Keep Your Messy Desk Cleaner With These Four Easy Steps

031511messydesk.jpgWe have a confession to make: we're not all adherents to the clean-lined, minimalist setups we occasionally feature. In fact, we're sometimes the polar opposite, a breed known as Messy Deskers. For some people, having everything out and visible just works. But for times when the pile situation threatens to overwhelm the desk, these four steps come in handy for keeping things under control.

These may seem like common sense to those of you who were born with organizational skills, and we envy you. We have had to learn every trick we now use, and it's a constant process requiring a lot of self-discipline. We have learned to embrace our messiness, while also hacking our own habits to make sure we remain functional and productive in our workspace.

These tips are for our fellow messy deskers, who may be looking for a similar buoy of cleanliness amid the paper ocean currently atop their workspace. We can't promise they'll make you super-organized, but they can help you get a handle on things.

1. Don't File -- Except For Financial Records

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How many times have you tucked something in a drawer, "just in case" you'd need it at a later date? And how many times have you ever actually needed it? We're betting the answer to the latter question is "zero", and that is the reason for Rule #1.

In this age of digital photography, portable bookmarks and cloud storage, there's no real reason to keep non-essential paperwork, and for paper pilers like us, that can mean a lot of desktop real estate.

For example, instead of printing and filing an article or document in a drawer, why not drop the file into a service like Evernote or Dropbox? They're accessible from any computer and sortable by date or tag, making later reference simple.

It's also useful to keep a single bookmarks folder to serve as a general dumping ground for sites you'd like to access at a later, unspecified date. It's so easy to search through them if you do actually need it that you don't even need a folders system, beyond the basics.

Being strict with yourself at this first level ensures that only the truly important and necessary things filter through to your printer and file cabinet, which will be so much more organized now that it's been freed of all that miscellany. (We'll cover what to do with these in Rule #3.) And of course, hang on to all financial paperwork. "Except for death and paying taxes," as they say.

2. Place Important Tasks at Eye Level

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Let's call this one "rising above the mess." Its purpose is to pull out the things that require either immediate attention, or long-term attention, and keep them at the visual forefront, something that is important to people who prefer to have all their work spread out before them.

For some, this could mean a row of sticky notes placed on the wall in front of the desk, and for others it could be a paper planner, a digital calendar or a simple handwritten to-do list. It need not be literally at eye level, as long as it serves the same purpose.

Whatever the method, keeping the tasks separated from the general clutter -- digital clutter included -- means nothing will ever get lost due to the mess, which is, to those of us who prefer a piled-up desk, the only major downside to having everything out instead of put away.

3. Give Everything A Home

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For us, the key to not losing things like pens is to pop them into a cup or a desk drawer at the end of every day. (This also prevents cats from knocking them off and batting them across the floor.) Without this simple reminder, we're forever carrying them around the office, tucking them into bags, and generally being caught without a writing utensil whenever they're needed.

This principle applies to anything that needs to remain at the desk, at hand or within easy access. For a lot of messy deskers, this also means finding some kind of storage system that will work for you. In our case, it means shelves, shelves, shelves.

Our tips:

  • Conventional desk-organizing wisdom says to keep the things you use most frequently in the top drawers, closest to you. We're a fan of little containers within drawers to keep things separate but organized, like a utensil caddy for pens and pencils, and a plastic box for storing food.
  • For important paperwork like birth certificates and Social Security cards, we have a single, brightly-colored three-ring binder with plastic sleeves in it; all documents get slipped into a sleeve and the binder goes back on the shelf, always in the same spot.
  • Be sure to make 'homes' for things that have no intrinsic value, but that you love anyway. We're not scrapbookers, but we never throw away a ticket stub. Instead, it goes into a manila folder dated by month, Andy Warhol-style.
  • We've created digital homes for some things which would previously have been adding to the clutter, like recipes; now they go into Evernote, until the day when we can organize, format and print them all.

And if after your big desk cleanup, there are things left over with no home to go to? Chuck 'em in the bin. There can be no mercy in the messy desk wars.

4. Don't Fight Your Habits

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Part of the reason we've always had a messy desk is that we've tried to shape our setup around systems organized and laid out by other people. But now we're all about accepting reality, which is that we'll just never have a minimalist desk -- so we may as well make the best of what we've got.

Just keep an eye on what you already do, then augment that habit with organization. If you always drop your keys on a chair, consider putting up a hook or getting a catchall for the corner of your desk. If you have a problem leaving your phone behind, always keep it plugged into the same outlet with a cord that never leaves. If you're always sticking notes to the wall, confine them to a corkboard that complements the decor. Your forward planning will trick the lazy parts of your brain into positive action.

You may be asking, If I'll never have a super-tidy desk, why bother at all? Fifteen minutes spent organizing at the end of every workday adds up, and time is money.

The answer is that you are merely choosing when to spend your fifteen minutes: either tossing stuff into the recycling bin at the end of the day, or in hunting for that pen or scrap of paper with the important phone number. Either way, you pay. So why not choose the less stressful option?

Do you have a messy desk? What do you do to keep it manageable and stay productive in the workspace? We're always looking for ways to improve our own setups, so share your tips in the comments.

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(Files: Flickr member Velo Steve licensed for use under Creative Commons. Sticky notes: Flickr member mlinksva licensed for use under Creative Commons. Drawer: Flickr member Cle0patra licensed for use under Creative Commons. Keys: Flickr member jasleen_kaur licensed for use under Creative Commons)

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