how do I stop my desk from looking like a tornado hit it?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I have never been someone who is good at keeping tidy. I have what many refer to as “an organized mess.” I know exactly where everything I need is, but my desk is by no means orderly.

I’ve noticed that my coworkers are all able to keep their spaces clean, whereas mine usually looks like a small tornado came through. Every few weeks, I spend 30 minutes cleaning up and organizing things, and it feels great to me when everything is clear! I just have no idea how to maintain it. I’ve tried working clean up days into my schedule more often, but they never seem to stick. Any suggestions or advice? 

Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 467 comments… read them below }

    1. Amber T

      Cheers. I straightened up my desk last week and the tornado already came.

      My only advice would be – do you really need to straighten it up? Assuming it’s paperwork and not gross garbage, and you know where everything is, do you need to *keep* it tidy? Honestly, after I organize my desk I never know where anything is. It’s definitely nice at first, but I’ve resigned myself to a messy desk, and that’s okay.

      1. furloughed fed

        The problem is when others need to find something on your desk. Or when confidential papers are left lying out because of mess. I worked with someone where these were constant problems. I am the opposite of messy, its funny how folks assume you are “working” when your desk is messy, as opposed to when it’s not, like mine. If it isn’t hurting anyone else, no walkways are blocked or other safety violations are taking place, and the public doesn’t see it, who cares? I like to disinfect my desktop weekly, so too much crap is an obstacle. If you eat at your desk, how do you clean it afterwards? Or if there is a coffee spill? There are good reasons for keeping a work surface more clear than not.

          1. fposte

            I need to find stuff on my staff’s desk with some frequency. They’re not all full time, and some do a fair bit of work from home. Fortunately, they’re pretty tidy, and nobody needs to find papers on my desk.

          2. Cat Fan

            I personally have to give a lot of documents to our admin to mail. Sometimes I realize that a change needs to be made before the document goes out and if she’s not at her desk, I have to go looking for it. Her desk is also an organized mess, but instead of a tornado it’s more like giant white mountains of paper. She could find most things in an instant, but it looks horrible and the rest of us can ever find anything if we need to.

          3. Lusankya

            At my work, the account manager has ownership of a job, but if a client calls while the account manager is at lunch, or otherwise away from their desk, then someone else might take the call and look through the files then.

            And of course,the person filling in if the account manager’s sick needs to look through the files on someone else’s desk.

        1. 2sheds

          As someone who is unnaturally tidy, the fact that people assume you’re busy when your desk is messy drives me nuts. My first boss had a strong preference for untidy desks for this reason, to the point that one piece of “wisdom” passed down to me as a new hire was to keep a stack of papers out to avoid idle harassment from him. He was a horror in many ways, but his reliance on random paperwork to signify productivity was an early indicator that he subscribed to a “butts in seats” philosophy of productivity and seemingly didn’t understand that people have different job duties and working styles–he wanted everyone there as many hours a week as he could squeeze out of them and valued you more if you came in early and stayed late, no matter what your contributions were. Not only did that mean we couldn’t use PTO without scorn, it also meant we were expected to stay at work whether there was no heat, no power, or a huge snowstorm that would trap us at work. His philosophy led to bad morale in more insidious ways, too, since it bred resentment between the staff who could accommodate this lifestyle and those whose outside lives didn’t permit it. I’m glad I got away from that place and I’m insanely grateful that his view of what makes someone a good worker is being left in the past! (sorry for the tangent)

          1. Snickerdoodle

            YES. I am very tidy and HATE the assumption that a neat desk = no work to do and vice versa, especially since so much work is done on a computer screen and no paperwork is needed. I hate having to keep a few papers or files out to “look busy” when I already AM busy, but there you go.

      2. Kali

        I just read this really interesting book called Algorithms to Live By – basically a cross between a self-help book and a computer manual. One chapter points out that a big pile is quite an efficient filing system; the stuff that gets used a lot ends up on top and the stuff that’s needed less often sinks to the bottom.

        I’m managing to keep everything neat at the moment because I just KonMaried everything, and now everything has a nice spot to be put in, and I don’t have to find a place for it right there and then – there’s already a gap waiting. I’ve also managed to anthropomorphise all my stuff, what with thanking it and asking it how it wants to be folded and stored, so now I feel bad if something’s not in its little home.

    2. Llellayena

      Me too. *looks around at the piles of papers and drawings from 4 different projects piled haphazardly* I am highly anticipating that “paperless society” we keep talking about. Then I only have to organize computer files.

      1. Lena Clare

        Oh my word, I’m dreading the totally paperless society – I am worst at filling computer files!

        1. Quarteringsea

          I literally have a Shame Folder with dated subdirectories where I cut and paste everything currently living on my Desktop into this … memory hole. It’s so bad.

          (Most of my stuff is neatly filed but there is still a lot of detritus).

          1. Canarian

            Same! I have a bunch of folders on my desktop labeled something like “Desktop Stuff – Fall 2018” where I clear all the crap on my desktop onto a few times a year. Plus, my company automatically deletes any unarchived e-mails that are more than 90 days old, so my email archive is just full of folders I’ve created at the 25th hour right before they’re going to be deleted that labeled, like, “July 2016 Unsorted Emails.”

            The paperless society will be slightly more functional only because it provides a search function. It won’t be more organized.

          2. Caramel & Cheddar

            I used to do this, but then I switched to using a folder called Temp on the desktop, i.e. it’s where I save stuff I only need for five seconds in the first place (e.g. reports I could always run again later if I needed to). This way I can empty it regularly without worrying anything in there was real.

          3. GingerHR

            Yep, me too. Although I hide from reality by giving them different names. A server move and GDPR didn’t budge me, but now I’m leaving, and having to face the portal to a hell dimension that is my archive. I’ve always kidded myself that I need to keep it – audit trail, blah blah – but I have to accept that when I am looking at things that are 3 years old and I no longer have the password for, I’m just a file squirrel who needs to manage their nut piles better.

          4. Ginger Baker

            For emails, now that Outlook’s search feature is pretty good, I have a few rule-filtered folders (for meeting invites, FedEx tracking, and a couple of other very specific things that are easy and worth filtering for) and most things go into the inbox and then, once I am done with them, into a single “Processed” folder that is not affected by the auto-archive. If you need to keep specific client-related emails sorted, this won’t work for that, but I find it extremely useful for clearing out my inbox, avoiding deletion (because occasionally I do want to reference what was said six months ago about that one invoice, or copy the format I used for a status update on Long-Handled Teapots [I have a separate rule that throws “Sent” items into a Sent Archive folder to avoid deletion]), and ensuring my inbox has only emails I still need to take action on for the most part.

            1. media monkey

              i don’t file emails at all (as they go out of filed folders when they are archived – or at least they used to). I can usually find what i need by knowing either who an email was sent to or from and roughly when it was sent! add keywords to the email address if you get a lot of mail from that person!

        2. Parenthetically

          I found the dumbest class one summer to fill my Computers 101 requirement for college — it was a 3-week intensive on Microsoft Office. Hilariously basic. But we spent a couple days reviewing a variety of file naming and nesting systems to keep your computer files neat. Only useful thing from the whole course.

      2. Amber T

        But can we talk about how organizing computer files is still a pain in the ass? We just recently moved drives and had to reorganize… ugh. There’s a search function! It can be in the void and I can still find it!

        Can I Marie-Kondo my work files? None of this brings me joy – begone with all of it!

          1. fposte

            I lean more towards the rural 3S, which wasn’t designed for paperwork but works pretty well–shoot, shovel, and shut up.

        1. LizB

          We just moved drives as well and it’s now ever-so-slightly harder for me to save things directly into my personal drive… which means it collects on my desktop because I haven’t yet re-trained myself in the new way of saving. Why am I like this.

        2. Antilles

          I’ve actually found computer files to often be even worse with organization because there are so many hands touching them…and how organized network files are depends *entirely* on relies on which coworker is LEAST organized, because that’s the person who ignores the naming system, puts stuff in the wrong place, saves multiple incomprehensible copies*, etc.
          *My first company was great for this. There was no real protocol for how to change a file name after you reviewed it, so people would literally do everything – some would use dates, some would use revision numbers, some would just append their initials to the file name. So you’d look in the file folder and see “Report_V1”, “Report_V1_JD”, “Report_20151014”, “Report_V1_JD_UA” and “Report_V2” without any real indication as to what’s actually the current version. Especially if you had to come back to the project later, because of course all of these useless copies were still kept in the same folder.

          1. Texan In Exile

            My former boss at my old job would take the report for the board of directors that I had prepared for him and put in the common drive under /Board of Directors/Financial reports/(month)/”BOD Financial report October 2018″ and rename it to

            09282018BODFinRpt

            When I asked him why – why would anyone do something like that in a common drive, he said that’s the date he reviewed it.

            I was not surprised the day that he read the completely wrong file in our quarterly meeting with the board.

            1. TardyTardis

              Although I date all my minutes and minutes-associated by Date Whatever The Hell It Is–I can find everything by the meeting date.

        3. De Minimis

          My whole department is terrible for this. So many old folders/outdated files. It’s really tough as a new employee to get the information you need. “Oh, you’re using this outdated process document, use this one that is in this obscure corner of our shared drive.”

      3. teclatrans

        Computer files are the worst for me. I mean, I can organize them very well, but the contents disappear forever because they are not 3-dimensional, I can’t know them in relation to the rest of the physical world. I have lost connection to all my albums this way :-(

      4. only acting normal

        Our office is theoretically as paperless as possible (they repeatedly reduced the number of cupboards as “encouragement”, and send out stern emails about the amount of printing done).
        Now we’ve run out of server space, so I guess we’re going info-less too… at a place that does research and data analysis. :-/

    3. animaniactoo

      I’m like “Don’t look at me… I’m currently taking care of 3 months worth of filing….”

    4. galfrom away

      I am going to be watching this too. I keep feeling that I have “organized chaos” in my office, and that creative brains struggle to have order and tidy desks.

    5. MusicWithRocksInIt

      Clean as you go. Never pull out a new project without putting the old project away. Rather than spending half a day once a month cleaning take one minute four times a day to set things away. I know you are busy and you need to check that other thing, but you do have time to set the first thing away and file it. This is also my advice for filing – don’t just build up a giant stack of things to file ‘later’ – every time you have something to file just file it. If you have a bunch of things that aren’t ready create a space for current projects and keep them all in files there. Try to stop work five minutes before you normally would at the end of the day to take care of any stragglers.

      1. Artemesia

        When I read this it is like me watching an opera singer — are we the same species? I know everything you write here, but I simply never could do it. The best I could do was have many shelves next to my desk with many in baskets so I could sort of keep the chaos sort of organized.

          1. valentine

            What MusicWithRocksInIt suggests sounds like office KonMari: Each project or set of papers goes in its own bag or big on a shelf. Pull only the one you’re working on now. I suppose if they’re in different stages, you could pull pieces (hopefully Post-It flagged in colors coordinating with their bag/bin), but set limits like no more than two or three pieces for the same number of hours, then return them before pulling the next set. So peaceful, like the hush after a snowfall.

      2. JSPA

        But so often (admittedly, field –
        dependent) there’s a reason to have multiples open for direct comparison. Has the process changed? When did we update the wording (or, didn’t we, and for how many clients is it likely to be a problem)? Is the logo proposal for this client too similar to the runner -up proposals for two other clients (that they didn’t go with, but have the right to return to that option…or do they?). Sometimes you can so everything linearly, with a checklist. Other times, it’s really more efficient to have multiple folders strategically placed on 4 corners of the desk.

      3. media monkey

        i’m pretty paperless – i print copies of things i need for a meeting or if i am referring to paper that needs to go onto the computer or similar. if i have files for a few projects i need to keep, i use clear plastic folders with a label on and when the project is done, sort through and file/ recycle/ shred as needed. but we rarely file anything since it is not often that we get sent something that only exists in paper form! if it is filed on the computer you don’t need to keep/ file the paper too.

    6. Nicole Alexander

      It’s hard if you are multi-tasking and what not, throughout the week. But my headspace is in feng shui and “clutter is chaos”.
      So, I keep whatever is necessary on desktop.
      I use file folders with a title label, to organize projects, so they are not strewn about my desk and are in one place.
      I also keep staplers, accessories, etc. in drawers.
      I do “tidy up” at the end of each day to organize my priorities for the following morning (with a list of them written down on the note pad).
      Everyone has a different system that works for them, so this is what works for me. Best wishes!

  1. Où est la bibliothèque?

    IME just squaring off your stacks neatly, setting them flush to the wall and putting a folder on top makes a big visual difference. It’s the desk equivalent of just shoving everything into the closet.

    1. Emma

      Yup! In college my friends and I would do this when we had unexpected guests. We called it “123 magic”

    2. JokeyJules

      this! Makes a WORLD of a difference visually

      Also, are you using your drawers if you have them? I know it’s cute to assemble and display lotion or tape or other little things that you don’t use constantly, but throw them in the drawer. The only things I keep on my desk is my pen cup, tissues, and the phone. everything else goes in the drawer.

      1. The New Wanderer

        Drawers are hard to use for people who organize their stuff spatially (like me). They can be handy for non-content-heavy stuff like staplers, tape, scissors, extra pens, but I just cannot use drawers for paper documents and notes. It’s totally an out of sight, out of mind thing. I mean, I’ll file things if I know I don’t need them anymore, but if it’s a stack of papers related to a current project, I can’t hide them or I’ll forget where they are.

        I do second the suggestion for making neat piles, though, that helps so much with the appearance of organization without disrupting the actual organization.

        1. Mallory Janis Ian

          I’m a spatial organizer, and for me putting the item in the drawer means I’m finished with it. If I ever put my in-process work in a drawer, I’ll never think about it again.

        2. Vancouver

          I started using a ‘things I need to deal with’ drawer for everything that I’d prefer to leave out, but don’t want to inflict on my colleagues. Basically it’s just the top drawer of my under-desk filing cabinet so I can drop everything into it and come back to it later. It’s worked really well because I’ve been on top of pulling everything out every week to make sure no garbage is accumulating.

          Sometimes you have to be willing to throw things out. We’ve brought in a ‘purge cart’ to our office a few times and everyone’s filled it with files for recycling and shredding, extra supplies, and weird detritus. (Pirate costumes, anyone?)

          Or, if you have an organized colleague you trust, try asking them? What do they do that helps them keep tidy. Added bonus: they might be able to keep helping you for a few weeks, so you can get into tidier habits.

    3. Sparkles

      Yes to this. I also have a vertical “filing box” on my desk. It has 6 slots for categories that I use regularly. Otherwise, it goes in a designated file folder in my drawer. The only other things that live on my desk are chapstick, pen cup, stapler, and a tissue box.

      1. SignalLost

        I have a lot more desk stuff but I also have a vertical organizer. Means that the stuff I’m actively working on is easily available. I also use my inbox as storage and put anything I’m not actively working on but can’t file yet in there. And today, apparently, I also have a binder flipped open and some newsletters to mail next week too, so, uh, it’s not perfect, but it helps.

    4. TornadoDesk (LW)

      That’s how I tend to clean things, too. The deeper clean involves going through my piles and files and throwing things away or archiving them.

      In terms of drawers: I have two that could probably be used better. One is for files that honestly don’t get used much (maybe I can think about re-evaluating that), one is for snacks. I’ll work on taking a better look at drawer use next week when I’m back in the office.

    5. Admin of Sys

      Yes, this! Lean into the file box organizers to – having 6 piles of paper on your desk can look messy even if they’re neatly stacked. But if you have 6 filing trays of , it’s 10 times better. And they can be color coordinated or stacked or wall hanging, etc.

    6. TardyTardis

      I did the moral equivalent when helping my son organize his place for a HUD inspection–anything I could not hide, I stacked neatly against a wall so the place *looked* open (plus, it made the place easier to vacuum. His cat apparently works on the theory that cat hair and kitty litter must go *everywhere*).

  2. Justme, the OG

    Give everything a place and out it there. Take like 5 minutes a day before you go home to make sure everything is in its place.

    1. Quinoa

      THIS. It’s amazing how effective the end of day tidying can be. It’s also a nice transition into “not at work anymore” mind.

    2. GRA

      This is what I do – at the end of the day, I take 10 minutes or so to tidy up everything into neat piles, file things away. I come into work to a clean desk in the morning, and just don’t worry about the state of the desk during the day.

      1. EditAnd EditOr

        This is what I came here to say – having things to put things in really helps me. Filing trays, pen pots, drawers with organiser insert trays in them, bookends to stack books and files between, boxes (big for underneath, small for desktop) – I do regular purges two or three times a year, where I get rid of anything I don’t need (Marie Kondo the crap out of everything, basically), and once a purge is done, everything left *must* have a place. It then goes BACK in that place when I have finished with it, or at least at the end of every day. I still have to do mini-tidy-ups every few weeks, as my discipline slips – but as long as everything has a place, I know it can go back in that place when I need to tidy up.

        1. Xarcady

          I have accepted the fact that, as someone who is basically a slob at heart, I will need to do monthly tidy-ups both at home and at work for the rest of my life. But I know I have to do them, I know I like it better when I can find stuff, and because everything does have a home, tidying up doesn’t take very long these days.

      2. Formica Dinette

        Same here. I am naturally a slob, but this makes a world of difference for me and is easy to maintain. In addition, I have a folder for every single project. The folders for current and ongoing projects are on top of my desk/in a file sorter. When a project is finished, I put the folder in my filing cabinet if I need to keep the contents or throw it out if I don’t.

        Good luck, LW. I feel your pain.

        1. Formica Dinette

          Two more things:
          -I also have a folder for miscellany that I go through once a week.
          -When I first started using this system, I scheduled it in Outlook until I began remembering to do it on my own.

          1. TardyTardis

            Ah, the rat pile theory! Worked for me well (and I really cleaned it out just before going on vacation, Mr. Shredder is your friend).

    3. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night

      I do this every day as well. If I’m being honest, it’s 100% a self-soothing exercise that helps me manage my anxiety; having everything tucked away in neat stacks and/or folders gives me a feeling of “you got this!” even if I absolutely don’t.

    4. Princess Loopy

      YES. I am terrible at this, but this is the best advice I can give you: straighten up every day instead of every few weeks.

      I’d be willing to bet this is what your coworkers do: clean up a little bit every day, either at the end or as they go along. They don’t naturally generate a forcefield of neatness (although from the outside, that’s what it seems like!); they just spend some time and effort making it happen. It might be a habit for them, whereas it isn’t for you and me, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it happen.

