The Simple Guide to a Clutter-Free Desk

A businessman from the Philippines once gave me priceless advice. He said, “Clear off your office desk every night before you leave. You’ll be thankful in the morning.” Since then, I have tried to do that very thing every evening before I leave. And I have seen numerous benefits from the practice:

  • Less Distraction. A cluttered office desk is filled with potential distractions. Sticky-notes, business cards, file folders, and uncompleted projects all clamor for our attention every moment of the day. Removing them allows our mind to better focus on the most important project of the moment: the one you are working on.
  • More Freedom. A clear desk grants freedom to pursue the project of your choosing. Your to-do list is not held captive by the folders on your desk. It is determined by you – even if you are getting direction from someone else.
  • New Opportunity. A new day brings new opportunity and the potential to accomplish something great. Walking into an office with yesterday’s work still visible immediately anchors you to the past, tying yesterday’s rope to today’s potential. But a clean desk breeds life, encouragement, and endless possibilities. Even if your new day is going to consist of completing yesterday’s project, starting again or reopening the file offers new opportunity and a new way to see a problem or accomplish a task.
  • Increased Reputation. A clean desk indicates a clean and focused mind. It makes you look efficient, accomplished, thorough, and organized. And while nothing can replace a job well done, a clear desk can only help improve your reputation among your co-workers.

Granted, a clear desk comes more naturally to some than others. But I stand as proof that the principle of a clean desk can be applied to any worker’s personality. Here are six steps that I have found particularly helpful in making the transition:

  1. Reduce your Office Items. The first step in keeping your desk clear is keeping less things on it and around it. Seems simple enough… almost so simple that it often gets overlooked. Take a look around your desk surface. What doesn’t absolutely need to be there? Photos, calendars, books, supplies, and food should all be considered. If it’s not essential, remove it permanently.
  2. Use Drawers. Using drawers isn’t cheating, it’s smart. It keeps your projects, tools, and supplies at your fingertips while still removing them from your line of sight. In my drawers, I store all of my supplies (pens, stapler, etc.) and my current projects. My current projects are stored in labeled folders in my top drawer for easy access. And only the current project that I’m working on gets to be on my actual desk surface.
  3. Finish Your Projects. One of the biggest enemies of desk clutter is unfinished projects. Sometimes, they lay on our desks for weeks distracting us and taunting us. The mind clutter of an unfinished project can be crippling at times. If the project can be completed in less than 20 minutes, see it through to completion right away. If the project will take longer, find a drawer to store it in until you are ready to pull it out and work on it again.
  4. Store Things Digitally. A simple Contacts program and Tasks program can probably remove 95-100% of the notes cluttering your workspace (I have always used Microsoft Outlook). Find one and learn to use it. Those sticky-notes will no longer clutter your screen or distract your mind. And you’ll never lose one again either. I have found this method to be both liberating and essential.
  5. Limit Computer Distractions. While your computer can be essential in helping to eliminate the clutter from your desk, it can provide distraction of its own. Help your cause by decluttering your computer desktop along with your physical desk. For starters, find a non-distracting wallpaper image and remove all unnecessary icons.
  6. Set aside 5 minutes. Take the last 5 minutes of every day to clear the surface of your desk. Rest assured that once you get started with the habit, it’ll take far less than 5 minutes. But set that much aside at the beginning. Trust me, your morning you will thank you.

A clear office desk will grant you more focus, peace of mind, and productivity. And that’s good for both you and your company.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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Comments

  1. says

    Joshua- Absolutely fantastic post! I truly believe that a clean desk increases productivity. I have to admit that item #5 above “Limit Computer Distractions” is my weakness…sometimes I just can’t help but chase the rabbit down the rabbit hole and before you know it I go from blog research to checking out gadgets on Amazon! On more than one occasion that rabbit led me to your blog too! I did a desk organization post not too long ago at http://goo.gl/DiKRt and was surprised how many people were irked by cords (cords are my nemesis) like me. I use velcro straps to corral them as much as I can. Do you have any recommendations? I’ve seen some cool products by Blue Lounge… I’d love to hear your thoughts! Thx for your amazing blog!

    • says

      Next time, skip the rabbit trail and just start here. Tough call on the cords. I’m not a great “organization” guy – I’m a better “just have less” guy. But I agree, I hate the sight of cords too and always make the effort to hide them.

