How To Organize Your Desk and Keep It Organized


Is your desk buried in clutter? Could your workspace use a little more organization? Whether your office is located inside or outside the home, the methods for achieving and maintaining an organized desk are the same. But before you read on for the details, you may be wondering why you should have an organized desk. Reorganizing your desk will take time and effort, so it had better be well worth it, right? Well, here are the benefits:

You will be able to find specific items quickly (e.g., you won’t have to waste time digging through piles of paperwork to find the one document you need at the moment). You will be more productive. You will make a good impression on the people who see your work area, such as customers and employees. You will benefit psychologically by facing a neat and attractive workspace at the beginning of each workday, and by being better able to focus on your work because there aren’t as many visual distractions.

Hopefully, you are now convinced that it is to your advantage to have an organized desk. So let me describe the step-by-step process I recommend for getting it organized.

Step 1. Pull everything (except perhaps very large items, such as computers or printers) off and out of your desk.

Step 2. Now you can clean the desk. Wipe down and dry the surface, the drawers, and all the nooks and crannies (what was that gunk in the back of the drawer?).

Step 3. Using boxes or bags as containers, sort through your things and group similar items together. Use the following group breakdown as an example and tailor it to fit your particular possessions: Supplies: pencils/pens, paper clips, rubber bands, post-it notes, white out, stapler, etc. Equipment and their accessories: computer, printer, telephone, disks, etc. Filing materials: manila file folders, hanging file folders, tabs, etc. File-able items: account information, forms, letterhead, completed projects, etc. Paperwork that requires action: things to read, calls to return, projects, etc. Reference materials: manuals, catalogs, price lists, binders, etc. Desk accessories: paper trays, pencil cup, Rolodex, desk calendar, desk pad, etc. Items you need in front of you for easy viewing: company phone list, cheat sheets, etc. Knickknacks: framed pictures, work awards, etc.

Step 4. Keep a recycle bin and garbage can nearby to get rid of things — especially paperwork — you don’t need. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help determine what to toss. Is the item an unnecessary duplicate? If the answer is “Yes,” toss it! Is the item current and relevant to my work? If the answer is “No,” toss it! How often will I need to use or refer to this item? If “Never,” toss it! Does this item add anything to other information on hand? If “No,” toss it!

Step 5. Now it is time to define a place for everything. In doing this, I suggest that you follow two principles: the Frequency-of-Use Rule and the Grouping/Separating Rule.

The Frequency-of-Use Rule says that items should be placed according to how frequently you need to access them. Specifically, items that are accessed quite frequently (i.e., on a daily basis) should be placed within immediate reach/view, while things that are used less often (i.e., weekly, monthly, or yearly) should be placed further away so that they do not interfere with your daily work. So first, think about what items you need most at your fingertips — e.g., computer, telephone, rolodex, desk calendar, frequently-accessed reference materials, company phone list, stapler, pens/pencils, paper clips, inbox material — and place these items in easy-to-access places in, on, or above your desk. Items that you use fairly frequently, but not every day — e.g., company letterhead, envelopes, particular reference materials, account information – should be placed either in desk drawers, filing cabinets near your desk, or shelving above or near your desk. If you have a file drawer in your desk, you may want to use it to file items such as account information, forms, and letterhead. (The topic of how to organize files, either in one’s desk or in a filing cabinet, is too large for me to address in detail here. However, I will offer you one general rule of thumb when it comes to creating file tabs: use categories and subcategories that make the most sense to you — i.e., that will allow you to most quickly and easily find what you are looking for.) Finally, items that you rarely access – e.g., extra office supplies and infrequently-accessed files and reference materials – should be stored on shelves or in file and supply cabinets relatively far away from your desk.

The Grouping/Separating Rule says that similar items should be placed together, while dissimilar items should be separated from each other. For example, put similar items together, such as paper clips, and separate them from dissimilar items, such as pencils. Also, items that are related to each other in function should be placed near each other. For instance, put your note-taking materials — e.g., pens, pencils, and scratch pad or telephone log — near your telephone.

Step 6. Organize items in storage areas and containers designed to accommodate them. Here are some examples: Action items can be stored on your desktop either in (a) a paper tray, if you don’t have a lot of material or (b) multiple stacking paper trays or a vertical file holder if you have enough material to sort into different categories, such as priority levels or types of activities (e.g., TO DO, TO PAY, TO READ, TO FILE). If much of what you do is date related, you can also use a tickler system composed of one file folder for each day of the week, month, or year. In such a system, you store action items in the folders that correspond to the days on which you need to complete the items. Store supplies like paper clips, rubber bands, pencils/pens, scratch paper, post-it notes, and white out in desktop supply caddies or drawer divider trays designed to organize such items Arrange the items you need for clear viewing under a clear desk pad or in an orderly fashion on a tackable board over your desk (do not attach items directly to the wall, since this tends to look a bit tacky and removing something may damage the wall covering). Store computer disks in containers designed to hold them.

Step 7. If necessary, reduce the number of knickknacks to a minimum (you don’t need five pictures of your kids), and place them in areas on or above your desk that will not interfere with your work.

Step 8. I have two final recommendations for you to keep in mind as you organize. One is to leave some clear space on the desktop for writing purposes and to give your desk a tidy appearance. The other tip is to make use of the numerous office organizing products on the market — e.g., paper trays, drawer divider trays, computer disk holders, desktop supply caddies, shelf dividers, etc. Don’t be afraid to purchase something or ask your boss to purchase something for you if it will help you get more organized.

Once you’ve organized your desk, you’ll want to keep it that way. I have the following suggestions for maintenance: Make an immediate decision about what to do with each item that comes across your desk. Resist the temptation of saying to yourself, “I’ll just put it here for now.” Put the item in its proper place, whether that’s in a particular drawer, paper tray, trash/recycle bin, etc. You can use the questions listed above to help you decide if you should toss an item. If you keep files in your desk, make appointments with yourself to go through them at least once a year to purge any old information. Try to put things back in their proper places as soon as you are done using them. Since putting items away immediately after using them isn’t always possible, I strongly recommend that you straighten up your desk at the end of each workday. It only takes about five or ten minutes and it is much easier to clean up a day’s worth of mess than a week, month, or year’s worth.


Barbara is the owner of The Clutter Coach, a professional organizing service for home and office, and currently serves as Webmaster for the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers. Besides doing hands-on organizing, she also frequently speaks about organizing at corporations, libraries, park districts, bookstores, and other adult education forums. She can be reached by phone at 630/221-8900 or by email at Visit her web site at 

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