      1. Sparkles

        I tidy up before I go to lunch and when I leave for the day. It really helps my brain to be in order and not in chaos.

      2. Emily K

        Yep, that’s really what it comes down to. You just have to cultivate the habit of looking around and identifying things that need tidying when it’s still at the low-level 10-to-30-second-investment point, instead of only noticing the mess when it’s now a 5-minute, 10-minute, or 30-minute job.

        Maybe try putting a post-it on your monitor to jog your memory, something like, “Do I need all this?” that will make you look around your desk. If there’s anything out that you were working with earlier but you’re done with it now, any empty cups or plates, you pulled the phone across the desk to talk on speaker and left it there, you got some office supplies or a stapler out of your drawer, etc., take 10 to 30 seconds and carry your dishes to the kitchen, throw away your trash, push your phone to the back of the desk again, put your stapler back in the drawer, and tidy up any paperwork you still need but are done working with for the time being.

        Tidying up paperwork can be as simple as squaring off neat piles and pushing them back as other have suggested. I have a pair of stackable inboxes on my desk. The bottom one holds my pads of paper and the top one holds everything else that is not trash or finished yet, but I’m not currently working on. I only need two inboxes because I work in digital so I don’t have a lot of print-outs or papers to deal with, but you can get more if you want to maintain different stacks of papers in different inboxes. Papers that I use long-term, like reminders, project timelines, references I consult, I tack to my bulletin board so they’re never in my way on the desk but they’re never out of sight/out of mind.

        If you look around your desk several times a day and just put away/tidy up anything you aren’t using, it’ll only take you 3-5 minutes a day cumulatively to keep the tornado at bay :)

        1. Emily K

          Oh, and a variation on this: Every time you stand up to go somewhere – like to the bathroom, water cooler, kitchen, conference room – do a quick scan to see if there’s anything that you can take with you that doesn’t belong. I have a trash can and paper recycling bin at my desk, but my drink bottles and yogurt cups need to be taken to the kitchen to be recycled. I usually eat lunch at my desk and I rarely want to get up to take my dishes/bottles/cups to the kitchen when I finish eating because I’m usually in the middle of something. So the next time I get up, I use the opportunity to clear that stuff out.

    5. R.D.

      You can also use that 5 minutes of tidying as a chance to prioritize the next days’ work. Stacking your piles of paper based on priorities. Also, just having folders for each project, even if you keep the folders on your desk, but put the papers in the folder makes a difference.

      That said, my desk is untidy, so do as I say, not as I do. It’s mostly untidy with stuff left out instead of piles of paper (pens not put in the cup, head phones, charging cables, chap stick, boxes of tea, a stress boll, Kleenex, desk toys, coffee cup, other random items, etc). Going paperless is the best.

      1. Contracts Killer

        I keep a stack of folders and a package of sticky notes at my desk. When new papers come in, I put them in existing folders. If one doesn’t exist yet, I put it in a new folder and use a sticky note over the label tab. Most of the time, the stickies come off as the project completes, but others turn into permanent files with permanent labels. Everything seems much more organized and easy to find in file folders.

      2. That Girl From Quinn's House

        Yes, I’ve found that I need to schedule the last 30 minutes of my day for wrapping things up and getting things together so I’m set for the next day. I often find something that needs to be done while wrapping/setting up, so the 30 minutes is a good cushion for unexpected tasks too.

    6. MLB

      +1. If you spend 5 minutes at the end of each day tidying up, it won’t take you 30 minutes every few weeks to organize the tornado. If I need to keep stuff on my desk, I keep stuff in neat piles. But I have file folders and other containers to help me keep things where they belong. If there’s too much clutter, I can’t focus on my work.

      1. Iris Eyes

        That seems like a bad deal, you trade one half hour for cleaning for almost 2 hours of cleaning! Why would you do that? Even if a lot of days its only a minute or two the bulk cleaning method is so much more efficient from a time stand point.

        1. Marley Kondo

          frankly? You do that so then your desk doesn’t look like messy crap the days you did not spend 30 minutes cleaning it. That’s only efficient if you pretend like it’s not looking terrible for a span of time that you just ignored (probs at least 2 full weeks!) using the “30 min every few weeks” method. This way it’s actually clean every day (and small tasks are much less likely to slip through the cracks)–the actual goal. Versus clean for a couple of days and then not again for 2-3 weeks (a failure).

    7. Karo

      Yep, taking the time at the end of the day to straighten up is key. Even if you’re leaving it all on your desk, making neat piles at the end of every day can make a huge difference.

      1. Amelia Pond

        As someone with ADHD, I’m far more likely to put off cleaning if it takes a big chunk of time, because I get distracted and end up doing a half-assed job. If I only have to focus for a few minutes, I’m much less likely to get distracted. So sure, the chunk of time may be more efficient from a time standpoint, for some people, but not for everyone. What’s important is what works for someone, not necessarily how much time spent on it overall.

      2. Amelia Pond

        I think I may have replied to the wrong person, sorry. (I have trouble telling with this system. The gray lines just confuse me.) My previous comment was meant for Iris Eyes.

    8. LQ

      Strong agree on the 5 minutes at the end of the day to organize and prep for the next day. I go over my schedule for the next day and pull out all the folders I’ll need in the right order so I can grab and go. Just restacking and organizing for 5 minutes (not even) makes a huge difference.

    9. The Ginger Ginger

      Yes, this is the mundane but true way of keeping tidy. Both my desk and my apartment. Everything has a place, and if it’s not in use, it’s in its home. Related thing I told myself to get to the point of tidiness:
      Don’t put it down, put it AWAY.

      If it’s leaving your hands, and you’re no longer using it or working on it, it goes back to its place. Once you get the habit going, there’s no long clean up times required, because everything is either actively being worked on or put away.

    10. One legged stray cat

      I agree. You are going to feel a bit guilty taking a chunk of time from work just to organize your desk, but it will make things faster in the long run. Group your things in logical piles. Find a space for each pile, ordering fileing equipment if you need it. Label each pile and add color coding for extra compartmentalizing if you want. Set your desk up on a way that it would be easy for a coworker to find anything if you were out sick. Spend some time at the end of the day to make sure everything is put back in its place.

      The biggest hurdle I think between organized and unorganized is setting that large amount of time in the beginning to set up an organization system. Many people feel that they are just too busy and never do it, not realizing that organization will help them be faster in small ways throughout the day. So don’t be guilty in taking time out of each busy day to organize! Also, be aware that some jobs will just have a different mess level then others. Your desk is just going to be a bit more messy if you work mostly with paper compared to a deskmate who only works on the computer.

    11. Person from the Resume

      This is also what I’d advise with the caveat that I haven’t been able to do this myself with tidiness and other good habits. Some people seem to just be able to do this naturally. Some put things away immediately. If you’re not a natural, I’d recommend developing an end of day habit with a weekly bigger organizing is the way to do it.

      Developing a new habit is not impossible. You do have to consciously work at it daily for 21-day to a month to develop a habit. I did develop the habit of making my bed every day about 8 years ago when I was trying to sell my house. I had to do it every day for months, just in case there was a showing, and at the end of trying to cell my house I just kept making my bed.

      1. Person from the Resume

        I’ll add the key is doing it consistently and part of that is finding the right time to do it. If the end of the day doesn’t work for you – maybe you work up until the last minute until you bolt out the door – perhaps first thing in morning is better. Or a mid-day break where you would stand up and move around anyway.

        Figuring what habit to develop and when to do it or what to tie it to is key.

      2. fposte

        Yeah, this notion just causes me stress. I’m staying later than I’d like to get to a stopping place for work; I don’t want to stay five minutes longer to tidy stuff. I have better luck using it as a midday break.

      3. Temperance

        I’m one of the non-neat people who this would never work for. I don’t really “wrap up” my workday, almost ever. I typically run out to make a train, and then do a little more work from home many nights.

        I also don’t have a filing system in my office, as the filing area is on another floor and managed by a file person. It’s just easier for me to schedule a chunk of time to tag filing and box it up than it would be to stop working to fill out a file request form and physically take the papers over to the file person.

      4. Marthooh

        I generally do a “kind-of” cleanup when I’m ready to take a break or at the end of the day: put what I’ve been working on in a basket or tray for later, when my brain is ready to deal. This keeps my tornadoing tendencies under control, mostly. Mostly.

      5. Kendra

        My bed-making habit started because my roommate’s cat liked to sleep on my bed, so if I didn’t want cat hair all over my sheets I had to make the bed every morning!

    12. MechanicalPencil

      I love the tidy up before I go home. And if I’m on a long call where I can be slightly distracted, I use that to go through a small stack of something. I tend to write notes to myself on post-its. Do I still need all 17 of these or can I get rid of some? What about what’s in this folder? Claim some small victories where you can.

      But really, that joy I get walking in each morning to a clean desk to start the day with every I need laid out for me is surprisingly nice. The few nights I’m in a hurry and just dash out, I do miss that clean slate feeling.

    13. Bree

      I do this, and then make my to-do list for the next day and jot down a few notes about anything unresolved that day. It helps to “close” the work day so I can enjoy my evening.

    14. Jules the 3rd

      The key thing is “Give everything a place”.

      Every time you start a new project, think about where its documents will go. Set up storage for those documents. Tickle file on the desk for active projects, space in a file cabinet for things you won’t touch this week. I like manila folders and stand-up folder racks (link in name), others like stacked in/out boxes. Sticky notes to remind what’s in the files or what is next to do with them – I’ve seen some people use colors, but I do better with word labels.

      I find it easiest to set them in as I go, but yeah, 5 min at EOD works too.

      I don’t do much paper, but my electronic files are extensive, and I keep them off my desktop by having a place for them, and Save As straight to that place.

    15. Agent Diane

      I work out of my bag as I work at multiple hot desk sites. Papers I need to hang onto go in a filing cabinet at my base office. My laptop, day book, cables, pens all live in my bag. I leave desks beautifully clear at the end of the day as everything vanishes into the bag.

      Whilst I’m there, though, it’s Tornado city. I don’t so much unpack of a morning as explode.

      So this “have a place and put it back” principle really works. Next time you tidy, work out if you need all those papers on that project out on you desk all the time. And if not, where should they be? That cuts it way down. I started this job with a set desk and thought I’d never cope if my books were in a drawer instead. Three years after going fully hot desking, I’ve realised I’ve not got the books out once. I didn’t need them, I wanted them.

      Also, fellow “bag as office” dwellers, I recommend both a pencil case with key pens etc in it and a pencil case with all those cables and dongles in it. That way when you grab the pens you don’t spill cables everywhere (or vice versa).

    16. TornadoDesk (LW)

      Thanks for this & the folks suggesting to find a more natural time of day to do it. I think mornings might work best for me since I tend to get in earlier than everyone else.

      I also appreciate the comment about the nature of the work leading to different types of messes. I wind up with a ton of paper from community meetings, coalitions, trainings, etc. that I always want to hold on to. Maybe I can also try to make a habit of scanning those when I get back to the office and trying to get on my digital organization game as well.

      1. Parenthetically

        I think having mini-tidying/prepping sessions daily, PLUS bigger “deal with big stacks” sessions weekly or monthly, with designated “empty this file every 5th of the month” places to stash that paperwork might work. If digitizing the paper isn’t time-sensitive (like you’ll refer back to it next quarter or in two months or next year, but not next week), doing it all in one fell swoop, with a spot to store meanwhile, might be more efficient, you know?

      2. Scarlet

        I think it’s key to find the thing that works for *you*, both in terms of finding a time to tidy/sort, and a filing system. I’m a little more likely to do a mini-sort just after lunch, for example, or if I have a few dead minutes in the mid-afternoon – times when I’m feeling a little sludgy and want something low-effort.

        I guess also – is it *tidying*, or is it *organising*? Tidying can seem a little pointless if you know where things are, like you’re taking time to do something almost frivolous… but organising and ensuring files are where they need to be is part of the work task that generated that file, like how a project includes a review rather than just ending at the submission point.

        At the moment, I’ve got a lot of random crap coming across my desk so by the end of the day I might have some stuff that’s done with and needs to go in the secure destruction bin, and then the random things like rubber bands and junk that holds stacks together. I’m building up a lot of ziplock bags for some reason. That’s just tidying, and I can do stuff like drop the documents in the destruction bin on my way to put my lunch plate in the dishwasher. The things that require actual thought or actual time, though, that I need to calendar into Outlook in blocks or it’s less likely to get done in a reasonable timeframe. Appointments with myself :)

        For example, if you’re building up stacks of meeting notes of actions that need to get off paper and into a series of scheduled Outlook tasks (if they’re quick) or calendared appointments with yourself (if they’re 15mins+, or can be chunked together) with reminders, then part of organising it is scheduling in time for post-meeting admin, where you take ten minutes or whatever to review that stuff and set up those slots.

        If it’s scanning you have to do, because you need to keep the actual document rather than have a note of the key point from it, what might help is to have a dedicated folder on your desk just for stuff to scan, and a scheduled slot of time to a) scan and b) do the electronic filing of the resulting stuff. When I’m getting into chaos, I find it’s because I’ve missed those finishing steps off. I’ve grabbed the info I need from a document, but haven’t then filed the document itself, so it’s just sitting there waiting, taking up space and multiple-handling.

        Chunking those like-tasks together can save so much hassle and brain-space, like, I’m scanning for the next ten minutes, that is all I’m doing; at 7.30am on Thursday when it’s quiet I’m filing the week’s scanning (or however regularly you have to do it). There’s also looking at the other end of the pipeline – how much paper needs to be generated in the first place? Is there any of that you can claw back into an easier form?

    17. Hamburke

      I work with some software that in notorious for taking forever to shut down – I tidy my desk while it shuts down and end up feeling productive instead of irritated that it takes forever! Anything that needs to be addressed in the morning can be left on my keyboard. Everything else has a place it belongs – I even have a “waiting for someone else” bin for those items that need to stay on top but I can’t do anything about currently.

    18. Parenthetically

      Nthing this. It’s incredible how much of a difference a 5 or 10 minute tidy at the end of every day can make, even for next day’s productivity. Coming in to a desk space that’s neat and ready makes me feel much more ready to work.

    19. AVP

      Seriously strong agree on this! Have a place for everything, and spend five minutes at the end of the day putting stuff away. If you have stuff that doesn’t have a home, find one or reconsider whether you need it.

      I also keep a small napkin-sized kitchen cloth in my top drawer so I can quickly clean up any drips or crumbs, and I brought in a coaster to put my drinks on. I find I am wayyy less likely to clean up after myself if I need to walk to the kitchen or bathroom to get a supply, so having those two things lets me pull myself together quickly and seem cleaner.

      1. AVP

        also in response to Swimmingly right below me – I am naturally organized but NOT neat by any means! Don’t even come to my house unless you want to trip over sixteen pairs of shoes and an area rug that I bought without figuring out if the door would open over it or not. I only got like this at work because the company demanded it, and because my job is to organize big projects for other people so my messy desk was starting to reflect badly on me and others were doubting my organizational abilities.

    20. Tallulah in the Sky

      +1

      Former total slob here, I’m gonna repeat what many people already said : clean up a bit at the end of each day. It’s not rocket science, it’s not something impossible to do, it’s just a habit to create. Sloppiness is not in your dna, it’s not something that people are born with, it’s the little habits that one does or doesn’t acquire in life (for many people at least, I’m not talking about people with mental health issues here).

      So put an alarm on your phone at the end of your day (like, if you leave work at 17h, put an alarm at 16h55 or 17h) to remind you to take a minute to clean up a bit (and it really only takes a minute or two if you do it regularly). After a while, it will become second nature to do it. Seriously, it’s a pain to start and remind yourself to do it, but at some point (and quite quickly even), it stops being a chore and starts just being something you do.

      And like Justme, the OG said : give everything a home. It sounds so stupid, and so cliché, but if your things have a place to go, you won’t waste time or mental power to know where to put it. “A place for everything, everything in its place” seriously changed my appartement. I stopped putting things down randomly because I just didn’t know where to put them. Again, once you know where something needs to be, it stops being a chore putting things away, you start putting them away automatically because you don’t even have to think anymore about it. It becomes a reflex, a habit.

      These are things that helped me at least, hopefully it’s useful to someone else :-)

    21. WakeRed

      Agree with this and haven’t seen anyone else say this – put on a song that you like (I always use what I think of as “pump up jams” aka singing in the shower music) and just clean for the duration of that song, or until you’re satisfied. It’s a surefire way to end the day in a good mood and feeling (more?) ready for the next day at work too.

  3. Swimmingly

    Wow do I identify with this!!! Also gonna be real people, if you don’t have a “before, I was a total slob” story, your advice is probably pretty useless to the natural tornados among us.

      1. Quinoa

        I was a total slob. Still am in some places in my life. (Don’t judge my email inbox, for instance, that mess is why Microsoft includes a search function.)

        1. Bostonian

          LOL. I think we all have our own slobbiness quirks. My bedroom is full of clothing piles, but you better believe that the kitchen is spotless!

          For OP: My home office used to be a tornado of paper. My problem was I was keeping too much. If you don’t already have a system for filing things you aren’t actively using, that might be a good place to start so there’s less stuff overall.

        2. SarahKay

          I read an article a while ago that suggested that the Search function in Microsoft Outlook is *so* good that it may be more efficient not to bother filing anything, and just use Search when you’re looking for something.
          While I haven’t gone down that route entirely it’s certainly true that Outlook search is incredibly powerful, enough that I don’t feel guilty for the misc emails that just lurk in my in-box rather than being filed.

          1. Iris Eyes

            And maybe if they ever start nesting email chains correctly they can get up to Google’s level (goes off to mutter about needing to see what I replied to an email). #spoiledbyasuperiorsystem

            1. R.D.

              Google frequently does not pull up the email I am looking and I find their nesting makes it much more tedious with work emails. I might have received an email that went to 6 people replied back to 2 for clarification then need to reply to the original email. It doesn’t create separate chains for those offshoot conversations.

              Personal preference, but I find Outlook significantly better and I use both on a daily basis.

            2. Name Required

              For real. I moved from Google to Outlook and I want to pull my hair out. I find Outlook’s search function to be atrocious; it doesn’t even pull up all relevant emails that include specific keywords.

          2. She's One Crazy Diamond

            I don’t file emails at all in my personal inbox for this reason. I only file them in a shared inbox that multiple coworkers have access to because one person demands it and it’s easier to keep him happy than point out why it’s unnecessary and make it into a thing.

