When Your Desk Is A Mess

messy desk

In the world of real estate, the phrase “Location, Location, Location” is widely used, meaning that the most important aspect of house hunting is finding one in the right spot. This is a helpful slogan to bear in mind when organizing any space, but especially when it comes to organizing the desk. Why? Because of all the places in the home, the desk (or whatever surface we are using as a desk) tends to attract the most clutter. Organizing the desk and its surrounding area is well worth the effort because a clear workspace is critical to productivity. Additionally, since many people have a desk in a public area like the kitchen, having an orderly desk makes the room look and feel under control.

The first step in organizing the desk is to disentangle the variety of items that have accumulated. This often includes paperwork, tools, food, laundry, toys, broken items, cords, sports gear, electronics, keys, and trash. Be sure to remove everything from both the desk surface and associated drawers and cabinets. As you examine the contents, you are likely to see that some items belong in the desk area, but many go somewhere else. For now, set aside anything you know shouldn’t live in the desk. You can walk around later and put things back in their rightful locations.

Now it is time to think back to our real estate expression. When setting up an organized desk area, we want to make sure that things are situated in the right spot. Therefore, the next step is to define four spaces:

1. “Prime real estate” 

This is the space that is most accessible. When it comes to the desk, this is anywhere you can reach from your desk chair (without standing up). This zone will include your desk surface, desk drawers, and any cabinets that you can access while seated.

 2. “Secondary access” zone

Secondary zones are still fairly convenient, but you will need to stand up and potential take a few steps in order to reach them. This zone might include a credenza across the room, a nearby file cabinet, overhead shelving, etc.

3. “Supply” location

This is a space where you can keep extras supplies. In an office building, this is often called the “stockroom.” In a home, this may be a closet, an armoire, a trunk, an extra dresser, or something similar. These spaces should have enough structure to keep items from becoming jumbled. Paper sorters, clear bins, small plastic drawers, turntables, and shelf risers are all products that can help keep overflow materials in order.

4. “Storage” location

Not everything that is desk-related needs to be accessed on a regular basis, such as old tax returns or other paperwork that is being kept “just in case.” When planning a space for these items it is important to identify a location that is safe and secure. This might be a file cabinet in the attic, plastic file box in the basement (be sure it is dry!), or a couple of banker boxes on a high shelf in a spare room closet. 

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Once you have established these four areas, the next step is to place your desk-related items back in the appropriate zone. Here are some guidelines to help you decide what should go where.

In “Prime Real Estate”

… put the items you use each day. For instance, 2 pens of each color, 1 highlighter, 1 pair of scissors, 1 pad of sticky notes, a pair of scissors, a stapler, one roll of tape, and a couple of binder clips in a top drawer with an insert or a surface organizer with multiple compartments.  Active paper files also belong in this zone, ideally in an attached file drawer or a file box under/next to the desk. Action folders (e.g. for things like “Bills to Pay” or “Follow Up”) can sit in a desktop sorter. In general, whatever you regularly touch is a candidate to go in this zone.

In “Secondary Access”…

… place the items that you use only intermittently. For instance, the printer may go on a shelf in the closet, your device chargers can sit on a credenza behind the desk, reminders can be hung on a bulletin board on the wall, and so forth.

In “Supply”…

… put the “extras” of all the items you regularly use, such as the large box of pencils, the stash of glue sticks, the pack of printer cartridges, the multi-pack of tape, the large bag of rubber bands, etc. If your supplies came in shrink-wrap, remove this outer packaging once the product has been opened and drop the individual items into easy-access bins. To help family members keep the space in order, label containers and shelves.

In “Storage”…

… set up a container system that meets your needs. If you have paperwork, get a file cabinet or file boxes. If you have three-ring binders, install shelving. If you keep samples of fabrics, get bins with lids. Remember to always clearly label containers, as you are likely to forget what is inside over time. Also, consider adding freestanding shelves in large storage spaces as they facilitate use of vertical space without having to stack boxes.

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What clutter culprits tend to land on your desk? Do you utilize zones such as these?

30 thoughts on “When Your Desk Is A Mess”

  1. Not going to lie but it is time for me to deal with clutter and clean up my desk once again here. So what can I say but thanks as this article and your awesome tips couldn’t come at a better time 😉

  2. This is clear and specific strategies on how to visualize a more productive work space. I have several clear work spaces and it is because everything has a home. Most importantly incoming materials, mail and every piece of paper come to an “unprocessed” spot. That spot is where the work begins. I find that truly helps me keep my desk clear.

    1. Neat idea to have an “unprocessed” place on your desk. This could even be a folder in a sorter, if you have a small work surface. I generally have a few items that are in process out on my desk. Because I am bothered by the visual of the stack, I’m highly motivated to tackle whatever it is so I can clear it away. I acknowledge that not everyone feels this way, so it is important to customize a desk surface to the user’s needs.

