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A messy desk is a sign of creativity and imagination. This is the excuse I gave myself for the mountain of papers, knickknacks, and San Pellegrino bottles normally piled on my desk at work. Truth is, I’m just lazy. When I started wasting more and more time looking for lost items instead of being a brilliant creative person, I knew I had to do something. I got my desk organized, and have been miraculously keeping it clean for the past three months.

Here’s how:

1\. Use a system to manage paper

Most of the clutter on my desk is paper. In a recent post, I wrote about a system for organizing files on the computer. The same system can be modified to work with physical files:

Setup: A place for everything
First, you’ll need a few items:

  • Inbox
    This is a standard stackable letter tray. Put documents that don’t yet have a place in here. This may be items like memos, print-outs, and random things placed on your desk by random people.

  • Incubate box
    On top of your Inbox tray, stack another letter tray to put items that are “on hold”. These are items you aren’t yet ready to do or complete in here. They may be articles you’re thinking of reading, sketches for potential projects, and information about events you might attend.

  • Action & Tickler file
    For this, Merlin Mann of 43 Folders recommends an A-Z accordion file. Put papers requiring an action that takes more than 2 minutes in here. This may be items such as forms to fill out and documents to proofread. You can also use a tickler file to supplement this. Check out Merlin’s tutorial for more details.

  • Current projects rack
    For this, use a file rack or small file box to hold folders for active projects. Create one folder per project.

  • Filing cabinet
    Put completed projects, general reference items, and anything else you might want to look at again in a filing cabinet. Use simple flat folders organized from A-Z, instead of hanging folders.

  • Dump boxes (trash can, recycling bin, shredder)
    I avoided throwing away paper because I didn’t have access to a trash can, felt guilty about tossing recyclable paper, or was afraid of throwing away confidential materials. Having a trash can, recycling bin, and shredder for each of these situations eliminates these hesitancies.

Usage: Process, Organize, Review
You’re now all set and ready to clean your desk. The steps below are adapted from David Allen’s GTD system:

  • Process
    Put all papers on your desk in your Inbox tray. If it doesn’t fit, just put it next to it for now. Go through each file one by one. Ask yourself: can I act on this file? If yes:

    • Do it
      If it takes less than two minutes, just do it.

    • Delegate it
      If you’re not the right person to do it, then send it to someone who can.

    • Defer it
      If it takes more than two minutes to do, but it in your Action or Tickler file. Or if it’s project-related, put it in your current projects file rack.

  • Organize
    If the file has no action for you to do, you can:

    • Trash it, recycle it, or shred it, if you don’t need it.
    • Put it in the Incubate tray if you’re not ready to deal with it.
    • Archive in your filing cabinet for later.
  • Review
    The most important part of the system is setting up reviews for you to process your Inbox and organize your files:

    • Daily
      Process your Inbox as often as you like throughout the day, but do it at least twice a day: once around noon and again at day’s end. You must empty it at the end of the day, so that your inbox is nice and fresh in the morning.

    • Weekly
      At the end of the week, move completed projects into your filing cabinet. Go through your Incubate tray and decide if you’re ready to act on any of the files, following the steps you would to process your Inbox. Take items in your recycling bin to the main recycling bin in the office.

    • Monthly
      At the end of the month, go through your filing cabinet and prune any files you don’t think you’ll ever need again.

2\. Banish Post-it notes

Stop using Post-its to remind yourself of important information. They’re just to easy to lose and they’re ugly when plastered all over your monitor. Instead, keep a little notebook on your desk to write down reminder notes. Better yet, use GTD tools such as the hipster PDA and kGTD to keep track of what you need to do.

3\. Trash those printouts

After printing a file and completing the action associated with it, throw it away. You already have a copy of it on your computer, so you don’t keep it lying around on your desk.

4\. Keep blank file folders and a label maker at your desk

The reason while you don’t file is because it’s so tedious to find folders and label them. With a stack of blank folders and label maker within reach, you have no excuse.

5\. Ritualize your reviews

Schedule time in iCal or other calendaring program to clean your desk at the end of each day. After two or three weeks, the habit will stick.