      • dan salem says

        you have some amazing thots and i would love to utilize them but i can’t cause i dont have a DESK. i really want one but my wife is a min @ wont let me get one

  2. says

    My desk isn’t a work desk but a personal time one, yet I think I need to follow this. I have been feeling very cluttered over here lately so I think I will take a few minutes after lunch to clear off everything but my phone and coffee cup. I’ve been thinking about doing it and your post is simply inspiration!

  3. says

    I couldn’t agree more!
    I keep my personal desk completely clear except for computer, typewriter, small notebook, and pen. I love not having clutter or distractions around while I write – it seems to fuel my creativity.
    Maintaining my work desk is a little harder as a certain amount of paperwork is required, but I do find myself much more productive when I make the effort to keep it organized!
    sara

  4. says

    If I do not touch something twice a day, it does not belong on my desk. It belongs in appropriate storage.
    Right now on my work desk:
    desk phone
    glass of water
    cup of coffee
    britta water filter jug
    LCD monitor
    wireless keyboard/mouse
    fan (I take a walk at lunch and it gets hot in Florida)
    desktop
    composite picture frame of family and dog pictures

    The desktop will move under the desk on a Printer Cart. I dont want to hear it’s fan go off every time…and I only touch it once a week.
    Note taking is on Notepad app. I keep a physical notepad in my stationary drawer for meetings (I can not take my desktop to meetings)

  5. says

    Quality list Joshua!

    I was a desktop Icon hoarder for the longest time.

    I still have a lot of Icon’s on the work PC, but nothing I can get rid of as I don’t have admin rights. I do manage to keep my desk as clutter free as possible. Less visual clutter allows you to focus on tasks at hand instead of wasting time locating things.

    I have scrubbed out all the unused Icons on the home PC, and try to keep the space as clean as possible. I don’t utilize a big bulky desk either, I use the Elfa Shelving system as a desk as the floating effect on the wall makes the desk seem more stream line and simple. Just the way I like it!

    Keep bringin’ it Joshua!

    Eric

  6. says

    I have a cluttered nesting area, but I tend to clean it up once it gets out of control.

    Store Things Digitally is the best tip I have ever taken for myself. I throw EVERYTHING I can onto my iPod Touch and then check it off as I go

  7. says

    The greatest gripe I always had about my clean desk is that Other People put things on my desk that need my attention (sticky notes, phone messages, incoming mail and projects). To keep my clean desk actually clean, I put an attractive, simple inbox on the corner of my desk, and trained others to only put items in there. Then, when I am back at my desk, I only have one pile to sort instead of stuff left everywhere. And upon sitting, I take that one pile and sort it quickly into the proper out-of-sight folders.

    I am happy. Others are happy. My desk stays clean.

  8. says

    I’ve written several times on my blog about the little pieces of paper that clutter my desk. They’re a good thing for me because they’re a sign of creativity flowing again. When I was a bookseller only and not writing, there weren’t any little pieces of paper.

    I jot down bits of information and post ideas — whatever comes to mind. I enjoy having the ideas at hand — and I also enjoy throwing pieces of paper away when I’ve either written the idea of abandoned it.

    I did reduce the size of my desk area as part of my decluttering this year. I like my little pieces of paper, but I don’t need piles of half-finished projects everywhere. Fewer flat surfaces means less clutter.

    Gip

  9. says

    Very sound advice! This should be mandatory reading for any organization that wants to help its employees de-clutter. Most of my work is completely digital (I don’t have a desk) but I can still apply some of these things for digital folders. I should also consider setting aside a few minutes each day. I will take your suggestions seriously!

  10. Ruth says

    This came at a great time for me! I’ve been working on decluttering and streamlining my office and the department file room since last summer. Everyone has noticed the progress and I feel much calmer and more productive. However, there still was too much “stuff” on my desk. After reading this, I downsized from three mugs of pens and pencils to one (what was I thinking), put the decorative stuff away, took my printer off it’s stand and set it directly on my desk, and traded a large “stuff holder” for a standalone tape dispenser and a newly purged and organized belly drawer ;-). I have a large L-shaped desk and now over one half of it is completely empty and ready to hold whatever the day brings! I love it ;-)

  11. says

    This may get long. Which I apologize for on your wonderfully minimal website. I have really enjoyed your insights, and I can appreciate a clean desk. However, I often find it is not how I can be most productive. As an architect I have done a lot of research into workplace design. Also as an architect I work with large information (in size and quantity).