        3. Seeking Second Childhood

          I have one warning about search functions… they’re less useful when things aren’t referenced or spelled consistently. They’re occasionally useless when someone on the project regularly sends emails without even naming the project. “So that thing we’re working on, we gave you the oudated regulatory numbers. Every document needs to reference file#123ABC instead.”

          I’ve actually started editing messages to add the project name if it’s left out — that feels ludicrous but has already saved me time.

          For a recent project I had set up a search for internal project nickname, the official product name, *AND* various off-the-cuff abbreviations. And I still couldn’t find some information until I started searching on emails from specific people around the right time… that’s when I gave up and started editing emails!

    1. Justme, the OG

      I am still a slob. My bedroom is an absolute wreck. My desk drawers are unorganized. But my desk top is always clean.

    2. EditAnd EditOr

      This is actually one of my standard interview answers! Any question about weaknesses, overcoming problems etc, I can talk about how naturally, I’m a scatty mess…. but if you ask anyone I work with, they’ll tell you I’m organised and efficient. Because I know I’m naturally a scatty mess, I have to develop rigorous systems to manage myself: if it’s not written down, it’s not happening (diary, calendar, phone, whatever); making sure everything in my space has a designated place that it can go back into when I’m done with it; leaving emails marked as unread until I’ve answered them; using to do lists and reminders… etc etc. It’s not easy or particularly fun… but it can be done, I promise!

      1. caryatis

        You might want to reconsider using the word “scatty” to describe this. It has a fecal connotation.

        1. EditAnd EditOr

          Oh, thanks for the flag – I wonder if this is a UK thing? Here, it simply means forgetful/disorganised – the root word is ‘scatter’, as in ‘to disperse’.

          I’ll be more aware of how it might travel, though!

          1. Hallowflame

            At least in the US, we would typically use “scattered” or “scatter-brained”.
            “Scat” is a term often used to refer to animal feces.

          2. furloughed fed

            Never heard scatty used to describe disorganized, USA person here. I immediately thought of excrement.

          3. Museum Advancer

            Scat has multiple meanings. It can mean “go away” like “Scat!” to cat or something. And it can also mean a type of jazz, called scatting.

            So you do you!

          4. Lilysparrow

            I am a USian, and I have heard the word “scat” used for feces before, but the first thought that comes to mind when I hear the word is that it means “shoo, go away!”

            I also hear “scatty” and “scatter-brained” used as synonyms.

          5. Aveline

            Well, it’s similar to the word “spunky” which can mean very, very different things in the English speaking world.

            I once described Meg Ryan as “too spunky for my taste.” The man I was talking to though I was being a bit X-rated for some weird reason until I explained that it can mean “perky and determined”.

      2. Jules the 3rd

        ‘everything… has a designated place’: This is the key. \

        Putting stuff in the space is a habit you can strengthen, a few minutes a day. Consciously making sure that you know where stuff will go has to happen before you can do that.

    3. Victoria, Please

      I was a total slob as a kid and then one day a lightning bolt hit me in the form of a Mean Girl Bully. I was so upset by her and my lack of ability to deal with her that I went home and cleaned up my room as a form of controlling what I *could* control. And that was that, neatnik ever since, although I do slide a little and then go on a tidying up jag every week or so, just fighting the entropy a bit.

    4. C Average

      Thank you! Naturally neat people (I’m looking at you, Mom) often have “solutions” that boil down to “just be more like me–easy!

      Not helpful.

      1. Temperance

        “Tidy as you go!” is probably the least helpful advice in a workplace setting unless you have a task-based job. It’s worked out well for me with cooking, but that’s a defined process with a clear beginning, middle, and end. This is not that.

    5. Leela

      Swimmingly I feel you! I’m also an organized mess person. I have ADHD, and people are full of worthless, uninformed advice about things I do that are clearly rooted in them not understanding ADHD at all. I get frustrated because of the condescension and lack of understanding, even after I explain that I have ADHD and what that means, and they get frustrated because they think if I’d only just TRY what they’re saying (like I haven’t been for 30 years??) that it would work because it works for them, someone who does not have ADHD, and that I must just be stubborn and shooting myself in the foot by not listening to their sage wisdom

      1. Jules the 3rd

        For my friends with ADHD, the main thing that they (3 diagnosed, 1 likely) have told me has helped them function was setting up a spot for everything that was important day-to-day: keys go on hook by the door, shoes go in this closet, school books go on that book case, fun books / media on the other one, etc.

        The way to apply that to the office is to set up a spot for each new task or project, including the storage you’re going to use (for me, manila folders and standup racks, for others flat in/out boxes, for others just sections on their desks). I put away as I go now, but setting a reminder in your calendar at ‘5 minutes before leaving’ or ’30 minutes on Friday’ may work better for others.

    6. Zombeyonce

      I don’t know if this would work for OP, but I find it easier to allow myself to be a slob in certain areas and not others. My Designated Slob Spots are the top of my dresser and a shelf on the bookshelf by the front door and the inside of a drawer in the kitchen. Everything else must be kept tidied even though it’s hard to do.

      I try to make sure that everything has a place. The biggest reason I’m a slob is because I have things that don’t really have a set place so trying to expend the mental energy to figure out where to put them is too much when I’ve got a lot going on or am just feeling lazy. If I allow myself a few places where I can just put things down when I don’t feel like finding a place for it right then, it is messy there but at least the mess is contained.

      I don’t think I’ll ever have a place for everything so allowing myself to be messy makes me less stressed out about the messes I make. I recommend that OP try to make a space for everything they know they’ll have around regularly (a little file cabinet, a container for pens, a shelf for books and notebooks, etc.) and then one (just one!) designated spot where they can leave things messy they can clean up from time to time.

    7. Avelin

      Yes, as a naturally organized neat freak of a person, my advice varies greatly on whether or not the OP has this issue only at work or if it’s her natural state.

      It’s much, much more difficult for naturally more lax people to suddenly decide to be tidy than for someone who is somewhat tidy to deal with a tsunami of work.

    8. Parenthetically

      Was (and still fight being) a TOTAL SLOB. Nothing has been more helpful to me than Unf*ck Your Habitat, although we’ve been KonMari-ing our living room the last week or so.

    9. TL -

      I am a pretty bad slob (and have a high mess tolerance) and I can be organized when the situation calls for it. I hate spending time looking for things (especially if it’s other people’s mess.)

      Honestly, I just think “in the future, how am I going to find/access this?” and that usually is motivation enough to figure out a good organization system. Then if/when mess accumulates, I look at it as a source of potential future problems, which is usually pretty good motivation to deal with it. Which does work for my desk, too – if things aren’t organized, I can’t find things; if they’re not put away, I don’t have space; if others need something, they’ll need to be able to find it.

    1. Lurker

      This. Need a file? Pull it, find the info you need, put it back as soon as you’re finished. Have a stack of invoices, checks, copies, whatever to file? Do it as soon as you have them — don’t put them in your inbox/to-do later pile.

      I purposely don’t have an inbox on my desk so that things don’t pile up in it. I keep whatever I’m working on currently on my desk — right now it’s expense reconciliation — until I finish it, then in the proper file it goes! If I have multiple things, I organize them every night before I leave so that I have a plan of what is most urgent to work on the next morning.

      I try to wipe down my desk/keyboard/phone at least once every week — usually on Fridays so everything is nice and clean on Monday morning. If I am going to be out of the office on vacation I absolutely clean off my desk (I put my “current project stack” into a desk drawer) so that I come back to a clean, clutter free workspace.

    2. Classic Rando

      Yes! I’m very much an “organized chaos” kind of person, so for me this is the best way to ensure things stay neat-ish. It’s how I keep my car clean, everything comes out when I get home, if I leave something in it, I know it’ll be weeks before it gets removed.

      My desk has lots of stuff on its edges, but as long as I make sure only the things that “belong” in the edges are on it, it stays relatively neat.

    3. JokeyJules

      ah yes, like the “clean as you go method”. it takes 3 seconds (actually) to put stuff back as soon as you’re done with it. it takes 30 minutes to clean it up after you let everything accumulate and build up

      1. Baby Fishmouth

        But for naturally non-neat people, it’s so anti-instinctual to put things back immediately that it’s not altogether helpful advice – I *know* that my house would be tidier if I put things back immediately after using them, but it just ain’t happening. A once-a-week 30 minute clean-up is actually a lot more likely to actually happen.

      2. Temperance

        It doesn’t, though. I also genuinely don’t understand how this works unless you work on a single task at a time.

    4. fposte

      But what is “done using them”? For me that’s a big issue. Is it done for the hour, the day, the week? What if you think it’s the hour and it turns out to be the week?

      1. SignalLost

        This is why this method has never worked for me, personally. I work in communications; we’re starting a years-long campaign and there really isn’t “done” right now. I may need that memo five times today, or not till next week, and I don’t know right now which it is. So even with a vertical file for active projects and an inbox for longer-term/not urgent stuff, I wind up with papers on my desk.

        This does work for stuff I know I won’t need again like the campaign the org did in 2013, but for me five minutes of tidying at the end of the day is easier to maintain (and the campaign stuff goes straight to the inbox because I’ll probably need it again tomorrow.)

        1. Lurker

          In your specific memo example, I would have that as a digital file and then just open it as much as needed on my computer. I would not pull paper files unless there was no where else to get the info. I do have one wire file organizer on the bookshelf next to my desk with files for the budgets I am constantly referencing, but other than that the only paper that is out is what is in progress. If something is in progress for several weeks, then it’s on my desk for several weeks. There are some times of the year where the stack is much higher than other times, but it’s always work that is in progress; never anything that is finished.

          1. SignalLost

            Well, I’m not trying to deliberately poke holes in the advice you’re offering, but now we’re getting into work styles. It is much harder for me to take on certain types of information digitally; for complex information, I need to print out documents. And from a technical standpoint, I already have 3 monitors; it is hugely distracting to me to have, say, photoshop on one, word on another, and outlook on the third and then still have to switch to acrobat to look at the memo when I’m trying to create a trifold that incorporates text from a word file and feedback from emails and details from the memo. (Which, in this case, isn’t a memo per se; it’s a two-page document with lots of graphics breaking down survey results. But it has a memo-style header, so we call it one.)

            So I don’t think that there’s a reasonable consensus on “when something is done” that makes putting it away easy; it’s too role- and task-dependent. And then add learning styles, and tech setups – I just think getting prescriptivist about very specific cases isn’t helpful when the issue is OP bring overwhelmed by something she sees as a problem.

            1. fposte

              Though to switch sides for a moment, I think that for me, and maybe other people posting here with the same view, the anxiety about the process can make some protocols seem more insurmountable than they really are.

    5. Zombeyonce

      I am a slob. My trouble with putting things away after I use them is that my natural state is distraction. I am often jumping from one thing to another and going back to the first thing, so I’m pretty much in the middle of quite a few things at once. I have tried focusing on one thing until it’s done but it’s not only against my natural tendencies, but also doesn’t work with the type of job I have where I get interrupted with something that needs immediate focus and have to abandon what I had been doing, only to come back to it later. I suspect OP has the same issues.

      The thing that helps me most is having a place for everything I possibly can, and then just dealing with the temporary things that don’t have a place or category in a jumble until I can sort it all out.

      1. TornadoDesk (LW)

        I work that way as well. My job is community-based, so I’m often waiting on responses from folks in other agencies to move part of one project forward, so I just rotate focus all day and make progress on multiple things. There’s not really a “done” with a lot of the stuff since it can all be months-long planning and implementation processes.

        1. Shad

          For me, when I have a lot of “done for now”, I put the files upright beside my desk. With how my office works, each file is in one of those big folders that can stand on its own, so I just set them next to a desk leg, but if it didn’t work like that, I’d have a box or maybe an under desk cabinet so I could lean the files within that container.
          That way, they’re easy to get to when I need them again and I can see which is which easily, but they’re out of the way while I’m working on other things.

        2. Leslie

          Based on this– one thing that may work for you is something that I do, both with my personal records at home and also with my work stuff. I SUCK at hanging folders and filing cabinets, but I’m much happier with a system using magazine holders that go into the garage-door style cabinets in a cubicle. I try to do 1 holder per project or sub-project, and any relevant paperwork/booklets/etc. goes in as soon as I get it. Then when I’m working on the project, I can pull out the whole magazine holder’s worth of stuff and put it all back in and up when I’m done. And I don’t have to be super-organized about how things go back into the magazine holder if I don’t want to be–because the larger category is enough for me to be able to find what I need when I’m working on something.

          The other thing I’d strongly recommend if you do this is dating everything and going through the magazine holders regularly enough to cull things that are outdated/not needed anymore. If you’re really feeling like doing an experiment with yourself, you could date things when they come in and then date them each time you refer to them. That might help you spot types of documents that you don’t need to hold onto at all and also give you an idea of the useful shelf life for the things you’re getting–which would make it easier for you to get rid of things.

  4. Zip Silver

    I’m the same way, OP. I get through it with a bunch of labeled binders, labeled inbox/outbox trays (for a whole bunch of different things) and a moderately-alright filing cabinet system.

    Get a labelmaker, for sure.

  5. Countess Boochie Flagrante

    Something I’ve started doing is working desk cleanup into my end-of-the-day routine. While my workstation is shutting down, I take bottles/cans to recycling, put away papers, make sure my headset cord is tucked away neatly. It makes a huge difference for me, and the routine becomes easier to manage.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      Something else, too, is my company has a pretty stringent clean desk policy, and even if your job doesn’t, you may want to enact something similar for yourself. I don’t want to have to make the “can this live on my desk” decision for most of my stuff, so by default anything questionable goes into a drawer. My drawers still look like tornadoes, but at least they’re contained tornadoes.

      1. Beatrice

        I’m similar. I avoid printing anything, and if I’m handed printed materials in a meeting, I ask for an electronic version (electronic is more common where I work anyway). My inbox is a dumpster fire, but my desk is relatively clean.

    2. Quarteringsea

      I think this might be something I can do. It won’t solve all the issues (I need different furniture than what I am stuck with, really) but I already have an end-of-day routine and I don’t think spending another 5 minutes meaningfully optimizing my workstation would kill me.

    3. TootsNYC

      While my workstation is shutting down,

      As someone who has managed processes in multi-step activities, I want to re-emphasize this.

      The thing that you forget, or that’s problematic?

      Link it to something that always happens.

      The inside of your car is always a pit? Make it a rule that you toss the trash while the gas is pumping.

      But I also want to say: It doesn’t matter WHEN you do this, just that you do this.

      If your computer takes a long time to start up in the morning, do it then.
      That’s OK.

      Some examples:
      I shuck off my clothes onto the floor at night. My husband is usually in bed already, and I don’t want to open the closet door, etc. But in the morning, I pick them up and put them in the hamper or hang them up.
      I used to feel bad about it, but then I realized–there’s no OBJECTIVE rule that says you have to do it right away, or at night. I get the same benefit by doing it in the morning.
      As long as I define the job to match the time I do it, I’m good.

      Another:
      It’s the rule to run a spellcheck before I check in a file. I would click on the button to store the file and then, once I saw the check-in popup window, remember that I hadn’t done the spellcheck. Every time. Every time, I would forget, and every time I would remember. For the longest time, I scolded myself for this.
      Then I realized that I WAS always remembering–just not at the time that I thought I “should.” So I defined the check-in window as “my official reminder,” and then I could be proud that I never forgot.

      So find some part of your routine that always happens, and make IT be the link that you use to do the quick clean-up of your desk.

      1. Actuarial Octagon

        This is great advice, and exactly what I started doing recently. I am terrible about leaving dirty dishes piled in the sink, and I have a dishwasher! Now I load/unload the dishwasher in the morning while I wait for the kettle to boil. I felt guilty before that the dishes would stay in the sink over night but who cares!

        1. fposte

          I get most of my kitchen work done while waiting for the microwave. If I could move the office microwave into my office, maybe I’d clean it then.

        2. Jules the 3rd

          +1, even down to the ‘unload/load dishwasher while waiting for food to finish’.

          It actually helps me because I do not have the patience to wait just standing around doing nothing.

      2. Tinker

        My car got a lot neater when I realized: my parking space is right next to my trash can, and that means that every time I exit my car at home I can put whatever beverage cans / snack wrappers were produced while I was away from home in the trash can that is right there.

        Well, also my car got a lot neater when I realized that my parking space is freely accessible by the alley and that objects left in the car being useless to most other people doesn’t necessarily protect them from being stolen.

    4. CTT

      Yeah, doing it daily is what’s really helped me. If you don’t want to hang out extra at work, you can also do it at the start (if your computer takes forever to turn on like mine…)

  6. Lena Clare

    There’s really nothing you can do other than to keep tidying away either as you along or at the end of each day.

    15 minutes before I finish I close my computer and use the time to clear what’s left on my desk (it helps that I work in an environment with a lot of confidential information so I’m required by law to lock it away anyway), then I wash my cup and give the desk a wipe. It’s a ritual to help me close the day

    But, you know, don’t feel too bad; my desk looks tidy but one of my drawers is a mess! Sometimes, in order to get my desk tidy, I shove non-confidential paper in the drawers out of the way, then end up having to go through a big pile about once a month.

    Your system seems to be working for you – I say don’t worry about it!

  7. De Minimis

    I try to tidy up before going home each day. Nothing major, just trying to get the piles of paper neatened and trying to arrange things according to project. I’ve had major issues with this in past jobs, and have found this helps a lot [though what’s really helped honestly is to be working at a job that isn’t 100% paper-based.]

  8. dovidbawie

    I labelled everything in my office. I was basically a warehouse of one and getting paid to do specific arts & crafts, so I had a room full of specialized equipment & supplies to keep on top of. And for paperwork I just had a bunch of labelled folders for all the paper & tried to keep only the day’s things on the actual desk surface.

    Certainly won’t work for everyone but it’s great for keeping up with lots of different supplies.

  9. KarenT

    I have a very tidy desk (people walking by frequently comment on it), and it comes down to three things for me:

    1. I tidy up every day before I go home. Nothing major–10 minutes to put everything away.
    2. I only keep things I really need, and am ruthless about throwing out stuff I ‘might’ need. This won’t work for every role, of course, but I do everything electronically. I’ve replaced all my subscriptions to be electronic, and if I can get something digitally or online I don’t keep a paper version.
    3. Make space for what I do need–there are some files and manuals I need and they have a home in a drawer. I have a little organizing station thing for my pens/stationary, and my personal effects are limited to a mug, and what can be kept on the wall (I have some pics up).

