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I have quite a messy desk at work, and that messiness state is reflect on my desk (or kitchen counter or some other work space) at home. Not matter what I do, it returns to this state of messiness in a few days.

What can I do to keep my work space tidy and clean?

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If you don't manage to follow through on some of the great answers you have got here, you can allways take comfort in a sign I once saw hanging on the wall behind the desk in a stamps and coins shop, which said: "A clean desk is a sign of a sick mind" – awe Sep 8 '11 at 8:02

10 Answers 10

up vote 16 down vote accepted

There is "two weeks box rule" to clear some space :)
It states following:
1.Take a box and put things/papers you don't want to keep but hesitating to throw them into garbage.
2.If you need something from the box during two weeks take it but do not put back, try to find it's place.
3.After two weeks throw away things those are still in the box.

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Really like this as it allows one last opportunity before finally it into the rubbish bin. – tehnyit Sep 2 '11 at 8:38
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The only way to do this is by determination and organization.

  • Restore things at the place from where you took it
  • Decide that you will not tolerate any form of untidiness and will not make any excuse.

Remember: "If you have time to lean, you have time to clean".

Hope this helps.

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+1: Great quote. – Gigili Sep 1 '11 at 5:12
"•Restore things at the place from where you took it" - Well this wouldn't work for me, as most of the things that make a mess at my work desk comes from the printer... – awe Sep 8 '11 at 8:18
+1 for the "Big Bang Theory" quote! Such a great show :) – Paul T. Feb 7 '13 at 20:34

It's not a problem, and it's not a habit you should change. It's a sign of your organized mind.

Messy spaces are widely considered the sign of a disorganized and un-together person. Not for Norman:

"In Norman's view, Gore's desk is the cluttered extension of an organized mind. Indeed, Norman interviewed many seemingly organized owners of messy workspaces and heard them repeatedly request, "Please don't clean my desk." The apparent disorder of the office was being carefully tracked in their minds.

The book is Don Norman's Living with Complexity.

How do people cope with such apparent disorder? The answer lies in the phrase “underlying structure.” My desk looks chaotic and incomprehensible to anyone who is unaware of the reasoning behind the many disparate piles. Once the structure is revealed and understood, the complexity fades away.

I'm proud of having not only my desk, but my entire room full of things everywhere. And when I need something, I absolutely know where to find it.

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For another example search for "einstein's desk". – Stuart Woodward Nov 15 '11 at 10:28

I have a few guides that I use whenever I'm cleaning (or rather, tidying) a space.

  1. Walk into the space and pick up 2-5 things that need to be put back somewhere else, or thrown away
  2. Put those 2-5 things in their correct location, or throw them away
  3. Repeat

This sounds ridiculously easy, but the key is this: don't sit down, and don't get distracted.

Don't flick through the magazine that you've picked up, or rummage through the stack of photos, or quickly check something on the computer while you're in the study.

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+1 for not getting distracted. Big problem for me... – tehnyit Sep 7 '11 at 8:35

I am struggling with this same issue. I have two thoughts: go at it in categories! and, ask yourself if there are emotional/psychological issues making this hard for you.

Firstly, I remember how I used to do it as a kid: first the paper products. Ok, I was a bigger kid by this time :) Anything with paper in it: Kleenexes, papers, magazines, posters, invitations - I would gather them up and deal with them first. Put them away or throw them away.

OK, then I'd look around and see what other categories of things there were - I used to like to categorize. And I'd deal with them. All the toys in their places. All the clothes in their places. All the dishes. Etc. Now I have to add financial papers, work materials, etc etc. More categories. Too many categories now! Ahrgh!

I would also check in with yourself to see if there are psychological issues to address:

  • Are you subconsciously trying to keep people from interfering in your life/work? A good way to do it is to make sure they can't find anything in your space. :)

  • Are you putting blocks in your way so you can't go forward? Why? What are you afraid of? Can you let that go?

  • Do you want privacy and time alone, but you don't want to just say it, so you make it physically impossible for people to come into your space, or make it so you won't let them in due to pride?

  • Do you feel badly about yourself and fear letting people get too close? If so, again, building walls of clutter will give you a good excuse to keep them away.

  • Did you grow up with uncertainty or criticism? This can make you feel uncertain or helpless when it comes to organizing your own surroundings.

There are so many other things that can keep us from creating an orderly world around us.

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Two questions: 1.) When you think of cleaning your desk/work area, do you tend to justify inaction on the basis that it will take too long (ie, "I don't have time to clean up!")?

2.) When you go to throw a document out, do you tend to worry about what will happen if, through a series of events as unlikely as an alignment of several celestial bodies, you somehow need that document at some point in the future?

If you answered yes to both these questions, then I would give you the following advice: being disorganised is a very expensive way to save time, and storing masses of out of date documents is a very time-consuming security blanket.

From my own experience I have found that reassuring myself that I am saving time by cleaning my desk is a great way to get it done. Also, every time I throw out an old set of hand-written notes, I tell myself that this way I am going to be able to find things when I need to. Maybe being organised is about giving yourself permission to do so!

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Put your stuff where they belong. And probably that's not on your desk. Think about where you need to put them eventually and put them there the first time, right away! No 'place in between', you know what to do with it.

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You may want to read about the 5S methodology which is described as:

how to organize a work space for efficiency and effectiveness by identifying and storing the items used, maintaining the area and items, and sustaining the new order

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I have found this system works nicely (when I use it):

Scan all documents and store on computer.

If I need to keep it (i.e. for tax or regulatory reasons), it goes into a filing box, otherwise, it goes straight into the shredder.

Loose coins go into a money box.

Everything else should have a place, or it goes into the bin.

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Scanning all documents appeals to many, but there's the danger of losing everything if the hard disk crashes. Be sure to maintain backups off-site. – DarenW Feb 13 '12 at 22:18
  • Spend 10 minutes a day tidying up, no matter how busy you are until you reach the desired level. This will become unnecessary if you do it regularly.
  • Stamp papers with the date and a project code, so you know what they belong to if they get mixed up with other papers.
  • Have a box under you box for paper that you need to shred. This makes it clear that it shouldn't be thrown out with the normal garbage. Every week take the bottom third and shred it.
  • Don't accept papers. Throw papers that you are not likely to use in the scrap box immediately.
  • Don't use meeting handouts as a note paper during the meeting. Keep notes in a dated paper or electronic notebook.
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