  3. I think the most common space anyone leads me to for organizing assistance is the desk – fortunately, I love organizing workspaces! I like your descriptions of the different zones, and especially “2 pens of each color”. So many times pen and pencil clutter is ignored, even when half of them don’t even work properly.Great post!

    1. I think I could spend time with pretty much every client testing pens, markers, highlighters and glue sticks and eliminating many of them. I might also extend that to “tiny” crayons. Even if they all work, you don’t need them stuffing up your pen cup, right? There is no shame in donating a bag of pens:)

  4. One of my favorite things to do is to organize a desk space. I love that a desk is a relatively small and well-defined area. But also, the “payoff” is enormous. A disorganized desk makes it SO much harder to think clearly and do the work you want to do. I recently worked with several clients on taking back their desks. They were so happy. They felt lighter, more productive, and calm.

    I remember having this experience several years back when my husband designed and built my new desk and office space. I had to remove everything and then put things back. I went slowly and opted for having much less out. I love my workspace and how everything has a place and purpose.

    1. I completely agree that a desk organization project is incredibly rewarding. It literally calms you down, right? Recently my husband decided to change our wifi system in the home to improve our speed. I came down one morning to find what looked like a white ufo and two large/rigid cords on my desk. In the nicest voice I could muster, I thanked him for working on this project, but explained that I wasn’t going to like having all that out on my desk (it took about 1/3 of my desk surface). Fortunately, I had barely started to speak when he said, “You don’t like it on your desk, do you?” I’m happy to report we found another option:)

  5. I use zones like these and they work really well for me. I have trouble concentrating with a disorganzied desk and get disattracted by other tasks that are laying on the desk. Currently my husband likes to leave paper work for me to finish up or file on my desk.

    1. I often find “gifts” from my husband on my desk too, Julie. In all fairness, I put things on his desk as well. I guess we both figure that this is a safe space to put items that need attention, right?

    1. Sounds like a terrific find, Janet! That amount of space will still be required since it is holding supplies you are using. You could get a smaller desk, but then you would need to find alternative locations for items that no longer fit. I’d love to see a photo!

  6. Like so many of us, I do lots of desk organizing. I also talk about valuable real estate on the desk surface and am often surprised when clients hadn’t realized the importance and the benefits of maintaining the flow and the organization on their desk surface. I had to giggle when I read the comment you made about your husband leaving the cords and UFO on your desk. I can only imagine.. This was a great post, Seana. I love the zones!
    Diane Quintana recently posted…Avoid Downsizing Furniture Drama?My Profile

  7. Great advice for organizing the desk! Current papers that are still in process are my desk clutter struggle. I create a fan of these different papers, so I see about 2 inches at the top of each current paper that needs attention. I then put it to the left of my desk with my planner on top. This placement reminds me that the planner and the papers underneath need reviewing each day.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…How to Downsize the Home Without MovingMy Profile

  8. I call this the Target Principle. It follows your 4 location idea. So often people just put things down anywhere and it creates chaos. Finding the correct home is so important. Then maintaining it is critical to better productivity.

    1. Love that title, the “Target Principle.” It provides an immediate visualization of what you are trying to achieve. It is so common to load up a space without giving thought to how we can use it best. The desk is certainly worth the effort to get it right!

  9. Yes, I do have the zones! I can’t stand a cluttered desk. And it’s funny because sometimes it will seem cluttered to me, and someone will come over and marvel at how neat it is. I’m like, “WHAT?”
    Common offenders on my desk are things the kids leave. Post-It notes I “might” still want. And mail I haven’t responded to, that I need to respond to!

    1. I often find “things the kids leave” on a Mom’s desk. There is something very appealing to children about a parent’s desk. It seems like a constant battle to keep those items off of the desk, right? To add insult to injury, half the time they are broken toys that a child has left for Mom to fix:)

    1. If you know where everything is, you are organized! It doesn’t have to be tucked away to be organized. The only question is whether you like it that way or not. Some people enjoy “seeing” the piles, so that works too:)

  10. Establishing zones makes all the difference! That keeps me from just putting things down anywhere. I like to keep one side of my desk (actually 2 tables in an L-shape) clear so that I always have an open space to work. I also place files right on top of my planner that I intend to work on the next day. Then it is right there for me to see in the morning! No one else sees my office except me, but I still like to keep it neat & tidy because that improves my own productivity.
    Olive Wagar recently posted…Summer Life Is Easier With Less ClutterMy Profile

    1. I like keeping my desk tidy as well, Olive. I love the idea of putting your to do list right on top of your calendar each night so you are ready to go. Zones are such a foundational and useful concept!

    1. Working from home has been a challenge for all of us! My husband’s “bedroom office” has cables running all over the place. It doesn’t bother him, but it would be challenging for me to work in there. I like a clear and ordered space and find I am more productive when I have one!

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