    1. Kay

      +1 to doing as much as possible electronically. Has done wonders for me. The only paper I keep is my notebooks, labeled with the dates used, and even those I could probably toss. I do have some paper on my desk since sometimes I print out things to read in hard copy or take to meetings/refer to on calls, but I just recycle it when I’m done.
      We use e-sigs for virtually everything, which makes this much more feasible. The other essential thing is to have a backup system or work on the cloud (eg, box, dropbox) in case something happens to your computer.

  10. Coffee Bean

    Two ideas:
    1. Highly recommend the stack-able desktop organizer. They make it easier to at least sort your papers and stack them up in a corner so they are still easily accessible to you, but as it is tucked away and not sprawled out on the desk it isn’t an eye sore.
    2. Other than that, I try and do a 2 min mini clean up before I leave each day, just put papers quickly back in their places and tuck the chair in. That does wonders to make the place look “put together” and just takes a min, so it isn’t eating up any chunk of time.

    1. Preaction

      1. Fully-endorse: My desk was mostly a mess because I didn’t have any place to organize the things I needed. Once I got some more room on my desk by buying a monitor stand with a shelf and cubbies I could put things in appropriate places for their utility and frequency of use.

      1. TootsNYC

        INFRASTRUCTURE!

        It’s not any accident that the cliché STARTS with “a place for everything.”

        You may need to create the place.

        I also once found that I would manage paperwork if I *FIRST* made a file folder, well before I needed it.
        If I had to create the folder -after- I had gotten some paperwork to go in it, I didn’t do that!
        So I built in time to create folders for each project, even if they were empty. And then I could put things in it.

        I did this with several things as well–if I created a photo album before a trip, I would put photos in it.
        Or creating a scrapbook for clips just as I started the job meant it was very easy to keep up with the clippings.
        (and of course, NOT creating the scrapbook plan and place meant I didn’t.)

        1. LQ

          I so endorse creating empty folders for things. As soon as we start talking about a project I create a folder for it, it lives in the way back until it gets promoted to real project, but if I need to stick a sticky or a napkin or a scribbled torn piece of paper that may some day go with the project somewhere? I have a place for it.

      2. TootsNYC

        I bought one of those Poppit trays and made it the “corral” for all the desk stuff (stapler, pencil cup, post-it stacks, etc.

        That means it’s easy to see when those things have migrated, and I can put them there.

        1. Coffee Bean

          Yeah, the more pockets for that kind of stuff the easier it can be, depending on the type of disorganized that is.

          I would suggest OP check the supply closet where they work before buying anything. Every place I have worked has had at least a couple extra trays/organizers in there.

          1. TootsNYC

            or, maybe the FEWER pockets. I have ONE “pocket” for all that stuff. It’s big enough for them all, which makes it flexible if I suddenly need to add some other “desk object” (a bottle of eyedrops, maybe?)

    2. Zombeyonce

      #1 is so important! I have determined that my messiness stems from not having a place to put certain things and not having the mental energy at times to figure out where something should go if it doesn’t have a place (and there’s always something that doesn’t have a place).

      The best way to deal with papers everywhere like this is to get a stackable organizer and label it with categories. Including one that’s just “Etc.” for the things that don’t really fit anywhere else. That way they’re contained and findable but don’t take any energy to deal with until you’re ready.

    3. TornadoDesk (LW)

      I have #1 and I feel like I’m really not using it to the best of its ability. The most “migration” my papers get is moving into the scratch paper file when the utility is lost. When I get back to my office next week, I’m going to try organizing all my papers then scanning and recycling what I can. Digital organization will be its own thing to work on, but this feels like a good first step.

      1. Hamburke

        Do think of how you want to organize and name files! If you don’t start out that way, you’ll have the digital mess later that isn’t as obvious!

  11. Anon for this

    We’re required to keep all papers locked away each night, and this forces organization!
    1- I keep a folder for immediate work- tasks that should be handled the next day.
    2- Lower priority work does in a second folder
    3- Papers for tasks that have been handled get thrown out immediately. Same with junk mail.
    4- Reference materials that require no further action but might be needed get filed by project.
    5- I will confess to having a pile of professional development materials (articles & reports that aren’t time-sensitive) but I try and keep it to a neat pile. I travel pretty regularly & will take a pile with me to read on airplanes so I can toss them along the way.
    6- Supplies get put in drawers & cabinets- out of sight.

  12. beachpsalms

    Set aside time at the end of your day to tidy up; a habit of finishing work a little bit before you want to actually leave the office. This is also the perfect time to take stock of what you actually got done during the day; and what needs to be done tomorrow.

    Same thing for end of week – a good time to tidy up, take stock and plan ahead.

  13. Quinoa

    I’ve found that when there is clutter in some area of my life, it’s for one of 2 reasons:
    *Either I have too much going on to put things away when I’ve finished,
    *Or I don’t have a clear system in place for what goes where.

    It might be something as simple as needing more file folders and maybe a standing file rack to house them.

    1. AMPG

      Adding to point 2, I get hung up on the “do I need to keep this or not” decision-making process. As a result, I’ve tried to make a habit of scanning any documents I know I’ll need and then IMMEDIATELY trashing/shredding the originals, which helps. Then I have a “maybe” pile that I try to go through every couple of weeks. I find that’s long enough to know if I’m going to return to whatever that particular piece of paper was.

      1. Just Elle

        I actually have a storage location for ‘I’m afraid to throw this away this soon’ paperwork. The nature of my job is I get a lot of stuff I might need to reference over the next week, or never again. So it goes in a dedicated folder, and then the 1st of the month that folder gets sorted.

        1. your favorite person

          That’s a really good idea. I have a pending box that those things go into. If it’ still pending after a month, I scan it and put it in a “pending” folder. If it’s still there after a few months, I delete it.

    2. Doodle

      I would add a third reason, for me: I don’t really care if it’s tidy or not. Really, I just don’t see the clutter, it doesn’t bother me, and in fact I kind of like it. Super tidy spaces feel sterile to me.

      This may be true for other people too. My sister feels uncomfortable with clutter and she makes time and a system to manage it. I feel comfortable with it, so I don’t feel the need to spend the time or to stick to a system.

      1. Shad

        I’m with you on finding excessive cleanliness sterile.
        At work, I cope with things like a big, offwhite desk calendar that is *not* perfectly aligned and a few hardcopy reference papers on the far side of my keyboard. For the most part, this and occasionally one or two hardcopy tasks is enough to quell the anti-cleanliness.
        Luckily (I guess) a significant part of my job right now is pre-organizing hard copies for my boss (paralegal; I do a lot of opening and prepping new files), so hard copies are generally moving onto and off of my desk pretty quickly out of necessity. But at home…I’m still taming the chaos.

    3. CDM

      I love my standing file rack – and it makes it so much easier to access a particular file than having a pile of files.

      I bought file folders in five colors, and each color indicates the status of the work within.

      Red – I have something, but not enough to start my job
      Yellow – I have started my job but still missing critical info
      Purple – I have all or most of what I need, and this is the queue for me to do/finish my job .
      Blue – I have done most or all of my job, it’s pending presentation to the client and finalization
      Green – presented and finalized, I’m waiting for the final pieces to come in to I can finish my work and get it off my desk.

      Red, yellow and purple sit in my standing file rack in date order, and all the client names and due dates are easily seen. (I paperclip my workflow checklist, headed by the client name and due date, to the front of each file, easily moved as the work moves into a different stage and different colored file folder)

      Green and blue are rubber banded to binders and sit in a neat pile in the other desk corner. (which works for me because there are seldom more than three there at any time)

      Having multiple, easily visible colors to distinguish your files in a way that makes sense for your job is very helpful.

  14. Karen from Finance

    Don’t spend 30 minutes every few weeks, spend 5 minutes every day. At the end of the day before you leave, look at your desk, and make sure you put everything away that needs to be put away, what needs to be filed, what needs to be thrown out. If you take a few minutes before you leave the office, you’ll be walking in to a neat desk every morning, and the mess won’t pile up as much. Once you practice for a while it will become a habit.

    1. AMPG

      As someone in the same position as the OP, I’ve found the “spend 5 minutes a day” advice to be unsustainable. The mental block around this particular chore is enough that having to face it every day quickly becomes overwhelming. However, 10-15 minutes a week is probably a good compromise, and might be more achievable.

      1. Lily Rowan

        Yes, thank you! A lot of people are saying just do it every day, and nah. But at the end of the day Friday, I can generally take 10 minutes to go through what’s accumulated over the week, file or trash as needed, and at least put the things that are hanging over into neat piles for Monday.

        1. Karen from Finance

          Well of course, mileage may vary (and as I was typing my response, the ones from people who posted before me weren’t up yet). I think the reason we all are suggesting it is that OP is asking about how to actually maintain it orderly, and a lot of mess can gather over the course of a week. It’s fine if you don’t mind, but OP specifically is trying to get better at keeping order.

          I know it sounds too much to do it every day, because it’s anchored on the perception of how much work it is to clean up after a week, But if you do it every day it really is a lot less work and therefore can be more sustainable, in fact. It does take some retraining, as with every new habit that takes a while to take on, but after that point it gets easier. At this point, to me it’s as routine as putting on my coat and closing my laptop.

      2. Parenthetically

        As a recovering conductor of the Hot Mess Express, I’d say the big issue is tackling it at X-1 intervals where X is “the point at which the desk tornado is beginning to form”. Daily, every other day, on Fridays at 4:30, every Monday and Thursday at 7:55 am, doesn’t matter, as long as the interval keeps you on top of the mess rather than behind it.

        1. Jasnah

          This. It’s so daunting to think “Now I need to make time for this habit in my daily routine” because now you have the 10 min you should be cleaning, the 10 min you should be organizing your to-do list, the 10 min walk you should take every so often, the 10 min of language study, the 10 min of meditation, the 10 min to count your calories and sleep and mental health and all of a sudden you have an extra hour you have to work into every day.

          Knowing that there is a middle ground, where you make peace with a little mess and find the sweet spot between overwhelming pressure on either end, was really helpful for me. For me it’s a lot more manageable to clean for 10 min once a week or so than every day, and knowing this is OK has been such a weight off my mind!

  15. De Minimis

    Mine looks bad over the course of the day because I have so many different things I need to work on. I’d like to try and improve that somewhat. I know I could just create a file system and have things put away until I’m working on them, but that seems to me that it would reduce efficiency. I have plenty of desk space and never struggle to find anything, otherwise filing things would make more sense. But it does bother me to see all the paper strewn around my desk during the workday.

    I’m afraid too that if I put things away I’m more likely to forget to do something.

  16. Robbie

    As someone who is very much like you, I guess my question is- how important is maintaining a tidy desk to you? Like, dirty dishes and clear hazards aside, there are people that function in that level of chaos just fine, and you may be one of them. If it is about you not finding the papers you need, or your supervisor has made it clear that a clean desk is a part of the job, that is one thing. But if you are honestly fine with your system, as disorganized-looking as it is, then it may not need to be a top priority.

    If you really do want to keep it tidy because that makes you feel and work better, than the best advice I got was to stop work about 10 minutes before the end of the day and take that time to straighten up, file away, and get my stuff ready for the morning. It is a little less chaotic and I can come in and actually see space on my desk, which is nice.

    1. whistle

      This is in line with what I was thinking. My desk generally looks pretty unorganized, but I know where everything is, so it doesn’t create any performance issues for me. I would not be able to maintain a pristine work area on a daily basis. I do try to make sure everything is cleaned up as much as possible on Friday so that I come into a clear workstation on Monday.

    2. Isotopes

      This was my question as well. I spent a couple years trying – and failing – to keep my desk tidy the way the rest of my coworkers did. I put it into my goal-setting! Finally, my boss asked me why it was so important to me. I told her that I felt like I SHOULD keep my desk tidy. “Why?” I just thought it was what people did. She told me that next time I went into our VP’s office, I should check out his desk. It looked just like mine. And guess what? He was still successful.

      And I quit worrying so much about it. Every now and then I’ll do a tidy, but I know where things are. i work on a lot of different things – multiple projects, multiple employees, multiple daily tasks. The untidiness just doesn’t stress me out anymore, because…it’s not a big deal.

      The last time I really cleared up my desk (our network was down so there wasn’t a whole lot to be done), I tidied up my desk. Multiple people came in and told me it was so weird seeing my desk so clear. It just didn’t look like MY desk! And that was fine. It hadn’t held me back, professionally. As far as I know, people aren’t judging me for it. Every now and then I look at other peoples’ desks and think, “Wow, I wish I could be that organized.” But I AM organized, just in my own way.

      If it really makes you feel better/happier to have a tidy desk, by all means, it looks like you’ve got a lot of options to choose from. Look at all these comments! But make sure you’re not just doing it because it feels like one of those things that you should do.

    3. TornadoDesk (LW)

      The importance definitely changes for me. Like I mentioned in the OP, most of the time the state of my desk isn’t bothersome to me and hasn’t been a problem for my coworkers (or they haven’t mentioned anything in 3 years) but I’ve noticed that once I do clean up a bit, I end up feeling better and quite enjoy it. I just can’t seem to find a happy medium or any consistency between these two states.

      1. Parenthetically

        Oh gosh, are you me? I love a clean space. Love it. But I’ve struggled my whole adult life to find a structure that works for me to keep said space clean. Basically I started down the road to being a less messy and more relaxed person by tricking myself into tidying up — I’d set a timer for the length of time I thought it would take to do a task, and then do the task. I was very often overestimating how long something would take by 3 or 4 times. That was the first step because it started breaking down some of the mental barriers I had to just getting started.

      2. Slanted & Enchanted

        I’m a “pile person” with lots of medium size piles on my desk. I’ve tried to create a couple of routines to help keep me organized and the piles from towering too high.

        I’m lucky that we use laptops in my office, so I’m able to create and access electronic files in meetings. I try to limit my paper as much as possible. But, I work in fundraising, so I always have papers that I need to keep for record keeping and be able to find for our auditors! I try to file it on a weekly basis, for me this is part of my Friday wrap up.

        I’ve also become vigilant and diligent on running software updates on my computer each night before I leave, which generally takes about 5 minutes. That’s my time to sort my paperwork into priority piles for the next day. I have a wall with a bulletin board where I try to pin essential, can’t-lose documents.

        Finally, I make it part of my annual routine (for me it’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s) to archive my paper files that need to be retained for a certain number of years. It’s not a perfect system, but my desk is neat enough that I can meet with people at my desk and not be embarrassed!

    4. CM

      Same.

      I get what the OP is saying about feeling good when stuff is cleaned up. I also feel a good feeling at the moment when I finish a day of cleaning and look around at how tidy my office/apartment/car is and will never be again. But, I think, over time, it’s turned out that the good feeling I get as reward is not really strong ENOUGH to offset the cost of cleaning up more regularly. Some people naturally care a lot more about how tidy things are, so the benefit they get from cleaning up is stronger and/or the cost they incur from NOT cleaning up is stronger, and that makes it feel more like a fair trade to them. (It’s also why they always used to yell at me about how I was expecting someone else to pick up my mess when really I was not expecting that — I was okay with leaving my mess where it was indefinitely. It did not register as something that ANYONE needed to deal with).

      All that is to say: I too have sometimes stood in the glow of a good tidy feeling wondering if there is a low-cost way I could have the feeling more often, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that, because of the way I’m wired re: the value of tidiness, there probably isn’t.

  17. KHB

    Is this really a problem that needs to be fixed? If you know where everything is, and you’re cleaning up every few weeks (so things don’t develop into a true disaster zone, like I’ve seen in some offices, where your whole desk is covered with piles of papers two feet deep, with the stuff on the bottom being from circa ten years ago), that seems like a very workable situation to me.

    Then again, I do pretty much what you do: Every time I finish a project (once a month or so), I file everything from that project away, but in the meantime, I let things get as chaotic as they need to be. I also have a sticker on my door that says “Entropy happens” (we’re a STEM-flavored organization).

    1. Leela

      I don’t think it is, but in my experience, co-workers and managers will. It’s often because they don’t understand what can be at the root of this (in my case, ADHD versus straight up laziness which is how it’s often perceived) and this would be far from the only way I’ve seen a workplace prioritize appearances of what works instead of what actually works. I’ve tried explaining to people that if I put something away in a file cabinet (barring sensitive things which need to be protected of course, but I have a different system for that), its existence is completely wiped from my memory. If it’s not on my desk, I’m not going to remember that it exists and that I need to do something with it. Doing so requires such extensive note-leaving, Trello-ing, calendar and alarm setting that it’s taking a significant portion of my work time away to work around the fact that I have to use a system that doesn’t work at all for me, for the sake of appearances.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood

        A long time ago I started using horizontal mail sorters — it keeps things out and visible, but still tidier. When a co-worker retired, I got custody of an old secretary’s hutch to put on top of the desk — it has 5 sorters on the right, 6 across the top, and all that lovely surface space on the top.

    2. MissDisplaced

      It can become a problem. I used to manage a person who’s desk looked like the proverbial tornado, a tornado that exited Kansas and crossed state lines. Others didn’t want his tornado and complained. Plus, he could never find anything!
      OP probably isn’t that bad, but why not make the effort?

      1. fposte

        In my case, there’s no real advantage to making an effort, and it means I’m not getting more important things done; I suspect that’s true of several of us messy people posting. So I think “Is this really a problem?” is a valid question; the answer could still be “yes, it is.”

    3. Sara

      I agree. My desk gets crazy but I know where stuff is. Not piles on piles, but lots of different projects. I’m fine with it. I usually get it sorted and organized every two to four weeks.

  18. Sara

    Its something you tell kids, but ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ is a really good policy in general. Have an outbox for things that need to be filed, or a tray for things you’re working on so pending items don’t need to be put away immediately, but still aren’t scattered everywhere. Get one of those file racks you can put file folder in, and you can use them to sort loose papers into things to do or by priority.

    1. Just Elle

      Agreed x10000.
      If you don’t have a location for it, the default location becomes a pile on your desk. Anytime you find you don’t have a location, stop yourself and make one. Save a bunch of empty folders and a sharpie at your desk, desktop organizers, whatever.
      It also takes discipline to always force yourself to stop and use the right location instead of sticking it on your desk to ‘file later’ but stick with it and soon it’ll be second nature.

      But you can’t go too far the other way, where there’s such micromanaged levels of sorting that nothing ever fits exactly into a space. Don’t fall for that trap.
      I start with big categories, like: To Do, Project X, Project Y, Stuff I May or May Not Need Again (I clean this out once a month), and Stuff to be Scanned.
      When any one of those folders/bins gets too big, I try to sort it into smaller categories, like: January, February, Data, Correspondence, Financials.