6\. Throw away pens

Why do you need so many pens? Throw them all out except for two or three. If it doesn’t have a cap, toss it.

7\. Say no to schwag

Yes, it’s hard to resist the ugly free crap at conferences and internal office events, but avoid taking them just because they’re free. This includes all those cheap pens, stickers, free magazines, brochures, postcards, and anything else that will likely end up littered on your desk. If you need a reminder of a particular vendor, take your PDA or notebook with you and write the company’s name and URL down.

8\. Take your books home

Take home any books you don’t use on a regular basis for work. You’ll have more space to work, and if you have to leave your job for any reason (heaven forbid), you’ll have fewer heavy items to pack.

9\. Eat away from your desk

Eating at your desk encourages trash like paper bags, cups, and utensils to stick around your desk. I’ve been guilty of this and have the crumbs in my keyboard to prove it. To prevent this, eat somewhere else. Preferably, out of the office. Doing this also allows you a mental break from work where you can enjoy your meal without phone or computer interruptions.

10\. Limit photo frames on your desk

Pictures of loved ones remind us of what’s important in our lives. More than three on your desk, however, is a distraction. Instead, use Flickr to store photos which you can view in a slideshow during a break.

Have more tips for a clean desk? Let us know in the comments!


  • Lady

    gravatarAug 31, 2006
    11:31 pm

    Awesome tips!! Can’t wait to see my desk again….=)

  • Ezalien

    gravatarSep 2, 2006
    4:52 am

    I think that a tidy desk is a sign of being “in control” – and conversely, that somebody with a messy desk is disorganized and unreliable. So I’m disappointed to visit a friend and find that their desk looks like this: http://johnmarshallstudios.com/misc2.htm

    That said, I’ve been there, done that, both with the messy desk and the clean desk. I’m more organized now, and my desk is cleaner. My desk contains principally accessories (phones, speakers and stuff) and only 3 paper trays (stacked on top of each other) for papers.

    I’m not a fan of the “43 folders” thing (I mean the technique, not the website). That’s because it’s primarily paper-based organization. My daily todo list is kept on the computer – if I need to do something on a particular day, including handling some piece of paper, it goes into my todo list for that day. It isn’t necessary for me to keep a separate file folder for every day of the month.

    I think the reason most people have a messy desk is not “because it’s so tedious to find folders and label them”. I think it’s more that it’s troublesome to categorize papers. The reason I had an overflowing inbox for several years is that (1) I didn’t know how to process many of the papers which I received, and (2) I didn’t try to categorize them. So the papers didn’t get thrown out because I might need them later, and they didn’t get filed because I knew if I filed them I’d never look at them again, and they didn’t get handled because I didn’t know what to do.

    Eventually I got my act in order and figured out how to handle a lot of those papers. And I also set up some simple categories to catch the rest, including “Bills to Pay” and “Medical”. That made it much easier to find relevant papers.

    So if I can offer some alternate tips (or reinforce some tips already given) …

    1. make sure there’s a place for everything, by appropriately categorizing every piece of paper which you need to action

    2. if you need to keep a piece of paper after it’s been actioned, then scan it and either file it or trash it. Scan the pages you may need in future, like bank statements and receipts. Make sure you keep a regular offsite backup of documents which you have scanned, in case of fire / theft.

    3. papers which don’t require action should be trashed immediately

    4. before disposing of trash paper, go through it all and shred anything containing any personal or confidential information. Use a crosscut shredder to make it even harder to reconstruct pages.

    5. don’t write notes on any handy piece of paper. If you can’t type your notes into the computer then buy a good quality blank notebook (I prefer unlined pages) and write everything into that book. Buy a second book. When your book fills up (as it will, sooner or later), file your book and switch to the next book. Always keep a spare handy (if you’re like me, I like a particular book from a particular store, so I buy a few at a time).

    6. Review all papers regularly to trash anything which is no longer required, or action/scan/file anything else which may have slipped through the cracks of your organizing system.