    My work desk is organized around a computer with large sheets (mostly 24×36 paper) on each side of me. I have a pile of drawings on my right that are projects that are in construction phase. I need a physical copy at my fingertips whenever I get a call from construction managers needing answers to questions. Digital storage in this case just isn’t feasible.

    On my left are any number of projects in any number of design phases. They are a chronology of projects with notes, or redlines of what needs changed. The most productive way to do this is not digitally but pen to paper, and if they were filed it would be a nightmare to organize since it is many projects all in different stages of completion, but all are being worked on digitally at my computer workstation.

    Also having these papers out allows a more collaborative environment in our open office to discuss projects with other designers. If everything was put away the sharing of information would stifle collaboration, hampering the design process.

    Steelcase (the office furniture manufacturer) has done extensive research on work patterns. They attack the problem of “shaping order from chaos” by concentrating on “designing effective spaces for the ways people work.”

    Some insight from Steelcase’s research:
    “‘Getting organized’ has traditionally been associated with finding ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’ Everyone talks about storage — putting things away in containers, drawers and cabinets, out of sight, out of the way. Emphasis is often on aesthetics rather than function — a “clean desk” represents a disciplined person. Messy desks reflect, well, messy minds. It’s no wonder many people begin to feel anxious when the subject of “organizing” comes up.

    What happens if we consider organizing the work environment as a strategy for thriving on chaos? If we shift emphasis from simply storing information to a focus on effectively managing our knowledge resources? What if we say that how an office appears to others — tidy or messy — isn’t necessarily a reflection of effectiveness? In fact, what’s important is one thing: Can workers access what they need when they need it — and keep the flood of information from overwhelming their ability to work effectively?”

    I think it is narrow to think the only productive workspace is a clean one as you showed from your office cleaning (which in my eyes went from productive to sterile– which doesn’t make it right or wrong if it is productive for you). I think we need to be mindful of how people work most productively and design around that to be the most organized. Ironically, there is a wholly different approach to how I organize at home, but how I am “productive” there is different than how I need to be productive at work.

  12. says

    Clearing one’s desk is perhaps one of the easiest and simplest ways to increase personal and professional productivity. A no brainer to getting more things done. Well done.

  13. Van says

    I clear my desk every day before I leave work, and often in the middle of the day as well. Paperwork can get piled up throughout the day and sometimes I have to stop, clear everything off, and sort it before I can continue working. And if I can’t completely clear my desk when I leave, my papers are sorted and filed neatly and placed in one corner. I have drawers, but I don’t use them because if I don’t see the work in front of me, I’ll forget about it. And if I’m absent, someone will have to search through my drawers to find what they need. I have no knickknacks, photos or other decorations on my desk, everything is work-related only. My desk may look sparse and boring, but it keeps me focused. And in the very likely event of a layoff, all I have to do is grab my bag and go. No drawn out scene of having security stand by and wait while I pack my stuff up and haul it out in boxes.

    I did wonder though, if having a clear desk could backfire? If corporate managers were visiting, they may mistake my sparse desk for someone who doesn’t do a lot. (Or worse, doesn’t have enough to do!) My coworkers’ desks are littered with papers and stickies, mugs filled with moldy coffee, crumbs, and ink stains. They present images of people who have so much going on, slaving over hot computers all day. In reality, they’re just messy. But the perception is that they’re overburdened with work and I look lazy by comparison.

  14. says

    Thanks! I’ve always thought (and told people) that I need to have everything out that’s in process or it’ll get forgotten. After reading this post, I went thru some of the piles I had around and noticed that most of those things had been forgotten, too. I’m a big fan of Getting Things Done and have a pretty good system set up for that, so all it really took to clean up was adding a couple more items to my to-do list, storing some info digitally instead of on sticky notes, and POOF half the stuff just went away!

    The rest will disappear when I get back to work…

    Just subscribed to your blog. Looking forward to more pearls of wisdom! (No pressure…)

  15. says

    Excellent ideas. (found you through AT’s post today on “the eternal sunshine of the spotless desk”). After hitting “send” in a moment, I will clear off my desk of the project papers I keep out “just in case” when really, they need a home if I’m not going to finish them today.

    Great post. Can’t say it enough.