      I even have an ‘I don’t know right now’ pile. As long as you’re regular about cleaning it out (say, every Monday morning) thats ok – at least its not a scattered mess all over your desk in the mean time.

  19. Mystery Bookworm

    I think one of the first things you’ll want to do is examine what ends up where. A lot of mess can happen when you have an idea about where things should be (“I will neatly store my shoes in the closet”) and are constantly fighting with the reality of where things naturally end up (in a pile by the front door). Ideally, you would lean in, wherever possible, to how things fall naturally.

    So ask yourself, where do things end up going? Is it mostly papers that get scattered around? Is it takeaway containers and coffee mugs? Depending on what sort of mess you have, you’ll want to look for different solutions.

    Another thing to ask yourself is how much trouble the mess causes you. For example, if you’re usually able to find papers quite easily (and aren’t too troubled by flipping through a stack) but you’re bothered by the general appearance of disorder (which is a legitmate thing to be troubled by, many people find it distracting) – then a simple file box to keep papers contained might do the trick.

    On the other hand, if you’re routinely having trouble finding certain papers you need, that’s a bit harder – you’ll have to think about what it is you tend to lose and figure out how to redistribute things so as to minimize those losses.

    But overall, I think this starts with asking yourself a bunch of questions about how things are NOW. There’s no value to implementing an organizational system that you’re just going to ignore, or that’s going to add more stress than it saves.

    As much as you can, try to eliminate images and ideas of what ideal desk organization would be (many of us are never going to have color-coordinated folders) and instead narrow in on specific problems that you have.

    1. EditAnd EditOr

      I love this idea – I’d never thought about it this way before, but working with where things ACTUALLY end up as opposed to where you WANT them to end up is a great thought! Combining self-management with self-awareness; brilliant.

      1. Agnes

        I store the kids’ shoes AND socks by the front door, now, after years of trying to get them to put on their socks before they came downstairs in the morning.

      2. Mystery Bookworm

        I really do think most people are reasonably naturally organized in that sense. You’re probably not storing your papers in the bathroom, or hiding your dishes under the bed (unless you are me and you are twelve). And most people naturally do this in the kitchen (usually, dishes are stored by the dishwasher and not across the room, that sort of thing).

        But people have an *idea* of what organized looks like. Sometimes in striving for that idea, we make things worse. Like, someone above recomended stackable file trays — which can be a really good idea! But if OP is not going to realistically separate out her papers, then file trays will probably make things worse, not better. So you really have to start where you are, I think.

    2. Ella

      This is such a good point. I recently revolutionized my ability to keep my shoes tidy just by moving my shoe rack out of my closet and over to the wall next to my door, where I had been tossing them in a messy pile. It’s so much easier to keep things organized when your system plays well with your natural tendencies.

    3. Xarcady

      The problem with color-coordination, at least for people like me, is that you run out of the color you need. And then you don’t make the folder/label/whatever, because you have to order it or buy it. And then stuff starts to pile up . . . and in just a few days, the mess has overtaken again.

      I’m sure it works for some people, for me it would just add another layer of difficulty.

    4. TornadoDesk (LW)

      This is so helpful, thank you!! Looking forward to assessing the state of things when I’m back at my desk next week.

    5. drpuma

      Very much this! And also be honest with yourself about your workflow. If you have a lot of papers hanging around because they’re waiting on someone else’s approval, designate a tray or folder for those things. I find it’s very helpful for me to have specific places for “in between” things – I just need to make sure I’m checking it regularly (generally every morning).

    6. Jasnah

      This is so true! When partner and I moved in together, he brought up the wonderful idea that if we looked for something, and it wasn’t in the first place we looked for it, we should move it there once we found it. If we looked for the hammer in the second drawer, then it should be moved to the second drawer. Going with your instincts instead of fighting to change them is a great idea and so much less work!

  20. Alton Brown's Evil Twin

    OP, consider getting a set of binders or an accordion file.

    When you need to change from one subject to another, take 2 minutes to collect your working papers, put them in the appropriate place, and bring out the papers for the next subject.

    You have to be firm with callers & visitors to your desk. If you can’t answer a question off the top of your head, you’ll have to train them to wait 2 minutes for you to shift gears. You need some time to shift gears mentally, in any event, so the 120 seconds of tapping your papers together into a neat stack and filing them away gives your brain time to do that while you perform an automatic physical task.

    1. MrB

      I’m sure this is a sincere suggestion that works for you, but just the thought of going to ask someone a question at their desk and having to wait a full 120 seconds while they meticulously gather all their current papers, tap them together, and neatly file them away before answering sounds like an absurdist comedy sketch.

    2. TornadoDesk (LW)

      I have & use multiple types of files. There’s an accordion file under my desk for use when I’m out in the community with papers relevant to those meetings, a verticle file on my desk for things that are more immediate, and a file drawer for things I consider “archived”. I can’t seem to keep these organized either.

      1. TornadoDesk (LW)

        I’ll take that back. They are organized in the sense that they have a specific purpose and I know where the papers I need are. They do not FEEL organized to me and they do not FEEL like they contribute to my overall office/desk organization, if that makes sense.

  21. FCJ

    I don’t have any magic advice because I struggle with this, too. But one thing I’ve noticed about me is that I’m far less cluttered if I don’t think of something as “my” space. When I’ve had to share work spaces I’ve kept them very neat and have even gotten annoyed at people who didn’t. My own desk–no longer shared–is a little bit of a disaster visually, but I realize looking around that everything is actually quite organized, it’s just less pretty. But all the stuff for Project A is in one pile, and there’s a Project B pile, etc.

    One thing you can try, first, is looking at the way your desk IS organized, leaving aside the question of whether it’s visually pleasing. Once you figure out how your workflow and your physical space affect each other, you can look at ways to neaten up the system you already have. Because trying to force yourself into a method that isn’t natural for you and your work is just going to backfire and make you feel more frustrated.

  22. Seeking Second Childhood

    5S all the way.
    I was not happy when the corporate initiative rolled through, but it works.
    The five catch-phrases starting with “S” are usually translated from Japanese as “Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize, Sustain.

    The material I have from my company is unfortunately proprietary so I can’t post it here — but punch “5s” into Google and you’ll see a lot. I’d suggest picking one with SixSigma in the materials.

    The first step is a brutal Marie Kondo sort of sorting: identify only what you need to use, and purge anything not relevant to your job. (Check with your records management policy if you’re not sure.)

    They had us do before & after photos — and posted an “after” photo for us to check on our way out of the door each day. We were graded on a monthly basis.
    For a long time I had to check my “after” pic when I left for lunch as well…and then it becamse habit.
    Mut my cubicle hasn’t been rated below 4.5 of 5 in a few years. My home on the other hand still needs a Flylady intervention…

      1. SarahKay

        If it’s anything like my Corporate 5S, then yes, sort of. Ours is done in an excel spreadsheet, one per area, and there’re usually about 5-10 questions per ‘S’ with yes/no answers; 1 point for Yes, 0 points for No. Total points per ‘S’ is added up and converted to a score from 0 to 5 (so 10 questions would mean each Yes is worth 0.5 marks, 5 questions means each Yes is worth 1 mark, etc) and then the results are displayed on a spider-chart.
        Often we’d be grading ourselves, although cross-audits would be done to make sure the results weren’t too full of fudge.
        If done well, it can generate significant improvements in overall tidiness and organisation (it certainly improved my desk tidiness); the trick is to stop the petty dictators from taking over and mandating that everyone will have their phone in *this* location at *this* angle to the keyboard with *this* form of labelling to show where the phone should live…

        1. Just Elle

          The *original intention* of the grading thing, if you read The Toyota Protocol etc, was to create a way to hold yourself responsible and help with sustainment. A dedicated time each month to clean up and then reflect on what is and isn’t working for you, identify improvements, etc.

          Personally I think having other people go around grading you is childish and completely defeats the ‘respect for people’ lean principle… but it is not my hill to die on.

      2. Seeking Second Childhood

        We graded ourselves.
        The system is lifted out of factory environment, so some items aren’t relevant to us. But it’s just a simple count of all the checked items that are considered basic for office life. This ranges from safety requirements like keeping the area free of trip hazards & broken furniture, to getting rid of outdated equipment and labeling binders & file folders. It all kind of adds up to neat & tidy … 25 checkboxes at a time. ;)
        We hated it at first. The company stopped having us do it a few years ago — but my habit remains.

    1. Just Elle

      Yep, I’m with you. I’ve been in manufacturing forever so 5S is a Thing. I’ve seen it done good and bad.
      Bad = audit police running around giving people bad scores for having stacks of paper too big like we’re in preschool.

      Good = fundamentals of how to sort and label so that things actually go back where they belong without thinking about it too much. Like having little drawer trays for knick knacks that keeps my rubber bands from migrating into the paper clip area. Also establishing mins and maxes for supplies.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood

        I’ll add to your bad : the department that was told that any person could have up to two personal items at their desks*.
        I heard about that and pretty much told my manager to tell HER manager I’d start job-hunting if that happened. As it turned out, so did the other 2 senior department members…in a six-person group. The powers that be decided we were allowed to keep our whimsy.

        (*That level of restriction was designed for people working shifts in shared spaces on shared equipment…not our situation.)

    2. Polymer Phil

      5S makes sense for a plant floor with shared equipment that needs to be kept where everyone can find it. 5S in personal desk areas is idiotic – you don’t need a labeled area on your desk where the keyboard goes. I had a past manager who believed 5S was a magical cure for everything, and cared more about presenting a tidy, minimalist appearance for visitors than about improving our workflow or having shared tools in designated locations.

      Not only it wasn’t a magical fix, but we threw out a lot of important documentation and equipment because we were constantly being hounded about housekeeping. The manager in question was long-gone (fired for poor performance) by the time throwing out all of the files, manuals, tools, etc came back to bite us in the butt.

  23. Katie

    In past jobs, my messy desk has been legendary. In the past few years I’ve started devoting 30-45 minutes to tidying up every Friday. At first it was hard not to feel like I should be doing something else, but I really do work more efficiently when it’s organized, so it’s worth the time spent. And I LOVE coming in on Monday to a clean office.

    1. TootsNYC

      “And I LOVE coming in on Monday to a clean office.”

      People who struggle with being tidy:
      Focus on this feeling–it’ll motivate you.

      1. Baby Fishmouth

        Yupp – I may spend 30-40 minutes cleaning and tidying my house Saturday morning, which sucks, but I do it so I can fully be relaxed Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. I’m not relaxed in a messy house, despite having untidy tendencies, so putting in the time is key.

  24. I edit everything

    It sounds hokey, and I’m sure a bunch of people will roll their eyes very hard, but try this: every time you go to put something aside, say to yourself, “I’m choosing to [put this away/not put this away] because [reason].” Or, “I’m choosing to [move/not move] toward my goal of a tidier desk.” Pretty soon, making that choice becomes habit. Staying tidy isn’t something you have to do, but a goal you want to reach. Or, if other reasons for untidiness are more important, then you become aware of them, and can adapt your goals.

    It works better than you think.

    1. TootsNYC

      I can totally see why it would work!

      I think we all resent being told what to do, and “pick up your room” is a cliché of parental pressure.

      When we own the activity as OUR choice, and when we focus on the BENEFIT we get from it, we care about it differently.

      I have a similar approach to life in general, which is to not say “should,” but “could.”

      Instead of saying, “What should I do with my weekend?” I say, “What could I do with my weekend?”
      I can feel the difference physically in my body, I swear.

    2. LizB

      I love this idea! I’ve started doing it with other habits I’m trying to build (“I’m choosing to get takeout instead of pack a lunch because…” ends up with me eating a lot less takeout), I should really start applying it to tidying as well.

    3. TootsNYC

      Oh, I glossed over this:
      “not put this away”

      It’s a way to call yourself out on the choices you are NOT making. And to make it clear to yourself when there IS a legit reason to NOT put something away.

      1. I edit everything

        Yeah, it works well with food choices, too. “I’m choosing to eat this doughnut with my son because it is a treasured weekly ritual and good bonding time,” compared to “I’m choosing not to eat this doughnut someone brought into work because I’m really not hungry and I’ll feel like a lump afterward.”

        Someone once gave this piece of advice (say it out loud for the full effect): “Don’t ‘should’ yourself.”

  25. Temperance

    So, I’m still working on this, but one thing that has been EXTREMELY helpful to me is throwing out papers as soon as I no longer need them, and sending stuff away to be filed. I scan what I can rather than holding on to papers, and it’s been great. It hasn’t helped the whole problem, but it’s a start.

    1. Antilles

      That’s a good one.
      I use a similar trick for papers that I *think* I’m done with but could theoretically need in a few days or couple weeks – reviewer comments, printed emails, working versions of data, etc. I have a box in the corner of my office designated for all this “probably not, but maybe” paper. In the rare cases where I need it a couple days or weeks from now, I can dig it back out fairly quickly. But most of the stuff never comes back, so every month or two, I just carry the whole box to the big company recycling bin, flip the box over, and dump out several thousand pages of documents all at once. The emptying process is always oddly satisfying; like a physical mark of my last X weeks/months as completed.

    2. Piler

      I’m a naturally messy person, but a lot better than I used to be, and this philosophy has helped me a lot. I try not to keep paper at work (and at home I try not to accumulate or keep *stuff* in general). It depends on your job, of course, but for me, I don’t need to keep like 90% of the paper I end up with at the end of the day. At least not for much longer than a week. I don’t have much of a filing system beyond “my pile”, but because I trim my pile ruthlessly I never have trouble finding stuff.

  26. Noodle

    One of my favorite teachers used to say “The sign of a messy desk is the sign of a good teacher: they care more about teaching than cleaning.” I guess it doesn’t quite cross for when you’re just doing your day job but it’s a nice sentiment, and if someone asks about the sloppiness you can always say you care more about getting work done that the aesthetic of clean.

  27. [insert witty username here]

    I’m a tornado person. I’ve mostly just come to accept this (at least at home) but at work, I try to stay a bit neater. The biggest piece of advice is to print as little as possible.

    I find that the end-of-the-day routine just doesn’t work for me for some reason (probably because I want to just get out the door to get ahead of traffic and I’m not going to make time for non-essential stuff ahead of that). However, if I make a point to find a couple days a week DURING the work day (like maybe around lunch or after I’ve finished a particularly stressful or tedious task) to tidy up, that helps tremendously. Make a daily appointment on your calendar – even if you snooze it some days, some days you will actually make yourself tidy for a few minutes. Or are there any telecons that you have to call in to but aren’t an active participant in? That is a great time to tidy a little (please remember to mute your line).

    1. TootsNYC

      I find that the end-of-the-day routine just doesn’t work for me for some reason (probably because I want to just get out the door to get ahead of traffic and I’m not going to make time for non-essential stuff ahead of tha

      Make it a first-thing-in-the-morning thing?

      1. [insert witty username here]

        That doesn’t work for me either – when I get in, I want to get right into my email and get working. Finding time in the middle of the day, when I start getting unfocused at some point anyway, works best for me. It may not be every day, but that’s OK for me too. I am just not a habit person. I find a lot of “tornado people” aren’t – but we can get into semi-habits (IE, a couple days a week).

      2. Canarian

        I’m sure it wouldn’t work for everyone, but I read an article once that suggested starting your work day with a mise-en-place like a chef would do. Set out the things you’re going to need so they’re readily accessible when you need them.

        1. TootsNYC

          There’s a book!!!!!

          Work Clean: The Life-changing Power of Mise-en-place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind
          Book by Dan Charnas

          I read it–I love, love, love it!

          Everyone should read it.

          I haven’t done the exercises in it–I suspect that it would be much more effective if I did (sort of like the comment about Gramsas’s comment (https://www.askamanager.org/2019/01/how-do-i-stop-my-desk-from-looking-like-a-tornado-hit-it.html#comment-2308146) about
          Julie Morgenstern’s book “Organizing from the Inside Out” being more effective if you do the exercises.

    2. Hillary

      Almost all my desk cleaning happens while I’m on the phone. (Obviously this won’t work for everyone, but I spend a lot of time talking/listening but not note taking.)

      We moved to more-open offices with less storage last year. I love it – we have our own cubes with walls, but they’re low enough that we all have natural light. I hadn’t been with the company long, but everyone had to purge their paper files and get rid of anything unnecessary.

      I have a bookshelf, one file drawer, and some smaller drawers/cabinets for personal stuff. I made a couple rules for myself when we moved in.

      1) toys are ok (yay personality) but not clutter. Set a limit.
      2) everything here has a purpose and a place. That purpose can be that it makes me smile.
      3) it has to be easy for the cleaner when they dust desks every other week.
      4) don’t print it unless it’s necessary. if it is necessary shred/recycle as soon as it’s complete.

      I return things to their place whenever I’m talking on the phone and notice it. Whenever I travel or take a day off I do a harder sort (coffee cup washed and into cabinet, that sort of thing) so it’s tidy when I come back.

  28. StressedButOkay

    Oh man, saaaaame. I tend towards ‘tornado desk valley’ especially when things get stressful. If maintaining a tidy desk is important to you, here’s a few things that help me:

    * Daily tidying before I head home, generally in the last five minutes. Just putting up random bits but not a huge clean.
    * Every Friday, or whatever day works for you, taking 30-ish minutes to do a major clean. Making sure all my files are in order, put away, etc.
    * Grabbing as many organizing items as I can from the supply room. I have multiple storage units on my desk, all clearly marked.
    * Using an app to track if I remembered the weekly clean – it helps keep me honest!

    The job I’m in currently is incredibly paper heavy, so I had to put in daily and weekly routines to keep sane.

  29. Ace in the Hole

    Have you tried short bits of cleaning daily? My strategy is 5 minutes or so of cleaning before each time I leave my desk for lunch and at the end of the day. Plus a little extra cleaning on Friday evening so I start fresh on Monday. My desk isn’t the prettiest around, but 5-10 minutes a day keeps it tolerably nice.

  30. Minerva McGonagall

    I’ve been trying to keep a tidier desk/office since starting my job. I’ve started doing these things to help me:

    1. Take 10-15 minutes to tidy up before I leave each day (file papers, condense lists/post-its, organize folders, back up flash drive, etc.)
    2. Go digital as much as possible – calendar, subscriptions, anything that can reduce the paper tornado. And creating specific folders on my computer to store everything so that stays organized too!
    3. Keep most personal affects off my desk. I have a bookshelf in my office so I put more decoration over there. And I use the walls for the NatGeo calendar/cork board.
    4. Using command hooks to keep cords off the ground and in the way.

