When you've got a lot going on, it's easy to overload your browser with loaded tabs you'll never get to, miss emails, open too many windows and leave unfinished work in an app for days without realising it. Computers are made to multitask, but you're not. Here's how to train yourself to focus in an environment that's almost built for distraction.
Employ a "No Minimisation" Rule to Force Yourself to React
Minimising windows is a great way to build clutter you can't see. It's like letting bits of food or dirt drop on the floor with the assumption that you'll clean it up later. You may not notice it now, but next time you're looking at the floor of your home you'll see what you've actually been walking in. It's not a pleasant realisation.
While your computer isn't going to turn into a pile of dog hair, rice grains and abandoned toenails, minimising a lot of windows is similarly unappealing when it comes to your productivity. Minimising a window often means "I can't deal with this right now" and that isn't a healthy attitude. You can deal with it now. The difference is that you just might have to make a tough decision about whether or not it's important. You may have an article on-screen that you want to read, but you may never actually read it. Let it go and close the tab. If you've got a document open in Word that you need to get done at some point but it's just been sitting in your task bar or dock for days, close it. Stop minimising your work and start prioritising instead. A group of minimised windows isn't a to-do list, but rather a list of things you're going to forget to do.
It'll be hard at first, but stop minimising everything. (It's a good idea to avoid hiding apps as much as possible, too, though obviously you can't always do this.) You'll get overwhelmed by the amount of stuff on your screen but that's the point. It'll force you to need to keep things neat and tidy so you can find the work you actually have to do. You'll need to make tough decisions about what to close and what to keep at the ready, but with enough practice you can get to a place where you won't be bombarded by more stuff than you can handle.
Only Use One Window for Every Application
While there will be instances where you'll need to use more than one window in an application, such as when you're in your desktop email client and are also composing a message, you should avoid it whenever possible. The more crap you've got on your screen, the more likely you're going to get distracted. Keeping yourself to a single window can really help. While I was opposed to OS X Lion's full-screen apps, I've been using them a lot to help me focus. While it's not effective for everything, it's great for some. It helps keep me to a single window in many apps and avoid distractions where I often find them. Of course, you don't need this feature to restrict yourself to a single window per app — you just need to do it. When you open up an extra window, close it (or close the existing window instead). This is a pretty simple concept, but if you're strict enough you should develop a good habit of opening only what you need after a few weeks.
Use a Single Monitor (or Give Your Second Monitor a Single Purpose)
If you haven't figured it out already, the theme of this post is "restrictions are good when you want to focus and get organised". Clutter is easier to see in smaller spaces, so if you're using multiple monitors and can never find anything there's a good sign that you should switch to a single monitor setup — at least until you get your clutter problem under control. If you're not ready to ditch your second monitor, give it a new and singular use. Make it a space for distracting communication like instant messages, or use it to hold your email. Make it do something that'll actually help you. Don't let it become a space to offload things you just can't deal with right now.
Create Intelligent Filters for Your Email Inbox and Set Rules for Dealing with Everything Else
I'm a big fan of the email white list, which essentially means using a filter to only allow specific senders into your inbox. This way you're only troubled with people you've designated as important rather than getting everything all at once. You can set up complex filtering rules to send other email to various secondary inboxes which you can then check when you have more time. (Setting up email filters will differ depending on what service or app you use, but here are instructions for Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, Outlook and Apple Mail.) Alternatively, if you're a Gmail user you can just sink your time into trying to make Priority Inbox do that job for you. In my experience, setting up filters tends to work better but I know Priority Inbox works really well for others. Your mileage may vary with either option.
Regardless of what you choose, you'll also need to set up some rules to govern the way you handle messages that do appear in your inbox. Some people find that it helps to set up tons and tons of folders (or labels, if you're a Gmail user) to help organise everything. Personally, I find this to take a lot more time than it's worth when you can just search for what you're looking for. If you want a simpler system that requires a little less effort, put together just a few folders/labels for the level of urgency of the message.
If you need to respond immediately, just do that. For everything else, drop it in a folder/label that's named for its urgency. Soon, Within 24 Hours, This Week, and Eventually will do the trick (although know that anything that ends up in Eventually, and often times This Week, will probably not get a response). For the most part, if you honestly believe you're not going to have time to answer just archive the message. You can always go back to it later if it was important, but a lot of email isn't. You may want to check out a sale on SSDs later today, but if you don't really need one and know you'll likely forget, just archive the message. If it really matters, you'll go back and find it later.
Use a Desktop Triage System to Avoid Constant Screen Clutter
While it's hard to work with tons of window and email clutter, one of the worst things you can do is use your desktop as a file dump. If you have this problem, you need to take the time to solve it as soon as possible. It's hard to work when you can't find the files you need and you're looking at a ton of clutter every day. You're basically creating a visual representation of how you're overwhelmed. It may sound silly, but looking at a clean desktop can help you focus better because you're not staring at the problem all day long. If you've got the time, put some effort into designing a clean desktop that looks nice and avoids the clutter. If you don't have time, just grab a minimalist wallpaper and get started with this three-icon desktop triage system to rid yourself of clutter in a few minutes.
What do you do to keep the clutter off of your monitor and stay focused while you work? Share your strategies in the comments.