A Better Desk

Messy Desk
photo credit: Messy Room via photopin (license)

For most people, a clear surface enhances productivity. A wide-open space enables us to spread out, minimize distractions, and focus on what is important. More often than not, people who say “I like a messy space!” are making an excuse for “I don’t want to take the time to clean this up.” If your desk is a cluttered mess, here are some common culprits and ideas for how to get rid of them.

Desk Clutter Culprits

Other People’s Stuff

If your desk is the dumping ground, remove what doesn’t belong to you and return it to its rightful owner.


This one sounds obvious, but we often forget to throw trash away. Pitch whatever you can, such as crumpled paper, used tissues, empty boxes/bags from supplies, candy wrappers, etc.

Business Cards

Gather together any cards on your desk and sort through them to see which contacts you still want to capture (pitch the rest.) Now you have a few options:

  • An old fashioned rolodex, organized alphabetically
  • An electronic “contacts” list. (Input by hand, or use an app such as Evernote to photograph cards and upload them.)
  • A binder with plastic card sleeves. Put a category label in the top right rectangle. (e.g. “Ad Agencies” or “Household Suppliers”)

If you have a large stack and no time, consider hiring a virtual assistant (or paying a teenager) to do this for you.


Gather the paper on your desk and move to a place where you can spread out. Sort the paper into piles that make sense to you. For example, you may have a pile for each client, or for each type of project. Label the piles as you sort. Trash/shred whatever paper you don’t need, and the move what is left into files. Paper is always best kept in files.

  • “Current” paper can go into folders that sit in a desktop sorter or into hanging files in a nearby file drawer.
  • “Inactive” paper can be moved into files in a less accessible drawer or file box. OR, you can scan old paperwork and store it electronically.

(for more tips on filing paper, click here.)

Food/Drink supplies

Get a coaster for drinks. This will provide a physical boundary (only one cup at a time), and also keep spills from soiling your desktop. Each time you leave your desk, be sure to clear any “empties” to the trash or kitchen.

“Dead” office supplies

Items in this category include pens that don’t work well, pencils whose tips have fallen out, broken staplers, bent paper clips, dried-up highlighters/Sharpies, etc. Whenever you pick up a tool that doesn’t work well, throw it away!

Office Supply Overkill

Don’t dump the whole huge box of pens into a bin on your desk. Keep 1-2 of each major supply (pen, pencil, letter opener, highlighter…) close at hand, and put the rest in a separate supply area.

If you have a shallow desk drawer, invest in an organizer so you can keep items from sloshing together. If not, get a desktop organizer. The key here is ruthlessly minimize, keeping only what you absolutely need on your desk.

Hanging Distractions

Often, we stick paper up a bulletin board or cubby wall and never take it down. Look at anything that is tacked up around your desk. Remove and pitch anything that is out of date. Arrange the remainder so that it hangs evenly (always pin from both corners), with space both between and around items.

Photo Pile-up

Have one or two photos on your desk, but no more.

Cord chaos

If possible, hang cords off the back of your desk. If your desk is against a wall, consider drilling a porthole through which you can run cords to the power source. Clip or group them together. There are many tools available to help with this, here are a few I like:

Cord Organizer
Command Cord Bundlers

Magazines/Reading Materials

Begin by sorting publications by title. Unless you MUST read them, keep only the most current issue. Move them off your desk and into a “to read” area of your space (a basket, a bin, etc.) Consider canceling subscriptions – most people subscribe to too many and end up spending money only to feel guilty about what they haven’t read.

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Don’t sabotage your productivity by forcing yourself perform on a cluttered desk. What culprit is the biggest struggle for you?

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24 thoughts on “A Better Desk”

    1. I had one client who hated the “dumping ground” nature of her kitchen desk. She got rid of it and put in a smaller, standing work surface, which worked very well for her. I love creative options!

    1. Believe it or not, this isn’t uncommon. We so quickly adapt to our setting that many end up just moving over/pushing stuff around/sitting somewhere else. All of which pummels productivity! I’m guessing from your comment that your desk looks nothing like this – good for you!

    1. Organizing papers is one thing most people need to do. They just pile up so fast!! I’m sending you “good vibes” to get it done and then stretch out on the futon and relax:)

  1. Because we get so little paper coming in these days, my in tray ends up being a collection point for things I haven’t dealt with yet – something that never happened when I needed to keep it clear to stay on top of incoming stuff. I tend to empty it only when it starts to bother me, and I’ve often wondered what would happen if I just got rid of it.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…My favorite visual content marketing toolsMy Profile

    1. I hear that, Janet! When the mess isn’t pressing, sometimes we are less motivated to tackle it. The good news is, you aren’t struggling to get work done!

    1. My husband frequently brings pens in from his international flying (they come in the little toiletries kit..) The thing is, they don’t work very well. I’ve taken to pitching them because I get frustrated when I pull one out and it won’t write!

  2. Yeesh, this post actually embarrasses me, lol. My desk is so cluttered that I’ve actually temporarily abandoned it and I’m working off of my coffee table.. no joke! I keep a fairly clean house, but when an area gets a little out of control, I tend to just let it go until I can devote some serious cleaning time to it.. That desk it high up on my to do list though darnit! haha.. great post! <3 – http://www.domesticgeekgirl.com
    Gingi recently posted…Visiting the Kingsburg Honey Beehives in Kingsburg, CaliforniaMy Profile

    1. Sending you good wishes to get that desk under control. You could just work on one corner at at time:) But at least know this, you are not the only one working on your coffee table (or bed, or at Starbucks, or…)!

  3. I’m a bit of an all or nothing person. I either have a totally trashed desk, or it’s clean as a pin, because I realized the mess and became obsessed with cleaning it right then and there! There isn’t much in between. Of course when I’m working on long projects, it can be challenging.
    Tamara recently posted…No Really, It’s Sandals Season!My Profile

    1. I can be that way too, Tamara. I need to have a big enough mess for it to feel rewarding to get it all in order. Of course, I’m so obsessive that it rarely gets that bad. But there is usually some other room that (teenagers, ahem) that I can work on!

  4. Love these tips! Every small business owner needs their space organized. I have seen some really disorganized offices and the main issue is time to organize. People don’t have loads of time to maintain the organized project. So, I always recommend a simple system so they can easily keep it up. Thanks for sharing these great products and tips.

  5. I hate to admit it but my magazine pile to read is huge. But I honestly do get to it! I read my favorites as they come in but others have to wait. I do not keep them on my desk though. Great post!

    1. Thanks, Autumn. If you love your magazines, then by all means! It’s only when they crowd your workspace that they become an issue. I’ve gone to reading more online, and only getting a few favorites in print.

  6. Seana, Wow, that desk it something! I struggle most with paper (I crave the tactile experience and love to write on good old fashioned paper!) and don’t know what I’d do without my desktop active file. Not only does it provide me with a place to keep the paper associate with what I’m actively working on, it sets a limit for me on how much paper can remain at my desk – When it gets full, it’s time for me to do a full review of the folders it holds and let go of what is no longer serving me. It’s by far my favorite desk accessory!
    Andrea Sharb recently posted…De-cluttering? Honor Who You Are Now & Who You’re BecomingMy Profile

    1. I love a few active files as well. I have one called “pending” that I go through periodically and throw stuff out. Often papers that I was reluctant to part with at one time get easier to pitch over time!

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