  • Emily

    gravatarSep 7, 2006
    9:16 am

    For me, using toodledo.com has been extremely effective at helping me keep my desk clean. Now I don’t have all those little scraps of paper with my various to-do lists scattered throughout. Now, as soon as someone asks me to do something, I pop it right in to toodledo, where it can be scheduled, prioritized, and moved around on my schedule as necessary.

  • John D.

    gravatarSep 7, 2006
    10:30 am

    Many good practical points! Here’s a philosophy that has helped my greatly – “Everything is a FILE CABINET!” By this, I mean that a refrigerator and pantry are file cabinets for food, likewise, a toolbox for tools; a toybox….. and on and on. If you identify what you are dealing with and what the file cabinet is, it will organize your entire life and save you much time and mental agony.

  • De Palmer

    gravatarSep 9, 2006
    4:00 pm

    These hints have been very helpful. Now I’m headed to my desk to start organizing.

  • Damian

    gravatarSep 15, 2006
    3:32 am

    Some really useful tips here I suffered the same problems as you, although i had a ough idea of where stuff was, it was still a time consuming process finding it

    My desk i now totaly empty, apart fro my laptop, a notead and 2 pens I’m moving into halls tomorrow and will implement your tips, and see how long I last lol

  • Andre

    gravatarSep 18, 2006
    12:30 pm

    I absolutely love a clean desk…even if it means that most of my unfiled papers are in randomly in drawers somewhere. But at least it makes me feel organized!

  • Heath

    gravatarSep 27, 2006
    8:00 am

    After a year of not being able to find things on my desk as can be seen in my picture on my blog, I have decided to try this system. I’ll let you know how it works. Thanks for the help.

  • Zookeeper

    gravatarSep 30, 2006
    8:34 pm

    Simple rule of thumb. File as you go. No matter how busy you are. File it as soon as you are finished with it.

    I also wouldn’t be caught dead withough my desk calendar either. I’m a copywriter and I live by it. I simply can’t be creative with stacks of paper and junk all around me..although the other two writers in my department prefer to be that way. And I constantly hear them cursing because they lose everything.

    File as you go. Works everytime.

  • Diana

    gravatarNov 11, 2006
    6:19 pm

    Wow! That’s really full-on. You must love this topic! I find that having my bookkeeper come once every 6 weeks is a great incentive for me to clean my office, so it never accumulates more than 6 weeks’ worth of junk, although it’s actually less because I keep it relatively tidy for a couple of weeks after. I’m a big fan of lever arch binder folders and plastic sleeves with labels. At least then it’s filed mess! And my bookkeeper thinks I am so organised – but I’m not.

  • kevin from become-a-copywriter.com

    gravatarDec 14, 2006
    1:11 pm

    What about if you know how to run an ‘organized chaos’ approach to your desk?


  • David Carruthers

    gravatarFeb 1, 2007
    2:26 am

    As a messy person i was delighted to discover this book “A perfect mess: The hidden benefits of disorder”.


    About how being tidy doesn’t actually save time, and can actually be less productive.

    I don’t quite believe it…but i want to.

  • Ginny

    gravatarMar 22, 2007
    8:20 pm

    Clean desk? I clean my desk before I leave work on Friday afternoon, and then when I come in on Monday I start all over again.

  • Mike

    gravatarAug 14, 2007
    3:31 pm

    I use a simple system to clean my desk and this has allowed me to remain clutter free through dozens of different jobs.

    Firstly, I monitor the build up of clutter with a simple counting system. I count all items on my desk daily.

    Clutter is defined more widely in my system – it includes paper, files, folders, cups but also computer, mouse, mouse pads, pens, even chair etc. (ie things that are normally considered both transitory and permanent items)

    My rule is the eight item rule. For the system to work you must adhere totally to this rule. If you have more than eight items on your desk you must take immediate action.

    The first step I take is called Positioning. Positioning is essential to turn items that constitute clutter to items that are in Prone Position. Prone Position is the place you want items to be so that they can be actioned and turned from Clutter into Invisible items. I physically shift all eight items – and anything in the way of them – to the right handside of the desk. This may sound strange and time-consuming but bear with me.

