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How to Declutter Your Desk

Being deliberate about your workspace can keep it from falling into disarray

A messy desk with a laptop

As an administrative coordinator for the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke and Bass Connections, Kathy Peterson has plenty to do.

Her job has her overseeing the availability and allocation of eight conference rooms and enough work space for 18 faculty members and 95 post-doctoral and graduate students. She also manages the calendars of members of the unit’s leadership and keeps track of budgets and travel arrangements.

“My job is to make sure that everyone here has the ability to collaborate, communicate and work in an environment that’s functional and low-stress,” Peterson said.

She does that job from a desk that has post-it notes tucked around her two computer monitors, stacks of papers sitting on wire racks and binders looming on shelves overhead. Her desk is a busy place, but it’s an orderly one, too. And for Peterson, the deliberate layout of her workspace is a key part of how she’s able to do her job.

Whether you’re as organized as Peterson or you’ve got room to improve, check out these ideas on how to cut down on desk clutter and create a workspace that can maximize your productivity.

Evaluate Your ItemsA neat desk.

A simple first step toward a clutter-free desk is finding places to store your items and documents. Everything that doesn’t have a logical home is what Joy Birmingham, assistant director of leadership and professional development for Learning & Organization Development, likes to describe as a postponed decision.

Whatever the item is, if it has yet to be put away, used or disposed of, it’s taking up space.

To combat this, Birmingham recommends acting quickly when new tasks or papers hit your workspace. Her motto is: “Trash it, file it or delegate it.”

“You have to make a decision,” Birmingham said. “The time management killer is when people pick up the same piece of paper six times. If you can make a decision about where that piece of paper goes, it’s either out of your head or on your to-do list.”

Come Up with Your SystemKathy Peterson has found a system for organizing her desk that works for her. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

If you catch Kathy Peterson during the workday, she’ll probably have with her a clear plastic folder containing a few sheets of paper. This is what she calls her “Do Folder.” It contains papers related to the most pressing tasks of her day.

“These are the things that are urgent and important,” Peterson said of what’s in the folder. “And once they’re done, they’re gone.”

Peterson’s “Do Folder” system is one she came up with herself. Birmingham said that such homegrown ideas around organizing work flows are big steps toward finding the best way to keep your workspace organized.

She said that each person’s workspace should be customized to suit the way that person works best.

For example, Peterson uses the simple strategy of storing items and papers she uses most in drawers and shelves closest to her.

The idea behind all of this is that, as long as you’re conscious of how your surroundings affect your productivity, and you work on ensuring that those conditions exist, your workspace can work for you.

“You get to define what clean is,” Birmingham said. “It’s really about understanding what you need to do to focus.”

Make Time to Clear Your Desk Each DayCommon desk items.

An organized desk doesn’t happen organically.

Peterson said she makes sure to take a few moments, whenever she can, to tidy up her workspace. That can mean putting papers in proper files, getting rid of items related to tasks she’s completed and taking stock of where important documents and tools are.

“It gives me peace of mind and less stress,” Peterson said.

While time is often at a premium during a workday, Birmingham pointed out that’s it’s important to reserve time – she plans on 15 minutes or so – for organizational tasks such as straightening your desk at the end of a work day or ordering your to-do list.

“Sometimes, the most valuable 15 minutes of my day are those I take to plan and organize,” Birmingham said.

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