Home Organization

By Eric Christensen

December 20, 2012 5 min read

For many of us, our desks are covered in clutter. Scraps from our daily lives accumulate until they become one big mess that can be a distraction, a source of stress and a drag on our productivity. Resolving a mess this big can seem overwhelming, but with an hour of your time and a few simple tricks, you will soon have a clean and organized desk.

David Allen, author of the international bestselling productivity guide "Getting Things Done," says, "First thing you'll need is a physical in-basket to collect all your stuff. ... Take all of the stuff that isn't permanent on your desk, and throw it in the in-basket and make decisions about the actions you need to take with all of those things."

Allen offers a specific thought process. "Make decisions about what you are going to do. Is this something you are committed to acting on, yes or no? If not, throw it away or file it away for later. If it is something you'll act on, what is the outcome you're after, and what is the very next action?"

Once you have determined that, Allen suggests using the "two-minute rule." He says, "If it can be done in two minutes or less, do it right then." If it can't be done in two minutes, he suggests organizing those next actions by context. This will allow you to perform several of those actions within one chunk of time instead of an inefficient start-and-stop fashion.

Once you have taken care of the clutter on your desk, Whitson Gordon, deputy editor of the productivity website Lifehacker.com, says the next step is to "organize your drawers and desk as a hierarchy of importance. The things you use most often or are most important should be closest to you. The things you need to access less often can be further away. This will lead to less time looking for things and more time getting things done."

To prevent new clutter from replacing the old, Gordon says to go paperless to the extent that you can. Of course, Gordon also suggests keeping a backup of your electronic system. "Lifehacker recommends a service called Crash Plan that lets you back up your stuff online. Using an external hard drive is fine," he says, "but you won't always have access to that drive, or something may happen to it." Backing up online allows you to access your stuff anywhere and at any time. While it does cost money to use such services, Gordon looks at it as insurance.

Another option is to take a few minutes here and there to clean. Gordon suggests you "start small and do a little bit every day. This is the easy way to ramp up and create a lasting habit instead of attacking a mess all at once every once in a while."

"Any little bit helps," Allen says. "Create some cheap, quick wins. Pick a drawer, or process 10 percent of your email backlog. Make a decision when something shows up instead of when it blows up."

Allen says people should spend time before work making decisions about what they plan to do that day. Capture all your ideas, then process and organize them. This will help you stay in control of your in-basket, instead of the other way around. Similarly, Gordon says you should end your day by "rebooting your desk." Empty your inboxes, and file away everything, unless you will need it the next day. Gordon equates this to the childhood lesson of putting away your toys when you are done playing with them.

People are often "meeting driven" or "email driven," Allen says, reacting to the day's tasks instead of staying in control of them. That lack of control leads to messes, and that leads to stress. Instead, be proactive. Start with easy wins and small steps. Do a little bit of cleaning and planning each day. Sort your clutter, and prevent new clutter from replacing it.

Eventually, you will develop strong habits and finally conquer the mess. But "don't expect perfection," Gordon says. "You will have some setbacks." Both Allen and Gordon suggest not beating yourself up. Instead, simply start again with the simple tips listed above.

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