    The second stage is called Open Space thinking. This was used to refer to a metaphorical open space in a day for decluttering. However I have developed it into a more literal and physical meaning. At this point in the process I actually open an office window to the right of my desk.

    The third stage involves transforming items in the Prone Position to Invisible items. Ensure items are grouped together. Warn surrounding colleagues that you are decluttering then remove Clutter items from the Prone Position but simply pushing into open space you have just created. Hey presto. Your desk has Zero Clutter items – not one, not one single worry or preoccupation.

    Disadvantages of the system – you may have to regularly change jobs because staff do not approve of these innovative organisational practices. Particular sticky points are the decluttering of more expensive office equipment, with petty disputes often initiated over computers and printers, and sometimes even keyboards, chairs and mice. Decluttering has also been linked by some as a danger to passing pedestrians and employees traversing at lower levels, although evidence has been scant and only a few instances of injury and death have been recorded. In fact if the third stage is followed correctly with adequate warning that decluttering is taking place these incidents are unlikely.

  • Bill

    gravatarSep 5, 2007
    3:24 pm

    This was life-changing! Thank you, I completely my desk last Friday and have now scheduled 15 minutes at end of day for cleaning and next-day prep! Thank you.

  • Bill

    gravatarSep 5, 2007
    3:26 pm

    Oops, I guess I should have said “cleaned”… b :)

  • Fernand

    gravatarOct 23, 2007
    8:28 am

    Hi, I have a lot of receipts cluttered around my desk. Any good ideas on how to deal with that kind of clutter?

  • Livi

    gravatarMar 2, 2008
    5:09 am

    I have a great idea for motivation. At first, when i started cleaning my room, I could never get the motivation to clean my desk! All the messiest things in my room were still unorganized. Then I went on this website, and i saw all the people with clean desks, and now I’m going to clean my desk! So the tip was: Go to the place with very clean desks. You will probably be jealous so you will clean your desk. =) (By the way,”organized”has a z not an s.)

  • Janet

    gravatarApr 24, 2008
    6:29 am

    I am moving to a new desk and a new, tiny office down the corridor, and cutting my working week down to 2 days. This may be the only answer to my seriously messy office. I have done hot-desking in the past, which has to be very disciplined – I once had 3 different desks in 1 day – and at least you have room to work.

  • Master Archiver

    gravatarMay 15, 2008
    8:21 am

    I have an absolutely clean desk with only a computer and telephone on it – everything else is filed away. Someone walked up to me and said, –œWow, I didn’t know you still worked here! Your desk is so clean!– I said, –œThat’s the way I am, what can I help you with?– He said, –œI need a copy of a letter you sent out a couple of years ago (in 2006) so I can use the same letter for a project I have– I said, –œokay, give me a couple of seconds, let me look for it.– After a couple of mouse-clicks, a hard copy of the document was located and he was amazed at how I could locate a two year old document within 1-minute. When I was in college, I emulated the filing system of a library. I wanted to be like an organization that could store millions of documents neatly and be able to access any one of them within minutes.

  • eileen

    gravatarMay 22, 2008
    12:11 pm

    I gave up paper post-it notes on my computer monitor (well most of them anyway) and switched to electronic Stickies, now I have no less than a dozen or so of them open and active — it’s hopeless!

  • aditya

    gravatarJun 12, 2008
    7:11 am

    thankkk a lot for u’re information… may i posting this article to my web??

  • Ishani Mitra

    gravatarJul 3, 2008
    11:42 am

    This is an extremely interesting read. How about outsourcing a part of your daily regime and freeing up time to be more creative??

  • K Kabilan

    gravatarJul 7, 2008
    6:11 am

    It is very useful if it is followed meticulously. I will ask my collegues to follow hencefoth for a clean environment in office

  • Brian

    gravatarJul 17, 2008
    1:32 am

    I am about to start a massive attempt to take a ton of documents and put them into some “system” to reduce paper and make things available online.

    Seems like a lot of people suggest scanning to be as paperless as possible, but what is the best type of scanner and, perhaps more importantly, what software does the best job of being able to organize a flood of documents in a way that I can also access online?