    1. Engineer Girl

      Goodness, this is what I was going to write! I’ll add in… bins. A few organizational bins to collect pens, papers, etc into one place makes it look more organized.

      The other thing was to take one extra step and put something away instead of putting it aside. But then I ended up with sticky notes stuck to my computer monitor about ongoing projects which my manager hated (and commented on). This was cured by an Exel spreadsheet with the status of ongoing projects. There was a section called “notes” that held all the things the sticky notes previously held.

      1. Minerva McGonagall

        Ooh yes I forgot bins! I love those wire mesh ones that can stack-they’re great for organizing papers!

  31. wonderland

    Work in HR, then you HAVE to put stuff away at night – can’t keep confidential stuff where folks can find it. :)

    1. TornadoDesk (LW)

      I used to do research with human subjects. The context of the job helps a lot. Now I’m doing more community-based, non-research, non-PHI type work and everything came crashing down! hahahaha

  32. sheworkshardforthemoney

    An old job was with the govt. and for security reasons, papers could not be left on desks overnight. Security officers patrolled after hours and would confiscate unsecured documents. Enough violations and you could lose your clearance. It’s a habit I kept for years. I always clean my desk and do a quick walk through to make sure that everything is put away. If I feel particularly paranoid, I do a final double check.

  33. Matilda Jefferies

    I’m going to start with a disclaimer: I am 100% NOT suggesting that you have ADHD, or anything at all other than a messy desk. But one of the impacts of ADHD is chronic disorganization, so there’s lots of good info targeted towards people with ADHD – and most of it also works for neurotypical people who just happen to be messy!

    I would suggest you start with http://www.ADDitudemag.com – I searched for “office desk” and came up with a bunch of results (that I am going to read immediately instead of organizing my own desk!).

    You might also want to check out Gretchen Rubin’s work “Better Than Before,” which is all about creating and maintaining new habits. Because all the organizational tips and tricks in the world won’t work if you don’t make them a habit, and that requires some dedicated focus on the habit itself, as well as the outcome. Good luck!

  34. All Digital Baby

    If you don’t need the originals of your tornado, get a good scanner, like a can-scan-40-pages-a-minute-in-color-front-and-back scanner.

  35. Bend & Snap

    This may not be possible for you, but going paperless was huge for me when I worked in an office (I’m remote now as of mid last year, and completely paper free).

    Things i kept hard copies of: performance reviews

    Everything else went to the shredder. If I needed to print something to work on it, it went in the shredder/trash as soon as I was done with it.

    The only thing on my desk was my computer, a planner and a cup of pens. Drawers were empty except for business cards, a single file containing my reviews and compensation info and any snacks I kept at my desk.

    It was life changing and I got to be known as a very organized person. This all stemmed from someone in my first job telling me to clean up my desk, which was bogged down with paper and all kinds of stuff. Never went back to the mess after making the leap!

    Paper is the devil.

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy

      Same – I work for a hospital in a fully remote position, so I *can’t* have printed records in my workspace per our security policy. I am completely paperless, except for two post-it notes on my monitor to remind me what my work phone number and employee number are. Which works just fine for me, because I’m horrible at out-of-sight-out-of-mind-ness, so either my papers are out where I can see them or I forget I need to do anything with them. All my work documentation is stored in network-backed-up drives, personal stuff (like reviews) I email to myself and file them in my Dropbox. I have a box of personal papers – when paper comes in that I need to keep (like for taxes or whatever) I scan it and file it electronically, then put it in a folder on top of the box. Every couple of months I go through and file the papers into the appropriate folder in the box, but if I need to reference any of it, I’m far more likely to go to the electronic version unless I have to take the paper somewhere and show it to someone.

      Now — don’t get me wrong, my office is still definitely cluttered. But it’s my crafting supplies and my collection of antique computers and the explosion of pop vinyls that are on most horizontal surfaces, not things I actually need to DO something with. (Well, okay, the crafting supplies, but. :P ) Cutting down on the paper was a huge improvement for me in just about every aspect.

  36. jnsunique

    I have inbox-type piles all over my desk. I don’t deal with sensitive information. I was chatting with a supplier about it, and he told me that his organization method is also to keep things in piles, and when a pile gets too tall (every 6 months or so), he just cuts it in half and throws everything out at the bottom. If it wasn’t important enough to rise to the top over that period, it isn’t important enough to keep! I don’t know that it will solve the letter writer’s problem but I thought that was brilliant. I think that there are some great suggestions here but it’s also nice to remember that not all paper needs to be saved. Also, what’s nice about tidying up every few weeks is that sometimes happening across a paper I haven’t seen in awhile will inspire me with a new idea, connection or project.

  37. Junior Dev

    I am a total slob in most areas of my life. My apartment looked like a tornado hit it until I paid my friend to come clean for 5 hours and now it’s just a normal level of mess.

    One thing that helps keep my work desk at “normal” mess levels is that between the type of work I do and the way my brain works, I often have periods where I’m not “done” with work but I’m having trouble concentrating. If I have a little chunk of time where this is the case and I don’t feel like taking a break, or it’s like 15 minutes before lunch time or the end of the day, I’ll tidy my desk. Getting rid of trash, putting papers in neat stacks, and lining up my various knickknacks.

    If you know you’ll always have piles of paperwork it might help to get a few little bins from an office supply store to put them in. It looks neater for some reason.

  38. Celeste

    It’s either a daily habit or it doesn’t happen. First you have to tell yourself that it CAN happen.

    Some of my habits:
    1. If I’m done with some paper and it can be recycled, I fold it in half so I know I never have to touch it again except to take it to the recycle bin. I keep all folded paper by the edge of the cube so that when I leave, I can take it with me. I don’t like to keep my own recycle bin/box to carry–it just creates work to me. YMMV.

    2. If you can look at it and say it’s trash, it doesn’t get to stay on your desk–it has to go to the trash now.

    3. If it helps you to have zones, make some. I have a zone of things that have to be dealt with today. I have another for stuff I need to come back to when the immediate items are done.

    4. Controversial–I just don’t keep much on my desk. I have a little bit of art on the walls and a box that has some just in case personal items (lip balm, hand cream, anti inflammatory). The rest is work stuff.

    5. A big part of my habit is finishing–making the thing go away. Whether it’s crossing off the stuff on the list, finishing up with some paper before recycling or filing it, I need to see forward momentum.

    6. I save cleaning for its own time. The desk can get dusty or dirty, and then it’s time to wipe it down. I always feel so great after I clean, and it helps when I don’t have to dispatch a bunch of other stuff to get to the surfaces.

    1. StressedButOkay

      At my last job, I used to keep a “recycling bin” (it was a beat up USPS mail tub that USPS just – left at our office one day) and I would toss paper into it as needed throughout the day and then dump the entire thing at the end of the week. It was a huge help!

      Unfortunately, at this job, a lot of paperwork is sensitive, so needs to be shredded or just kept for 10 years.

    2. TootsNYC

      If I’m done with some paper and it can be recycled, I fold it in half so I know I never have to touch it again

      I do this as well–but I fold it VERTICALLY, and sort of off-center. That orientation, and the sloppy fold are so different from how I’d handle any paper that mattered, that it’s a clear indicator I consciously chose to toss it. I do this even if I’m going to immediately drop it in the bin.

      I like those zones!

      1. TeapotDetective

        Oooh, I like that one – an obvious visual indicator of “this has been handled and deemed unnecessary.” Might have to copy that idea :)

  39. PromotionalKittenBasket

    Hi! That used to be me!

    One factor was that I was working on way too many projects and had to pivot quickly from one to the other. The other factor was lack of organizational tools. So I first got really strict with myself on a “put it away, not down” rule: filing everything as it happened into the proper folder, even if it was just one paper. Then I got a desktop file organizer for things I was working on during the day. At the end of the day or week, I would put the desktop files into my filing cabinet and just keep out what I needed.

    I had to keep a ton of documents for retention, so this was the only way I could scale down Paper Mountain.

    In my current job, I have a very pretty wooden desk with a two-drawer filing cabinet, so I have to adhere even more to “put it away, not down”, even when I have to walk across the building or go to a different floor to do it. But it helps! It’s much less mental mess for me and start and end the day feeling like I have my ish together.

  40. Rayne

    I am a super messy person, but I work better within a clean space so I get you.
    First things first, get rid of anything that you don’t actually need. I limit myself to 5 blue pens and 2 red ones, one stack of post-its, one stapler, and a pack of small tab post-its.
    Then find an actual place for stuff. I have one folder for all documents I’m currently working on/waiting for and one for things I’ve finished but I need to keep for records. Having shelves/drawers helps immensely keeping organised like this. Then spend the last 10 minutes of your day putting everything back where it goes.
    It’s foolish to try to think you’ll remember to put everything back immediately. No messy person does that – that’s why we’re messy. But you can try to pick up once a day and it will really help.

  41. bonkerballs

    I am very similar. My space often looks like a mess and I know it gives my boss who is hyper organized hives just looking at it. So this is what I try to do. My work day is from 8 to 5. I do my actual job from 8 to 4. At 4:00, I have an alarm set and no matter what I’m doing (unless it’s a task that I can complete in less than five minutes or an emergency that needs to be completed that day), I stop working. From 4 to 5 everyday, all I’m allowed to do is file away the paperwork that’s piled over my desk and clean out my email and paper inbox. That’s it.

  42. caryatis

    Neat people don’t have “desk clean-up days.” That would be pretty hard to fit into a busy schedule. Instead, we tidy up as we go. When I’m done with a document, it gets filed away immediately. Same thing with books, office supplies, personal possessions, whatever. If you’re not in that habit, I suggest setting an alarm, and every hour or two, check to see if there’s anything out of place that needs to be put away. Definitely tidy up before you leave at the end of the day.

    The classic rule is: A place for everything, and everything in its place. If it’s being used or will be used soon, it can be out on your desk. Otherwise, it should be in its One True Place. Getting Things Done has some great advice for this too.

  43. Gramsas

    Julie Morgenstern’s book “Organizing from the Inside Out”, and/or her business-specific works, would be a great way to start. You don’t need to read the whole thing, just the first section and the relevant chapters… But it’s crucial that you DO the exercises in that first section.
    Otherwise, you’ll just be chasing the latest fads in tidying up, and never getting it right FOR YOU.

  44. Princess Loopy

    Another Tornado Person here. Besides cleaning up every day until it becomes a habit (a practice I often neglect; I am such a hypocrite), here are the things that help me whenever I bother to do them:
    -Get rid of crap you don’t need. Keep what you’re required to keep and anything you find frequently useful. Trash stuff you don’t see yourself using in the near or mid future.
    -Find a place to store stuff you’ll probably need but don’t need right now.
    -Figure out how to stop stuff coming in. I have a terrible habit of adding promotional junk to my sort-later piles. Why? Why why why? If it’s trash, trash it immediately.
    -Do a big reorganization. Devote some time to making your space work for you and more easily organized. It’s an investment in ease.

    I…need to do all of this, the next time I’m back in my office. Good reminder, so thanks for the question!

  45. Union Salt Bae

    Oh, Letter Writer, I feel you so hard! I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 28 and have been told “clean up your desk, now” by multiple supervisors, which always reminded me of the battles I had with my mom over my room when I was a child. It can be so frustrating to see other people seem to have perpetually tidy and organized spaces and think “why can’t I just DO that?”

    I think you’re definitely on the right track by scheduling regular times to tidy, and honestly, once a week is pretty good! (I used to only tidy my desk once every two months, or when I got a talking to, and it was always a massive hurdle to surmount.)

    From working with a therapist and reading books written for people like me (Organization Solutions for People With ADHD has been a GAMECHANGER for me: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B007ETD7GO/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1), I’ve learned a few things that I think might help you.

    One is to accept that keeping a space neat is probably always going to be more difficult for you than it is for other people. I know this sounds depressing, but try to think of it as freeing– the next time your desk piles up, just remind yourself “yes, this a thing that is hard for me, but I can work with it. It’s not a big deal.” Overcoming the shame around disorganization can be super helpful in and of itself, because it lets you get to work and actually find ways to work around your own challenges!

    Next, tidy and organize your space in a way that makes sense for YOUR brain and the way you work and think. The next time your desk starts to pile up, take a look and analyze what you see. Is there an order to the piles? Are there small things like pens, post-its, and other things around your desk that are making your desk look more cluttered than it actually is?

    You’ll then use that information to find a place for everything that you have on your desk and/or in your office that makes sense for YOUR brain.

    An example: I recently found that I often just leave pens on my desk after I’m done with them, instead of putting them back in my pencil cup. I realized that part of the reason I was leaving them on my desk was that my pencil cup was at the edge of my very large desk, out of my reach (and also out of my sight line.) So I’ve moved my pencil cup directly next to my computer, next to my writing hand, so I’m now more likely to put the pen into the cup.

    You can also brainstorm about your workflow, as well. Are there some documents/folders you need to always have access to? Conversely, what are you doing with the documents that you rarely need?

    Once you’ve set new spots for the things you use regularly in your office, try to be intentional about returning them to the spot. This might feel weird, but thinking to myself “research files go on the bookshelf, litigation files go in my upright desk organizer” AS I put them away helps reinforce the idea of where they go.

    An important caveat: you’re not likely to find your perfect desk arrangement on the first try, and even if you did, you might find that your organization methods may change as your work changes. Be flexible and gentle with yourself, and try out new things if your current method isn’t working for you. I’m rooting for you!

    1. Junior Dev

      Question about the book “Organization Solutions for People With ADHD” — does it make frequent reference to taking ADHD meds or other medical treatment? I have a bunch of executive functioning issues but not ADHD, and for various reasons I find it really hard to read books that are like “after you get diagnosed and medicated, which of course you will be doing, you can try this strategy…” But I really need to get better at finding organizing strategies.

  46. phira

    I don’t have my own desk/office at work, so this isn’t a work issue for me, but it IS a home issue so hopefully my advice can still help! I have extremely low energy due to chronic illness, so it can be a challenge to keep my house from becoming a disorganized disaster.

    One REALLY big thing that’s worked for me is changing how I organize things, something I picked up from Apartment Therapy. It’s not enough for things to have homes–their homes have to work for you. If you decide that “home” for your pens and pencils is in your desk drawer, but you always, always, always put down pens next to you on your desk, then get a container for pens and pencils that can sit right next to you on your desk.

    Another thing that’s helped me is to deal with things ASAP. I’m a chronic procrastinator, so this has been tough. But it’s always so much easier for me when I don’t set things down for later. If I get a bill in the mail, I pay it immediately; the bill itself never really gets set down anywhere (it doesn’t need a home) because I deal with it and then recycle the rest. Or if we’re done with dinner, instead of bringing the dishes back into the kitchen and leaving them in the sink or on the counter, I wash them immediately or stick them in the dishwasher immediately.

    Finally, as other people have suggested, I find my life gets easier when I “reset” before I go to bed. We’ve got an infant right now, so before I go to bed, I make sure all the bottles are washed, I retrieve burp cloths from around the house and put them back in their “home” (the couch), and I collect all the toys and put them back in the toy basket. Heck, when we’re putting him to bed, I let my husband handle the bedtime routine while I reset the nursery (refill the diapers, put away toys, fold blankets, etc).

  47. OperaArt

    I think of it as giving a gift to my future self when I do my short end-of-workday tidying. The same approach works in other areas of my life.

    1. DG

      YES! I tell myself that my future self is lazy, so if I do this now, she doesn’t have to. Like when I know I’m on “E” at the end of the day and I just want to get home instead of stopping at the gas station. I remind myself that if I don’t do it now my future self will have to deal with it in the morning while sleep deprived and spilling coffee down my shirt.

      Then in the morning when I see my full gas tank, I thank my past self. Cheesy, I know.

  48. Amber Rose

    I have stopped trying. If my desk isn’t covered in paperwork and drawings, it’s covered in parts and fittings. I’m always behind on my filing.

    I keep what I can in paper holders or on shelves/in drawers, but I’m faster and more efficient if I don’t put things away and can just grab them as I need them.

  49. SheLooksFamiliar

    There’s ‘neat and tidy’, and then there’s ‘organized.’ I try to be both, but lean toward ‘organized.’ I know where things are when I need them, which is a big deal for me. I don’t have trash or outdated material to sift through, and am ruthless about getting rid of both ASAP.

    Also, I found out that creating a system that works FOR ME, as opposed to using a system or kit I bought from, say, Rubbermaid or The Container Store – and I LOVE all their storage products! – made a big difference. I keep it simple, and I make myself stop and think when I retrieve or get new info. It’s easier than it sounds.

    OP, please don’t beat yourself up for not being a total neatnik. It’s okay to have some disorder in your work life.

    1. TornadoDesk (LW)

      That’s a really good distinction to keep in mind, thank you!

      I tend to be pretty organized, but the clutter aspect of not being tidy gets overwhelming from time to time. Just trying to find the happy middle ground. :)

  50. Anna Canuck

    If your goal is to make a new habit (like cleaning for 5 min at the end of the day), use a habit tracker to make it stick. I use the android app Loop Habit Tracker when I’m trying to change my behaviour and the combo of it reminding me (pops up on my phone at the time I set) and rewarding me with checkmarks and an ever increasing score gets me doing the things I want to do.

  51. Project Manager

    As a tidy person, yes, I tidy as I go. My mindset is that no job, whether it’s doing the laundry or writing a report, is complete until anything I got out to do the job has been returned to its home. My husband, in contrast, feels the job is done once the major objective is achieved, even if there’s a pile of sawdust on the floor and screwdrivers and spare parts lying around. It’s just a different mindset.

    I also take time either at the beginning or end of the day to sort out my to-do list. I usually have 20 different things to do with varying levels of urgency and importance and required effort, so taking ten to fifteen minutes to make a plan in advance saves me from dithering all day. (Of course, last minute stuff comes up and derails my plan, but that’s just the nature of the beast. I can return to the plan once the fire is put out.)

  52. Elizabeth

    I have a weekly conference call every Thursday morning. I use that 30 minutes to go through the latest stacks of paper and create the shred bin pile. When the call is done, I immediately take the pile and put it in the bin. If I don’t take that time, the stacks become overwhelming very quickly.

