what wasn’t. Pitch the useless stuff. Your job is to get stuff done not tend the wayward crap that washed up on your desk. Be ruthless in your scheduled purging sessions and ditch everything that isn’t helping you accomplish your goals.
Do your coworkers and family members know about your effort?
Once you get your desk tidy and your workflow tweaked you still have one last thing to do. Training the people around you. If you don’t want family members and coworkers just dumping stuff on your desk you have to train them to use your inbox. Be tactful, sometimes all it takes is a simple “I’m trying really hard to increase my response time, if you put stuff directly in my inbox then I’ll be able to respond to it faster” or some variation. Only you know your coworkers, maybe it will take building a bonfire of TPS reports on their desk to get the message across but doing so will help cut down on the hassle you go through everyday keeping your system on track.
Further Reading And Keeping Your Focus:
Your work situation, your office layout and especially your disposition towards clutter and the reasons it ends up piled on your desk are all unique. Take the motivation you found in reading the above guide use it to get started on taming your own workspace. In the process you’ll want additional ideas and insights and fortunately for you we’ve covered a lot of tips over the years on beating back unruly workspaces and getting clutter under control. Check out the following articles for further reading. Photo by redfloor.
- Re-Evaluate Your Office Gear to Simplify and Declutter
- Tough Questions to Help You Declutter
- Declutter an Entire Room in a Single Sweep
- Why You Hold On to Clutter
- Tame Clutter by Asking “How Much Is Enough?”
- Ditch Forgotten Items to Purge Hidden Clutter
- Kill Desktop Clutter by Banishing Transient Stuff
- Tame Your Counter Clutter by Creating Homes for Your Belongings
- Declutter with a Six-Month “Maybe Box”
- Use the “One In, Two Out” Rule to Declutter
- Set a Goal to Guide Your Decluttering
The benefit of reading about decluttering and cleaning after you’ve done the initial cleanse of your office is that it keeps you motivated. It reminds you why you cleaned out your office, it keeps your eye sharp for clutter and the ways to banish it, and it makes you loathe to see your office slip back into ruin again.