I’ve had several jobs that were, uh…paper-intense.
When I was a journalist, I stacked up old newspapers, printed pages and layout designs all over my fairly large desk and a conference table.
When I was an English teacher, students would turn in their essays and assignments and stacked them right on my desk. Like a foot or two high, depending on how many pages there were.
When I was in healthcare marketing, the designers and I would pass paper back and forth–marked up by the senior leadership. They still preferred getting out their red pen (even when there were tools that could help them!).
So I’m no stranger to messy desks. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: I wasn’t too great at organizing my desk to begin with.
My preferred method was to stack all of the paper, brochures and old notes in one of the filing drawers next to my desk and then not look at it for a really long time.
I’m not approaching this post as an expert, but as someone who is very curious about how to organize my desk the *right* way. Or at least with a more efficient method.
With some deep dive research, here’s what I’ve found as the best methods for desk organization.
1. Keep Your Computer in Front of You
This helps you stay focused, but it should also be in a comfortable position with your back up straight. Give yourself enough room, about 1.5 feet in front of you.
2. Put The Stuff You Use Most Near Your Dominant Hand
Once I had a desk setup where my office phone was on the left side of my computer. But I was right-handed. What does that have to do with anything? Every time I was on a call, I had to reach across my body to get the phone.
This isn’t a huge hassle, but it’s also not very efficient or, ahem…organized. Moving the phone or re-orienting my desk to where I could reach the phone a little easier would have saved some time.
3. Keep Only What You Need on Your Desk
Try keeping out one pen, not a hundred. Try keeping out a few paperclips, not one thousand.
You don’t need that many pens or paper clips.
Do use a stapler a lot? Fine. Keep it on your desk.
Not so much? Then put it in a drawer.
You only need the things you use at the ready. The rest is just clutter.
4. Group Similar Items Together
Unless you’re an artist or something with lots of supplies (maybe you are!) then all of your office supplies can probably fit in one drawer. Don’t have multiple drawers for pens and Sharpies–only have one. And it’s okay if your scissors go in there, too. And your sticky notes. Designate one drawer as your official office supplies drawer and use the other drawers for junk food (Oh wait).
5. Whoa There, Post-It Notes
Are you the person who lines their whole monitor with sticky notes and then calls everything “important”? Probably not the most effective organization strategy.
One of those notes could quickly become a snowflake and fall down to the ground and thrown in the trash.
That many notes looks tacky. And cluttered. You’d be better off getting notifications in your project management or productivity platform where they’d be safe away from the dangers of the office vacuum.
Save those sticky notes for only the most urgent tasks or that last crazy idea that you don’t want to forget over lunch.
They are reminders, not a to-do list.
6. Slow Your Roll on Personal Stuff
That epic Cabo trip.
Your last family Christmas.
The kid’s graduation.
All are super memorable, but save that for social media not your desk.
No need to have tons of personal memorabilia scattered around. Remember, you’re there to focus in and work.
A few tasteful items are great. They can be conversation starters and a great addition to your company culture.
Otherwise, they’ll just get in the way.
7. Control Your Notifications
Notification overload is a real thing. Though it may only happen digitally, it can still affect your mindset at your desk. Plus, if you put your phone away in a drawer or off to the side, you won’t be as distracted. You’ll then have a more productive workspace.
8. Keep the Space Next to You Open
If you’re right-handed, then keep the area immediately next to your computer free of any clutter. Then you can review papers or documents right away without clearing a space. And don’t keep things here too long. Review, edit, approve and move them along.
This is another area where project management software is a great resource to have. In many programs like ClickUp, you can review and attach documents right there keeping your digital space organized as well.
9. Only Keep Relevant and Urgent Documents on Your Desk
Remember how I started this article talking about all that paper?
How much of that was necessary?
How much of it was extremely urgent?
Not all of it, that’s for sure.
Once I reviewed a document, I should have thrown it away or filed it away for more long-term safekeeping.
10. Color Code the Files
Yes, keep the urgent and important stuff, but then you can take an extra step and separate them into different sections with colored folders. Let’s say red equals marketing, green is for sales, blue is for creative/design, yellow is for reports and so on. That way you’ll quickly recognize a color when you need a particular item.
11. Use Your Books or Take Them Home
At one place I worked, we had a book club where team members would read different books each month and then share them. We also exchanged books quite often and I even brought in a few from home. This was great in theory until I started stacking them up high on a shelf. They were disorganized and dusty. This didn’t help anything.
One option could have been to actually arrange them by color, topic or alphabetically–but the most realistic option was probably to give them away or take them home. I used them for reference only occasionally and not frequently enough to keep them around.
12. Clean up Before You Go
One great habit is to clear your workspace before you go. No one is perfect and in the heat of battle that is the daily workday, things will get out of place. A stray pen here. An extra sticky note there. Trash from that afternoon’s Twix bar. It’s important to clean up everyday so you get a fresh start the next day.
13. Create a Schedule to Re-Evaluate
Need a little more elbow room?
More labels for your office supplies?
Running low on file folders?
Disorganization happens when the system falls apart. Schedule time in your day to take down those now-meaningless sticky notes and think again how you’re actually using your system. A recurring task is perfect for this!
Your messy desk isn’t some top secret way of getting things done.
It’s not a sign of undiscovered genius.
It’s actually a hindrance that keeps you from doing your best work possible.
When you are free from clutter, you are free to create. It helps you put away distractions to make something new, work on the next big idea or to build something great. Cleaning your desk can be the best thing you ever do. So one day if you find yourself bored at work, make sure you clean that desk.
Want more tips on organizing your office? Check out this post about home offices.