    I am a recovering hoarder when it comes to work information. At one point, when I had to clean up my desk so that I could move buildings, I ended up putting over 100 pounds of paper on a cart to be shredded, because I had a bad habit of “I’ll need that later” and putting it into the ever-growing pile of paper that I never bothered to deal with. I’m still guilty of it sometimes (do I really need the calendars for the last 3 years, even though the pictures are really cool?) but I’m getting better. It’s a constant struggle, because I’m fighting my own nature to do it.

    1. Krabby

      Oh my gosh, I feel this on such a gut level. I’m in HR and work closely with Finance. All of us have been conditioned to hold onto things for 7 years (it’s a legal thing), but never take the time to actually take out the old stuff. Last year we moved to a temporary space for 6 months while our office was renovated. The new space had half of the filing cabinets that we were used to. Our head of Finance was in the middle of a full-on meltdown about how the new office wasn’t acceptable when one of the jr. IT guys gently asked why we needed any of the files, because we’re a tech company and we already have all of this data stored in the cloud /and/ in a backup server. It turned out that it was all shred-able garbage and we actually didn’t need paper copies at all. After we scrapped it, we only needed three drawers to hold originals of signed agreements.

      Even after all that, the filing cabinets are steadily re-filling.

      1. Elizabeth

        Healthcare, so we have regulatory requirements like “6 years from the last time you based a decision upon it” and “2 years past the age of majority” for medical records for minors. It is ingrained in me that It All Must Be Saved. But there is also the problem of paper sitting on a desk that has confidential information on it is vulnerable to be viewed by someone who shouldn’t see it, or in danger of being disposed of inappropriately.

        One of the greatest vulnerabilities imaging providers have is old x-ray films. They are often stored indefinitely in remote storage, and the oldest ones have high silver content. They also have a lot of patient information on them, since every one of them had the name, medical record number, birthdate, date of service & body part being imaged. There are numerous reports of the films being stolen for the silver content, but because the provider doesn’t have a record of the destruction, the individuals whose information was on the film have to be notified that their information was stolen & perhaps used.

        It really is less “have a clean desk” than “is my desk the appropriate storage mechanism for this information” and “is there any need to keep this item at all?”

    2. TornadoDesk (LW)

      oh, the calendars. I have my last three years of planners in the drawer next to me as we speak.

  53. Nea

    1) If piles are your natural habitat and you know where everything is, is it really a problem?

    2) If piles are your natural habitat, trying to make yourself turn into “everything is punched and bound and labeled and organized” is like trying to get the Earth to rotate in a different direction. You won’t be able to do it, so don’t set yourself up for failure.

    3) So… come up with a system that does allow you to declutter quickly (i.e., tidy at the end of the day) but does not make you spend part of every day going directly against your nature. Otherwise, you’ll wonder why suddenly you find your 5 minutes depressing and stressful instead of useful.

    Me, I go with my inner toddler. Everything has a place – yay, organizers! – and everything that goes in that place is color-coded. And I don’t punch, bind, file, or do anything unnatural-to-me like that – I throw and sort it out when I need to.

    Project A is in an organizer slot marked with a green dot. Project A’s notebook is a cheap green spiralbound. Printouts for Project A have a quick dot of green highlighter. (Just bend the pages a bit and swipe the highlighter across the edge quickly.) Deliverables for project A that I can’t directly draw on have a piece of paper with the proper highlight color paper clipped to the front. File folders are also scribbled with highlighter.

    Project B is yellow. Project C is whatever other notebook color I could get cheap. At the end of the day, I stuff the pages that I’m working on into the front of the notebook, then throw the notebook and whatever reference pages into the organizer according to color. It takes seconds. Ta da! Clear desk, organized (enough) papers. In the morning I grab what I need out of the bin for the project I’m starting with and go.

    1. Canarian

      Wow, I love this idea of just running a highligher or a colored sticker across papers to identify which project they belong to. I’m a piles person, but I do end up mixing piles together inadvertently or having to take time to figure out which pile is which. I’m going to try implementing this!

    2. TornadoDesk (LW)

      I like this a lot! I used to do similar color-coding in my planner and it worked out great for me. Thinking about other people finding something on my desk if I were gone, though, the other person on my team is color blind, so maybe I should think in terms of symbols or patterns instead of colors.

  54. Not a Blossom

    Create an organizational system that works for you and then clean up your desk at the same time every day. I always straighten my desk before I leave at night so that I feel more relaxed in the morning, but you go with whatever time works best for you. Making it a daily habit done at the same time each day will make it easier to stick to and make it take less time.

  55. Canarian

    I’m going to go against the grain a bit here and echo a few other commenters who are asking whether this is about tidiness for tidiness’ sake or if there’s an actual problem you’re trying to solve.

    I’m a bit of a tornado person and do the big cleanup every few weeks, but something I’ve discovered after trying all kinds of organizational systems, reading Getting Things Done and every productivity blog I can lay my hands on, is that the ‘organized clutter’ actually improves my workflow.

    While having a labeled place for everything seems like a simple, obvious solution, it can really hamper people who are not great with executive function. I’m more likely to get to work on a project if I have the papers on hand in three or four piles around my desk than if I have to get up, go to the file cabinet, rifle through the labeled folders, and find the relevant documents neatly filed in their proper place just to get started on a project. Spending five minutes at the end of the day to clear everything on my desk, and then having to come back in the morning and spend a few minutes digging up the things I’ve filed away is painfully tedious to me. Just having to clear the simple hurdle of having to GO FIND a file can make me put off working on a project for a frustratingly long time.

    Plus, I never stick with an organizational system long enough to really remember quickly what I decided was the right place for X or Y thing. So I waste time trying to remember which file is where, or I end up creating duplicative files because I forgot I already had an accordion folder for documents related to X, and end up with fragmented incomplete files. Wanting to be tidier is obviously a commendable goal, but as you’re trying different systems, make sure they are actually improving your productivity, and not getting in your way.

    1. TornadoDesk (LW)

      I may have phrased the original letter wrong, because the more I read the comments the more I realize it’s not an organization issue at all. I’m the type of person who will lose things if I do a deep clean / reorg. My current problem is feeling overwhelmed by clutter from time to time. I’ve noticed that I feel better when things look cleaner, but it doesn’t significantly impact my work.

    2. Koala dreams

      I thought I wouldn’t have anything to contribute, but I have one habit that helps with this: At the end of the day, I put the things I want to work on the next day in a folder, put the folder in the middle of the desk surface, and put a sticky note to myself on it: Koala dreams, do this on Friday (or whatever the next day is). Sometimes I have to put away a few of the other things on my desk so that the folder with the sticky note will stand out better. That way I won’t need to go looking for my things at the start of the workday, I can just open the folder and voila.

  56. Batman

    I try to keep as many things as possible in my desk drawers or organized on shelves (if you have shelves). Those don’t have to be super organized (mine aren’t) but it keeps the desk looking neater.

    The other thing I do is clean off my desk every evening so at least it’s clear when I get back to work the next day.

    My main issue is that I like having knickknacks out on my desk and I always have at least one water bottle and one tea mug out at any given time. I don’t really deal with paper that much, but I do deal with books and journals.

  57. ejay

    My desk is always clean and organgized. But that’s how my home is too. I have high anxiety and I can’t thrive in an area with clutter. Because I’m always alert to it, I’m motivated to maintain a clean, clutter free enviroment.

    A few things that help me:
    – Do a 5-minute clean up before you leave for the day. If you’re in a rush to leave, do a 5-minute clean up when you arrive to work!
    – Having desktop organizers (stackable file trays) or drawer organizers. Everything with purpose will have specific place to go, so you’re more inclined to put it back when you’re done… and you’ll know if anything’s missing.
    – Buy one of those plastic accordian folders with multiple pockets to organize your documents. This helps me when I go to meetings or events, so I can organize documents and hand-outs ASAP. Then I just slide it back into it’s file tray and know where it is for later.
    – Labeling! Label those file trays, label your folders, label what’s in your drawers. A lot of people have problems because they can’t remember what goes where. I’ll fill out a page of Avery small stickly mailing labels and stick them on trays and cabinets in my office to organize everything.

    1. Amber Rose

      No, I did too. =P
      Not like tidy tidy, but I did finally file a couple of papers I’ve been ignoring for a week or so.

    2. Autumnheart

      I totally just cleaned my desk. I was feeling vaguely annoyed about stacks of junk and the dust accumulating on the desktop, and I just cleaned it up and then Lysoled the surface of my desk (I keep Lysol wipes in a drawer). I feel 100% better.

  58. Edianter

    I heard some advice at the beginning of my career, and it has always stuck with me:

    – It only goes ON your desk if you use it every day
    – It only goes IN your desk if you use it every week
    – It only goes in your OFFICE if you use it every month

    Obviously, this isn’t always practical, when you have things like yearly reports or things you definitely need but use less frequently, but overall, I find this to be a good way to decide what the “home” for each item should be.

    Other things I do to stay organized:

    1. I have a folder labeled “current projects” where the papers that I’m currently working on (and would otherwise clutter the surface of my desk) live. No papers stay on my desk at the end of the day. If I’m not finished with them, they go into the current projects folder to be used again tomorrow.

    2. A lot of commenters have suggested an end-of-day routine. I do the same, but I do it TWICE per day—I don’t let myself leave for lunch until my workspace is organized. Same at the end of the day.

    3. I think about “What if there were an emergency and I couldn’t come back to work for the rest of the month?” It “shames” me a little into keeping my space at least mostly organized so my boss wouldn’t be annoyed if he had to come searching for important files.

    Good luck, OP!

  59. Xarcady

    My desk instantly became much neater when the company did a big push for going paperless. Not everyone can do this, but it’s worth talking with your supervisor to see if anything can be done.

    But there’s still a lot of stuff to deal with. Things that have helped me:

    1. Deciding what should be on the desk and what should be in the drawers. And putting things back where they belong either when I am finished with them or at least every night before I leave. Labeling drawers. Once I labeled two drawers in a desktop organizer, “Mail Supplies,” and “Computer Stuff,” it was like magic. I stopped trying to shove microfiber cleaning cloths and extra cables into the drawer with envelopes and stamps.

    2. Taking time every night to tidy up both computer files and paper files (we still have some.) At first, it felt weird not working straight out until 5 pm, but taking 10 minutes to clean up. But I just kept telling myself that being able to find stuff and having a neat work space were also important. And now it’s a habit.

    3. Buying some matching desk top organizers. Nothing fancy, but having everything coordinate makes my desk look nicer and makes me want to keep it neater. Make it as easy as possible to put stuff away. If it is in a drawer, you should be able to open the drawer and plop the item where it belongs. Paper might take a few more steps to file, but again, make it as easy as possible.

    4. If you have files that are on your desk for only a day or two, create a place for them to go when you aren’t working on them. An in/out tray, a standing file holder, whatever works for you. It takes time to train yourself to put the papers in the folder and the folder in the tray every night, but it can be done.

    5. Toss stuff. If there is an electronic file, do you really need to keep the paper? If there is a central storage place for files, do you really need a copy at your desk? Keep as much info electronically as possible. Scan documents at the end of a project (check with your legal department first if you are concerned.) Let someone else keep stacks and stacks of paper “just in case.”

    6. Ask your office mates how they handle whatever is your biggest mess-making issue. They might have good tips.

    Good luck! I have gone from having piles of paper all over the place to one in box that currently has two folders and a standing file rack that holds folders for 5 projects I am currently working on. I can find stuff. My supervisor can find stuff if I’m away from my desk. There’s space for a few plants. It took a couple of years of working on this and backsliding, but I finally got here!

  60. MaureenSmith

    The only time I’ve ever had a tidy desk was the one year I worked for BigCorp, which had a culture and policy of cleared off desktop every night. Only the computer, mouse and keyboard were allowed. Even the mousepad was put away.

    What I need to do (and don’t currently do) is block out the last 15 minutes or so of every day to tidy the desk before I go home. By making it a daily task, the mess never got too big and it was nice to come into a clean office in the morning.

    Now to take my own advice and clean off my desk…

  61. PLJ

    I used to have this problem. My work requires me to jump from task to task, all of which need different materials out. So by the end of the day, I had what looked like a disaster even though I knew exactly what each part of the pile was. My new year’s resolution a few years ago was to never leave work unless my space was tidy. The easy part was washing out mugs, putting snacks in a drawer, etc. – that was just a change to my routine. I also got rid of all unnecessary desk clutter, because it adds the look of chaos. So no more photos in frames or extra personal stuff on my desk. And I found a drawer for my stapler, stamp, pens and pencils, lotion, chapstick, and paperclips.

    The harder part was what to do with all the papers (especially the ones I was still working with and would need the next day). So I invested in some nice looking desktop file organizers (or, if you have a file drawer, you could do it there too) and have three file folders labeled “Current Issues,” “This Week’s Tasks” and “Unfinished Filing.” So now my messy stacks of papers go in these three files at the end of the day rather than sitting out across my desk. Then at the end of the week (or… sometimes every other week if it’s been hectic) I went through the “Unfinished Filing” folder and actually file what’s in there that just needs to be put away. It took some practice, but it made me LOOK more organized which eventually made me actually become more organized. A few years out, and now I hardly ever need to stash stuff in the “unfinished filing” folder because I’ve put it all away. Good luck!

  62. pentamom

    I am a terrible slob at home, but at work, I always managed to keep my desk tidy by always tidying up at the end of the day as the last thing I did. It usually took a matter of seconds. Even if it takes a minute or two, that’s much more effective than 30 minutes “every few weeks.” The difference between a desk and the home environment is that you do a fixed set of tasks there, and you have a fixed start and end time for doing them, so if you refresh every day, it stays put until the next day.

  63. iglwif

    YMMV enormously, but things that have worked for me:

    – schedule a 5-minute tidy at the end of every day. Like literally put it in the calendar.
    – COLOUR-CODE EVERYTHING. If possible, match hard-copy colour-coding to onscreen colour-coding.
    – those stand-up racks for file folders — it’s on your desk but it’s not *lying around*
    – if things that need filing can’t be filed right away (which is of course best practice), at least keep a file folder or standing file called “TO FILE” (or whatever), and have a daily or weekly scheduled session where you file those things
    – if you don’t have a blue bin at your workstation, can you get one? it’s super helpful to be able to recycle paper you don’t keep as soon as you’ve made that decision.
    – whenever you feel restless, want a snack, need to get up and walk around a bit, are at a frustrating place in a task and need a quick break … TIDY SOMETHING. Not the whole thing — just something.

  64. Lady Ariel Ponyweather

    In my case, I was dealing with some health issues and didn’t know it. It took all my energy to do my job and I didn’t have anything left at the end of the day, not even to tidy up. Now that I’ve got my energy back, I find it much easier to take a few minutes to tidy at the end of the day. During the day, I don’t worry about it. The exception is if I find myself with a few minutes to spare, e.g., waiting for someone so we can go to lunch, and I use that time to do a quick tidy.

    Not saying you’ve definitely got an illness! You probably don’t. It’s just something to consider, in case you hadn’t. Even something as simple as low B12 can have an impact. Either way, I hope you find a solution that works for you!

  65. Ella

    My default state is extreme mess and disorder, so it’s been a constant struggle keeping things tidy when I need to. Something that’s really helped me is following the principal of “everything needs a home.” (And yep, it’s a marie kondo influenced thing :P) That means that everything I keep on my desk/in my room/etc. must have a specific place it is kept. So on my desk, pens *always* go in my pen mug. If they can’t fit there, then I need to either get rid of some pens or get a bigger mug for them. Papers go in the designated paper drawer. Cords go in the designated cord box, and if they don’t fit I need to reorganize or decide if I really need them.

    Most of my worst clutter happens when I just start leaving things lying around, and it’s often because they don’t fit in their designated spot or because I never assigned a designated spot in the first place. I’ve been able to really cut down on clutter by making sure I’m thoughtful about if my belongings have a “home” and then making sure they get put in that home any time I’m not using them.

  66. Beebs

    Does it impact your ability to get your work done? I’m maybe a little contrarian here, but I say if it works for you, don’t fix it. If I could post a picture of my desk right now I would so you could see the mess. But rarely does it take me more than a few seconds to find something and it hasn’t stopped me from being successful.

    All that said, about three times a year I take half a day and to a complete purge/file/clean, including email inbox. I love having a clean desk, but I have accepted it’s never going to stay that way for more than 48 hours. All the “tidy at the end of the day” advice seems really practical but it just doesn’t work for me and I’m okay with that at this point in my career. (Also in my life generally. See: my house)

  67. Dianne

    I have two keys to keeping a neat desk: (1) I use a single spiral notebook for all my writing, notes, calculations, whatever. It’s all in that notebooks and pages are never torn out. This makes referencing back easy and saves me from having lots of pages and scraps of paper everywhere. (2) I don’t file anything until I’m done with it and, then, I usually scan and shred. This helps me know that if it’s on my desk it needs to be done, and if it’s off my desk I have an e-copy when I need it. And, as others have said, I square the piles each afternoon before leaving the office. Good luck.

  68. Kelly Bennett

    I usually do it two ways.

    1. Every Friday I tidy it up. Toss post-its, file papers, shred things. I take twenty minutes to clean it up and organize it.
    2. Try to make sure things have places, or how they’re stored. So if you have a lot of papers, make sure you have a place to keep them. If you have pens everywhere, get a pencil holder.

  69. Anon and on and on

    A place for everything and everything in its place! Everything that I am done with gets put away as soon as I am done with it. Before I leave for the day I straighten everything up that way when I come in I have nice organized piles of what needs to be done. I’m not a neat freak but it helps me relax in the evening knowing I don’t have to worry about work. And it helps me get started in the morning already having what needs to be done organized.

    I have one co-worker who has an extra chair in her cubicle just to hold the piles of files she has not yet put away. I cringe every time I walk past. Take the few minutes when you are done and put it away. Then it doesn’t come a dramatic pile that will take hours to sort through.

  70. LQ

    I tend toward messy but I know that I’m clearer headed if I’m working with clean space. And when I have a Giant Project or am very stressed the messy rears it’s head just when I need to have clear space and clear brain.

    Colored folders. Like projects in like colored folders with stickies on the outside with the project name. Not only does this make it easier for me, it makes it easier if anyone else needs to find something in my space. A folder can get to about 1.5 inches or so before it moves to truely unweildy. I generally try to go through and cull a project folder when it hits about 1 inch, but anything less than that? All the project papers just get shoved into a folder. Project folders get grouped in a standing file holder thing. All projects that are generally about larger X goal? Stuck in the same standing space. Long term/less used folders are tucked back farther away in another standing file folder. Overall managing about 20 projects under 4 large umbrellas with this. Plus day to day work.