    • says

      PS: Wanted to add that I always felt closed in when at my desk – even with a window over my desk with a pretty view! When my big ol’ monitor (from 2000 or earlier) was replaced with a flat screen (yes – it was about time), suddenly my desk seemed much lighter. I then was motivated to get a pretty (pink!) letter tray set from ikea and organized my projects to be done in plastic folders and stacked in the top tray. All of those papers were on my desktop – looking quite messy and I felt overwhelmed by all the papers. Now I take your advice and clean off my desktop at the end of every day with the result of a clear mind each morning and the motivation to get those projects done so my basket can get to empty again.

  16. Lynette says

    Perfect post, I do a lot of sewing, and the same advice applies to my sewing table, I can’t start until its tidy because I just can’t think !! Same applies to the kitchen, do your bench at night, so when you wake up you will smile instead of cringing at the mess !!

  17. pat says

    I never let myself be put in a ‘larger work space’ It may seem nice to others but I know I tend to fill the space I have. Filing is my downfall. It sits in a large basket on my shelf. Changing fiscal years is my worse time for clutter has I have both fiscal years paperwork to deal with for about three months. I divide the desk (L-shaped) and roll the chair back and forth; keeps the sanity level from going out the roof.

  18. says

    I can’t do office trays. I have to have something that holds the papers vertically or things just keep getting piled on top. I attended a seminar that taught us to use 1-31 folders. Everything you need to do, or use on that day gets put there. I keep my 1-31 Every Day File in the file cabinet next to my computer and go right to the current date to start my work. If it doesn’t get done that day, I move it to the next day I think I might accomplish it. I also have my file folders in that drawer and try my best to file things away as soon as they’re done. It greatly simplifies my life and I feel more organized because things are in their proper place.

    I love this blog. So glad I found it. I frequently repost in Facebook and my son tells me he knows I’m sending a message directly to him! We’re both on the journey to simplify and minimize, so it’s nice to have the support.

  19. Naomi says

    As a costumer this one is a tough one for me… but reading through the notes I’ve realized I have modified these tips to best suit the need I have for order without stifling creativity.

    1. When I’m done working at my sewing desk every evening the machine gets turned off and moved to the back of the desk.

    2. My tools get put away after I’m finished with the task at hand… Patterning, the rulers get hung up… Cutting, scissors or rollerblade get put back in a basket along with the weights and the cutting mat goes in its corner… Patterns, go back in their envelope and filed at the end of the project.

    3. Each project has a basket that everything needed to accomplish the end result is stored in. If a project has multiple days to complete when I’m done working on it I fold it and return it to the basket until the next time.

    4. The only project allowed on my desk is the one I am currently tackling.

    This has helped clarify what drives me the craziest about my business partner, she explodes all through my areas. Time for a strategy meeting to eliminate the issue.

  20. Alexis says

    Spending a great deal of time in Swizerland both for business and pleasure over the years has provided excellent lessons in cleanliness, organization and yes, minimalism. They do things different there than in California. Rarely in an executive office do you find a single piece of paper out of place. The secret: I term it “A culture of quality”. Switzerland is the mecca for handcraftsmanship, organization and utilitiy and it shows! What do you expect from a nation whose primary exports include fine watchmaking? Small cabinets allowing the horizontal storage of papers are everywhere. Papers or project files can be located quickly and easily. Papers aren’t left on desks at all. Even more important are files that resemble loose-leaf folders called file binders. Using a two hole punch, these traditional office organizers replace most filing cabinets with manila folders. Their design allows flat storage of papers and when used resemble a well made large book. They’re amazing! You can buy starter sets of the European filing system from Empire Imports in Massachusetts. Once you start using this system you really don’t want to use anything else. For a minimalist they’re perfect! You will never buy another manila folder or metal file cabinet again.

  21. Grace says

    I was decluttering my workspace today and this post was perfect, thank you! One thing that has keeps me from clearing my desk regularly is that I’m always afraid if I put something away, I’ll forget about it. You didn’t address this fear, but as I was reading your other ideas I realized that I can keep a To Do list for everything I put away. To Do lists always help me focus, and in fact means I actually won’t forget, which is what happens 90% of the time when things pile up on my desk. Thank you for the inspiration, and am really looking forward to implementing all your ideas!

Sites That Link to this Post

  1. How to Keep Your Desk Clear | November 13, 2010
  2. the minimalists | January 21, 2011

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