    (Note: I haven’t used a scanner before…I know, it’s been the 21st century for a while)

    Also, someone suggested getting a service like eFax (fax to email) that allows me to fax the document and it creates a PDF sent by email. The problem is that in order to organize it in any way, I would then have to forward it back changing the subject line.

    I am a failure at filing cabinets and paper filing. Any suggestions would be appreciated…thanks!

  • Nicol

    gravatarAug 26, 2008
    7:53 am


    Making and then keeping a clear desk really is a challenging task. It takes while but once it became a habit it is a real pleasure. I also collected a few few on clean desks as well as on how to save time at home, work and on the road.

  • Tom

    gravatarNov 11, 2008
    6:29 am

    I worry about very tidy people i think they might have mental health problems!!

  • mommygoesonline

    gravatarMay 29, 2009
    1:59 am

    I found this article really help me to organize my desk. Just want to make it simple but not over tidy. At least I can have a fresh air.

    I’ll post my experience and I would love to share this article. Don’t worry I will link to this page.

    Have a blessed day.

  • Keiko

    gravatarOct 14, 2009
    8:35 am

    I think that work will progress , if my desk top is tidy . I know it well, but I am too busy, and do not have time. I know as well that this is just excuse. If you feel tired like me and want to relax, just open our shoji screen and feel breathing of wood. The light softened through washi paper gives you comfort.

  • Dillon

    gravatarDec 30, 2009
    11:17 am

    I think that you need a post-it of how to spell too. But kidding aside i would just like to say that this article was helpful. hopefully i will have a success story to tell of after the organization process which hopefully won’t take long!

  • Janet B

    gravatarFeb 2, 2010
    11:11 am

    Hi there. It looks like some of your organizational and filing needs could be solved with the use of some clever software! There are a lot of options for filing software. We do document management and filing for a living with clever twist. The Paper Tiger Filing System is a proven tool and we are ready to help you in any way we can to meet your filing needs!

  • Office cleaning

    gravatarMar 3, 2010
    6:59 am

    you wouldn’t realise how many people don’t even do the simple things like these, their desks become so messy and how can anyone work properly if your desk isn’t even tidy? Keeping your desk tidy is a huge help when it comes to maintaining a clean and tidy office. I suppose if everyone did this we would be out of a job!

  • abigail

    gravatarJun 16, 2010
    7:25 pm

    This is no help!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!i hate this you are stupid and have no idea how to organize!!!!!!!! those stupid electronic organizing devices are to expensive for normal people to buy , but i suppose that you wouldn’t know that because you are problably a stuck up rich person that lives in a mansion that is 500,000 sq. feet but my house is only 550 sq. feet, so thanks for no help and you better publish this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Linda

    gravatarJun 29, 2010
    6:32 am

    Hello to all, keeping organized electronically is easier to do if you have paper mounds, by all means look for a scanner to do your personal documents and get rid of the paper, but remember to back them up frequently to disk or somewhere other than your computer. You can see some good options for scanning at bestflatbedscanner.net also, manage your messy home office everyday, at least 10 minutes a day to stay on top of it, don’t wait until the papers mound into a mountain. You will feel better when your desk is clean, and you will be more productive.

  • Peter

    gravatarJul 9, 2010
    1:03 pm

    I had a blackberry and got rid of it. Really like my daytimer book instead. Is always with me (don’t have to power it up) and I can write a whole lot faster in it No more scrolling around to find the right screen either. No more electronic interference traveling thru my brain either. Turn those blackberries off. Can’t stand sitting next to people who have them turned off. If it interferes with my cell phone, imagine what it is doing to my brain. Down with tech tools! The only tools I like are databases. Excel and Access are very useful if you have a lot of info to process but only on your computer. Forget the blackberry or even the portable electronic daytimer. This has been my experience.

  • Jane

    gravatarJul 12, 2010
    7:43 am

    Yes, having cell phones radiates your brain too. Slowly you will have cell damage resulting in memory loss, slower response time and even cancer is possible.