5 Tips to Clean Off Your Desk

Posted by on January 11, 2015

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The second Monday of January is “Clean Off Your Desk Day” and although its exact origins are unknown, it’s not hard to guess why we need to designate a day to clearing the clutter from our workspaces. Most of us feel unorganized and tell ourselves we need to make an effort to “get organized”—a perennial and popular New Year’s resolution.

The start of a new year, just getting back into the swing of things at the office, is the perfect time to begin again with our good intentions towards keeping a clean and organized desk.

And yet, setting aside one day for what can feel like an insurmountable task feels somehow unrealistic. So here are 5 tips to use Clean Off Your Desk Day as a starting point to a more clutter-free, organized and efficient work space.

1. Schedule time to work on your desk. One of the most common excuses for keeping a cluttered work space is not having enough time. Ironically, the busier we are the more important it is to be organized. An Office Max Work Space Organization Survey (2011) revealed that 90 percent of Americans feel that being unorganized has a negative impact on their productivity, state of mind, motivation, happiness and even their professional image.

Therefore, make an appointment with yourself to clear some clutter from your desk. Put your phone on “do not disturb” and give yourself that time. It can be as little as 15 minutes or all day. The amount of time doesn’t matter as much as the activity. Just getting started can help motivate you to keep going. Then make a reoccurring appointment every week to stay on top of clutter before it’s back to feeling insurmountable.

2. Use a system to sort the contents of your desktop. Many years ago when I was fresh out of college I purchased a Franklin planner to use for my daily schedule, and I signed up for a seminar on how to get the most from the planner. During that course, I learned a simple but effective system for cleaning off my desk that I’ve used ever since. It’s TAF – Trash, Action, or File.

Before getting started, it’s a good idea to create areas for each of these categories. It could be a space on the floor or an empty bin or box. Nearly everything will fit into one of the three categories.

TRASH – The no-brainers here are things that no longer work, are broken, or expired. Where it gets more complicated is knowing what to keep and what to toss. This is the #1 challenge to work space organization cited in the Office Max survey.

For work papers, always consult your company’s recordkeeping policies and any applicable state or local laws and professional rules on document retention. For home and personal papers, use this handy chart to help determine what needs to stay and what can go.

Anything that you no longer need but is still in working order can be allocated to a separate “donate” bin or pile rather than trashing it.

ACTION – Lost in the sea of papers on your desk might be time-sensitive documents that require a response or some other action. If you need to remind yourself what action needs to be taken, put a sticky note on the document (I put it in the upper right corner) with the action and date, if applicable. Current projects go in the action pile.

And what about all those newsletters, reports and articles you’ve been meaning to read? One system that might work for you is to create a separate “TO READ” file and write a “read by” date on the article. Then schedule time each week (or each day) to read something from that file. The next time you’re doing a clean out, if the article is past its read by date, then chances are it’s really not that interesting or important to you and it can go in the trash.

FILE – In my office, this is always the biggest pile! For purposes of cleaning off the desktop, anything that is not part of a current project or doesn’t require action goes in the file pile. This includes reference materials and notes that can be stored. If you have someone helping with you filing, make a note in pencil in the upper right corner of the document where it goes.

The bigger task here is usually creating a filing and storage system that makes sense for your home or office and then creating a time to actually file things away and maintain the system. For now, we’re just getting these things off your desk.

One final tip while using TAF: stand up when sorting your desktop. It’s an active position, whereas sitting down you’re more apt to open that magazine and start reading or reminisce about the event where that photo was taken. When you’re standing, you’re in action mode.

3. Dust and clean your desk. I’m always amazed at where dust can collect! Even if you don’t have time to sort through all of the piles and stuff on your desk today, take a moment to dust, clean and polish your desk. (Move the piles if you have to and clean under them.) Microfiber cloths and Swiffer® dusters are perfect for this. If your desk is wood, apply an appropriate oil or polish. I make a ritual of cleaning off and oiling my teak desk twice a year and it always gives me a lift to know I’m prolonging the life and beauty of one of my favorite pieces.

4. Think of your desk like the cockpit of a plane. The top of your desk and the top drawer are the most precious pieces of real estate in your office. Be mindful when arranging your desktop. Think about HOW and HOW OFTEN you use an item. Does it really need to be in easy reach?

The only items that should permanently live on your desktop are those things that are essential to your daily tasks as well as a few items to inspire you such as flowers or family photos. Your desktop is for working, creating and inspiring—not storage. Any non-essential items such as old notebooks, files, that box of 2,000 staples and the like should be stored elsewhere.

Of course while you’re working on a project, things will collect on your desk like files, papers, samples and what not. One of the most important steps in keeping your desk clutter-free is to remove those things when the project is complete, or better yet, when you’re done working with them for the day. Consider open boxes or trays to keep project-specific paraphernalia contained and place it on a credenza or bookcase when not in active use. I used this trick when I worked as an attorney, lining one wall of my office with active files.

5. Give yourself permission to take more than a day. As they say, Rome wasn’t made in a day, and chances are your desk won’t be clutter free and pristine in a day. Particularly if you’re fitting in some organizing time into your workday calendar. Take the pressure off yourself to “get it done” and realize that organizing isn’t an event, it’s a process. It can take time to find a system and a flow that works for you, your work style and your life.

Congratulations! You’ve taken a huge step towards a more clutter-free and productive workspace. For more tips on creating an inspiring and enjoyable office, grab my free resource “5 Essentials for Home Office” success here.