If you work in an office, chances are good that you work on a desk that is covered in a mess. Twenty-five years ago when most people still used their desks for writing, papers were a big problem. With the arrival of the desktop computer, most people added a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse and a host of accessories (printers, external drives, etc.) to their desk – and didn’t get rid of the paper! Keeping a clean desk is a challenge for even the most disciplined corporate soldier. I manage to leave every night with a completely organized desk. I did not come by this easily. I had a large corner office in my last full-time job, and it was completely full of papers and binders and computer equipment. When I changed departments, though, I had to move everything and realized I didn’t want all of this junk to follow me to my new office. Even more, when I became a consultant I lost my office altogether and went back to the cubicle warren. Here is what I learned:
1. Death by a thousand paper cuts is the number one killer of desk cleanliness. If I have an electronic copy of something, I don’t print it out. If I have to print it out, I only keep it if there are notes on it I need to save – but I quickly add those notes to the electronic document. Try to keep everything you can paperless.
2. You’ve got old-fashioned mail! Take a look at the mail you are getting. At work, you may be getting some professional publications, interoffice mail or credit card bills. At home you are probably getting a different mail order catalog every day and a million pieces of junk mail. Try to stop them. All of them. Try the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Opt Out service.
3. File almost nothing. There are many people who swear by various methods like Getting Things Done regarding filing. I say file as close to nothing as possible. If you need to take an action on it, take it and discard. If you need it for future reference, put an ‘expire’ date on it and stack it up on your desk. Go through the stack once in a while and discard. If you have a legal reason to keep a document, do so. Otherwise I am willing to bet you that you will probably never refer to it again.
4. Never keep binders. This one is simple. Someone else has the binder. Unless it’s something you refer to several times a day, recylce the paper and give the binder back. In the unlikely event you refer to it, borrow someone else’s.
5. Use the common printer. If you have a printer next to your workspace, chances are good that you print a lot of junk you don’t need. Set up your computer to print to the department’s common copier/printer. If you have to get up and walk around the office you’ll think twice about printing something – but if you do, at least you’ll get a little bonus exercise.
6. Don’t put anything on the walls. I know you think you need some reference material there – phone numbers, calendars, org charts – but you don’t. All of that information is far more accessible and searchable on your computer. Get it all down, it’s just visual clutter. If there’s anything you must have in front of you, move it as far out of your direct line of sight as possible.
7. No pictures. I know you think everyone wants to see Junior, but they don’t. Make your desktop into your picture. If your company doesn’t let you do that, just keep a few image files in your Documents folder and flip through them once in a while. If you really need one – the spouse and kids – then do it, but no-one needs to see pictures of you with a fish, or you at last year’s holiday party at Chez Mayonnaise.
8. Pick a date for purging. Everything on your desk and on your PC should have a ‘purge’ date. My trick was this: once a year I would throw out every single document in my office and delete every single file on my PC older than one year. I had to keep a few documents for legal/tax reasons but everything else went. I didn’t even do much critical assessment. I never missed anything more than a year old.
9. Before you leave every day, stack up loose papers. Put a date on every piece of paper if there isn’t one, and keep it in a stack. Put newer stuff on top. You’ll be amazed how often you do NOT hunt through the stack to find something.
10. Bring nothing, take nothing. Don’t bring junk from home (bills, newspapers, etc.) Don’t take work documents home. If you MUST work at home, bring your files on a memory stick or CD, but don’t haul papers back and forth. Inevitably you’ll end up with junk at home, too.
11. Be pushy about being paperless. Tell everyone you are paperless. Tell them you are saving the company money. Tell them too much white paper makes you snowblind. But just tell everyone you prefer electronic documents, at a minimum.
12. Don’t be embarrassed about being disciplined. This tip is one of the strangest. Many people are afraid that they look unproductive with a clean desk. A particularly sloppy client of mine used to give me a hard time about my clean desk, because he equated a clean desk with laziness. Don’t worry – no-one evers gets fired for having a clean desk. People get fired for doing a bad job (or for being an unfortunate statistic in a massive layoff).
So if you’re interested in staying organized – which means a more productive and happier work life – pay attention to a few simple little rules about keeping your workspace clean. It will pay off.