    Cull. Ruthlessly cull stuff out of the folders into either shred/recycle or long term filing when the folder hits and inch plus or the project completes. My long term filing is terrifying for some of these projects, 6-10 inches of papers totally unorganized, for the most part I don’t need to go back to them and could just toss them, but eh.

    End of day. End of each day (honestly more like 3 of 5 days a week) I stop and take 3-5 minutes at the end of the day to organize the random one off papers, stuff them into folders. Trash/recycle/shred some. And then once every month or two I stop and take 30 minutes and really have a serious self talk. You don’t really need this do you? No. Just stick it in long term it’s fine.

    1. LQ

      Oh! The other thing (because today this worked well) is that I have some time on my calendar that isn’t meetings where I get stuff done each day. For me it’s before 9 and then lunch. I generally get an hour before work or so, ideally an hourish around lunch to keep up with the urgent stuff, and then I end up doing deep heads down work at the end of the day (often after everyone else has left). You wouldn’t need these times to be outside of work hours if you don’t have a job with more work than time in the day.

      The first hour I’d started to think of as sort of disposable and myself as not getting a lot done. Until I had 2 days in a row when my boss came in to chat first thing for that opening hour and the rest of the WEEK was thrown off. I’m not actually totally sure what I do for that hour, but it absolutely prepares me to manage the rest of my day and keeps my head on track.

      So if you can figure out what it is (time, structure, whatever) that is that makes it good? Can you enshrine that somehow for yourself? I’ve started basically jealously guarding that first hour from everyone but my boss. (My boss is my boss and gets to trump that hour and that’s fine.) Even though I can’t quite explain what it is about that hour that makes me able to be productive and absolutely stay organized…it does. So I’m keeping it.

  71. The Other Katie

    1) Make sure you actually have a place to put anything you need. That place can be _on_ your desk, if you want. A little set of drawers with office supplies looks a lot neater than a pile of post-it note pads, and is just as convenient.
    2) Get in the habit of throwing away trash, recycling stuff you don’t need, and taking away coffee cups or whatever before you leave for the day. A five-minute tidy greatly reduces the chaos.
    3) Get a basket and put it under your desk. Anything you don’t want to deal with just then, put in the basket. Then sort out the basket every couple weeks.

  72. revueller

    I clean up my desk at the end of every day to get ready for the morning. (I have time to do this because my commute is short and I don’t have time-sensitive evening activities to attend.) I adapted the idea from Cal Newport’s shutdown routine blog post. (http://calnewport.com/blog/2012/08/02/work-less-to-work-better-my-experiments-with-shutdown-routines/)

    Finding a place for everything has also been helpful. I use a laptop every day; it gets closed and all programs are shut out of (Chrome tabs can be pinned so if you exit that window and even quit Chrome, those pinned tabs will be there the next time you open a new Chrome window). I also use over-ear headphones every day; those get wrapped up and hung on a designed hook above my desk. Post-its go into piles. Papers go into folders. My notebook is straightened and any papers I no longer need are discarded.

    I try to work around my ADD by having any important reminders in a visual place that my eye can get drawn to. For me, that means colorful Post-its on the edge of my black monitor. Yellow means a to-do; green is a general reminder (addresses, processes, password, etc). I’ll even vary my pens sometimes (between black and green ink–I’ve never been a gel pen person).

    Another mind trick: I think of my morning self as a nine-year-old child; she can do and find things herself, but she’s not exactly the best at decision-making. At the end of every day, I have to think about how to make Morning Me’s life as easy and straightforward as possible.

    1. TornadoDesk (LW)

      thanks for the blog post, I will definitely read it. I also love your description of “Morning Me.” I tend to be more of a morning person so things just get worse throughout the day!

  73. irene adler

    Lots of good advice here.
    Sometimes one need a motivation to form a new habit.
    I discovered that things would go missing from my messy desk. Initially I thought I’d lost these things, but soon discovered someone was intentionally taking them (certain documents, post-its, sharpies, calculator, scissors). This was done in the spirit of maliciousness. The documents would be crumbled up and thrown into the back of a cabinet at the other end of the building. Or found in a file box months later. The other items were never found.

    These days all is packed away inside drawers (I noticed that the culprit would swipe things from drawers).

  74. Doodle

    Let go of your need to have the kind of perfectly organized desk your coworkers have. It is not you, and you do not need to waste time or emotional energy on forcing yourself to be Felix Unger. As long as your space is not dirty, smelly, encroaching on others’ work space, or so crammed and disorganized that it makes all of your colleagues twitch, you are ok. What I do is that things that others have to be able to access are neat, tidy, and easy to work with (for my job, that is student files), and I keep the area for meetings scrupulously clean and untouched by stray papers.

    If your boss feels it is too messy, then of course you need to spend time keeping things tidy. Otherwise, as long as the clutter is not impeding your work and it’s not disgusting, allow yourself to have your nest.

  75. anonymous 5

    I come from at least two generations’ worth, (possibly more) of people with the perfect storm: minimal organizational skills; a reluctance to throw things away; a tendency to clean the rooms intended for “display” by throwing all the junk haphazardly into some other room; and such crippling perfectionism and shame that all of this was (still is, in some cases) a source of constant despair that interfered with ever actually doing anything about it. I am *not at all* organized to magazine-photo levels, but in comparison to my family (and to my several-years-ago self), I look like a neat freak. A few things that have helped me:

    –Years ago, I saw an article on organizing that emphasized NOT starting the process with a trip to your favorite housewares/hardware/organization store. This was eye-opening and *liberating*. I started looking at cleaning/organizing first as grouping, sorting, and paring down where appropriate, rather than trying to find a “perfect system” and shoehorn stuff into it.
    –Somewhere along the line, I realized that for me, having books (and folders of papers, where possible) aligned vertically instead of in stacks makes an outsized difference in my sense of order. So I decided to prioritize that and go from there. Whatever small thing seems to bug you the most and/or make the most difference in feeling organized will vary from person to person. But having a relatively-small priority from which to build can be a really good way to gain momentum for the larger scale.
    –ALSO somewhere along the line, once I’d realized that, hey, I’m not doomed to a life of clutter just because I don’t have the proverbial color-coded files, I started cutting myself a break. With my family history, this is a huge deal: I have less clutter to worry about, but more importantly, I beat myself up over it. Spoiler alert: it is a lot easier for me now to view my natural cycle of needing to straighten out my desk/files/laundry/books/projects/etc as just that: what happens. And in general, my home and my office are tidy.

    That last point kinda veers toward pop-psych territory, and so discard any of it that isn’t useful! But ultimately, once you’ve found things that work for you, enjoy having things that work for you. Unless you have externally-imposed constraints on filing/organization systems at your office, nobody has to be satisfied with your system except for you. Good luck!

  76. The Other Dawn

    At my old job I always had a “file pile.” (I don’t at this job since we don’t have the need for a lot of paper in my department.) It grew and grew because I hated filing. I just threw everything into the pile and then put that pile in my overhead cabinet every night; it had confidential stuff in it that had to be locked up. Then I’d be stuck with a two-foot-high pile several times a year that I had to deal with before vacation, audits, etc. Finally I just decided I take 10 minutes a day, which I scheduled into my calendar so I couldn’t “forget”, and just do the filing. I still hated it and many times would still procrastinate, but at least I didn’t need to spend two hours doing it several times a year.

    Really, though, I don’t think there’s any magic solution to keeping a clean desk. You just need to have it in your mind that it needs to get done and you’re going to do it/maintain it.

  77. Mockingjay

    Less is more.

    I’m not going Marie Kondo, but the average square surface of an office desk or cubical is pretty small, and most space is probably already taken up by a laptop, docking station, and monitors, and the ubiquitous large Voip phone.

    So pare down to what you really need. 1 pad of paper, a few pens, 1 pack of post-its, which can be kept in a drawer or small container. Replenish as needed. And go electronic. For instance, I rarely use paper for notes; I open a text file (notepad) on the computer. Print less, too. Save to a PDF instead.

    Don’t forget to keep your computer organized. Friday afternoons, I go through all the files I’ve downloaded or quick-saved to my desktop that week and drag them into document folders or post in the project share drive.

  78. JGray

    I have found that having folders to put things in is helpful. I tend to buy pretty fancy ones so that visually it’s nice to look at. I also have a basket that is sort of my catch all. If I don’t have a place that makes sense for where the document or file should go than it goes in my catch all. I really try to keep things corralled as much as I can so that way my mess looks organized. It’s still in piles but it at least looks organized.

  79. Gaming Teapot

    There’s a neat little phrase I learned from a time management class on Lynda once and while I don’t remember the rest of that course, I still find this phrase useful to this day:

    Everything in its place. No visitors allowed.

    What this means for getting your desk more organized is:

    1) Pick one (1) specific place for each thing you need during the day. Pencils/pens. Stapler. Incoming paperwork. Outgoing paperwork. Your headphones. Your coffee. Whatever you have on your desk. Pick one spot for one (type of) item. Label it with a post-it if you need some help remembering where you assigned stuff to at first.

    2) Take maybe a half hour at the end of one day (or before the beginning of your work day) to organize everything that’s already there. This is the “everything in its place” part.

    3) Whenever something new arrives or something needs to be shifted around, immediately put it where it needs to be, according to the spots you assigned. “No visitors allowed!” That means, don’t put it on your PC because that’s closest, don’t just throw it on your desk because you’re hurrying to a meeting, don’t think “I’ll just put this here and then move it later”. NO VISITORS ALLOWED. No, your pens may not visit your outgoing papers. No, your coffee has no business being on your “invoices” stack. Put it where it belongs right away.

    4) Have an assigned spot for “not my monkeys, not my circus” and “what the hell is this?” where you put anything people dump on your desk and you don’t know immediately where to assign it. Clear out that spot before the end of every day.

    I hope this system might help you as it has helped me. Good luck!

    1. TootsNYC

      “No visitors allowed.”

      At home, I would run into stuff that would be put somewhere “just for now.”
      I started saying, “No summer homes.”

    2. revueller

      This is both hilarious and extremely helpful. I definitely agree with “put everything in its proper place immediately.” If my keys don’t go on their designated hook at home, I might as well consider them lost forever.

  80. Rhymes with Mitochondria

    Honestly, I have learned to line with the cycle of messiness and clearing the space. I find that I am very productive after a clearing of my desk, and sometimes, when I want a productive day, I start by clearing my desk. I don’t know that a perpetually clear desk would have the same boost for me.
    So once every two weeks or so, I spend 20-30 minutes clearing my space and enjoy the turbo boost it gives me.

  81. Recovering Journalist...

    I’m a tornado type person too and there are lots of great ideas here.
    If developing and sustaining a habit is the issue, may I humbly suggest something called Habitica.com? It’s a website that turns a task list into a game. Each time you check off something on your list, you get points that you can use to create an avatar and its pets, tools etc. It’s stupid but it’s fun and I’ve accomplished a lot (stuck with my workout plan, completed tasks on my get-around-to-it list etc.) by sticking with it. (Darn it, I want to get enough points for the cool new background.)

  82. Mimi Me

    I have a lot of trouble keeping tidy. What’s worked for me: trying to keep as much of my job as paperless as I am able to. I used to have all manner of paper checklists and client lists littering my desk. It all got to be too much. Someone actually mentioned that if I ever wanted to work from home (which I’d like to do in a few years!) I’d have to be paperless as we deal with PHI and as such cannot be printed at home. I created online versions of all my documents at that point.
    For the paper I do use in the office I stash it in a folder on my desk when I’m using those documents. Once my need for the documents are done I put it in my shred bin.
    I use one of those old rolodex boxes with info I need for my job (phone #’s for clients, contact info for co-workers, login info / website, etc). I bought it for 25 cents at a yardsale and it was the best quarter I ever spent. Seriously. It freed up so much clutter from my desk.
    Small containers for pens, paperclips, ear buds, and misc change help keep those items under control. I have a few items that do dual jobs like the picture frame/post it holder.
    I keep anything that I don’t use all the time in a desk drawer and frequently go through the drawer to purge any paper / items that I thought I would need but haven’t touched in some time.
    It also helps that I have a small shelf in my cube that hovers above my monitor where I can display photos and little tchatchke that my kids give me “for work”.

  83. Anonymeece

    I read an entire book on organizing your office, and it was mostly awful, but I did love the “RAFT” system of organizing your inbox. “Refer/Act/File/Trash or Toss”. I added an “In Progress” because I found it didn’t quite work out with just the four, but it’s been awesome at keeping me organized.

    I also dedicate some time each week – Fridays are usually slow for me – to sort through my inbox, email, and clean up a bit. Having nice things at your desk also helps! I was afraid that bringing in *more* stuff would make it worse, but I enjoy having artwork, plants, etc. around and I like to keep things clean now to show them off more.

    I get behind sometimes and end up with a mess, but little steps at organizing have made little improvements that make cleaning up much easier when I do get behind. And I will note, I did take an entire Saturday one time just to reorganize the files my predecessor left me. Trying to keep up with someone else’s system was just maddening and caused more mess in the long-run. Sometimes a big purge can help get the momentum going to keep up with the day-to-day stuff.

    Good luck!

  84. C Average

    I’m a natural-born slob, and the only thing that works for me is a ruthless dedication to having as little stuff as possible.

    If you might need it someday, if you have it because someone gave it to you, if it’s been there for three months and you just don’t know what to do with it, if it’s purely ornamental and you don’t absolutely love it–it goes.

    None of this applies to your computer, by the way. Search is your friend. If you have decent search kungfu, you don’t need folders or tags or inbox zero.

  85. JJ

    I think the advice to consider it not “your space” is going to help you be more thoughtful about keeping things neat “for the next person.” Because it isn’t your space, not really, even if there’s no desk-sharing.

    Something I noticed at my first job out of college was when I found myself stressed/overwhelmed, I’d stop for a few minutes and clean up my desk area and it always helped immensely (and the desk was always messy during those times). I bet you do a lot more rummaging than you think, I wonder if getting things tidy will make you 1. less stressed and 2. more efficient.

    If you find shame to be a helpful tool (I do) you can look at the optics. If you assume a messy desk is projecting an image of you as less efficient, effective or organized (whether true or not), it might be a motivation to tidy up.

    That said, a lot of people argue that messy desks allow for more discovery/creativity! So if the mess doesn’t stress you out and no one else seems to care, then just make sure you don’t have any gross food stuff and you’re good. I also think our culture links tidiness up with virtue (gross), so don’t be too hard on yourself.

    1. only acting normal

      This is how I’ve always kept work files in order – paper or computer files – I’m not the only one who needs to access them. Even if it’s essentially just my work, if I get hit by the proverbial bus or win the lottery I don’t play, then someone will have to pick it up.
      I wish *any* of my co-workers were as considerate, but sadly, unless I’ve set them up, the shared files are usually a dumpster fire.

  86. Sara without an H

    OK, OP — Is this a problem that really needs a solution? You say that your co-workers keep “neat” desks (btw, “neat” does not equal “organized”). Is this a cultural expectation at your workplace? Do you have a boss who equates neat desks with efficiency? Or is the pressure you’re feeling strictly internal? You say you can find whatever you need, which makes me think that you actually have an organizational system, it’s just not as “tidy” as everyone else’s.

    If you really want a change, consider why stuff is piling up. Do you have trouble making decisions about what needs to happen to get stuff moving on to the next stage? One book I found extremely helpful in my own case is David Allen’s Getting Things Done. (He’s just come out with a revised edition.) He spends a lot of time on the decision-making process, e.g. Is this thing worth keeping and, if so, what’s the very next thing I have to do with it?

    Several commenters have mentioned taking time at the end of the day to tidy up. If you’re very visual, putting stuff away out of sight may not be helpful, but you could stack it up neatly, then label it with a sticky note to remind you tomorrow about what the next step is in processing it. Neat stacks, neatly labeled may be a better solution for you trying to file everything out of sight.

    Lastly, try to go paperless as much as you can. My own desk is a lot neater now that most of our documentation is online, and it’s actually easier to find stuff with the “search” command than it is to sort through a lot of miscellaneous piles.

    1. TornadoDesk (LW)

      it’s definitely an internal thing. I’ve been here 3 years and no one has said a thing about the state of my desk/office. It’s a recognition that I feel better when I have a cleaner space, but I can’t find a happy medium of organized mess / clean and good feeling space.

      I intend to try going more paperless when I get back into the office next week, but I think that will be a new big messy challenge for me. I’m very visual and tactile– digital/synced up calendars don’t do anything for me, but my physical planner in an incredible tool. If it’s digital, it might as well not exist as far as my brain is concerned.

      1. Sara without an H

        Hi, TornadoDesk — In that case, you probably don’t want to go paperless with anything your actively working on. You might just want to go paperless for your archive, stuff that you don’t need to access regularly, but want to keep for future reference.

        Again, I think you would find the David Allen book very helpful. His method can be adapted to physical systems as well as digital.

  87. hot mess desk

    This is exactly me. I am a mess at both home and at work. I was even asked to keep my desk neater in past performance evals at current job. I ended up throwing away papers I no longer used and limiting what went on my desk and they’ve noticed that I’ve made an effort. Every so often I go through and de-clutter which I find has helped.

    A different job and different boss said “well at least you seem to know where everything is” and my hot mess desk didn’t annoy her as much as it did this at job so of course I took it as a sign of “well there’s other stuff she wants me to work on and this can stay a hot mess”

  88. Keyboard Cowboy

    Is it too late to ask a follow-on? I have a hard time justifying desk cleanup time as something I should be getting paid for, and I hate to stay late, so I usually never do it. Thoughts?

    1. Just Elle

      Its definitely something you should expect to be paid for. In fact, I direct charge and we have an hour of overhead a month we’re allowed to charge to ‘filing and desk organization’. Its an essential part of doing your job, and it honestly makes you more efficient – so charge it, or don’t charge it and don’t do it… they’re paying you either way.

    2. Iris Eyes

      It might help if you transfer mental ownership of your office contents to your company, because with few exceptions that is reality. Of course it makes sense for them to pay you to maintain their things.

  89. Iris Eyes

    If its not actually an issue don’t make it one.

    My mental systems require me seeing things regularly if I’m going to remember their existence. The quickest way to lose something for me is to put it safely away. Every, damn, time.

    Focus more on neaten/straighten and don’t worry so much about “put everything away.” Maybe that’s something you do while waiting for a process to run or a phone call to be picked up. Done feels better but is so much harder to attain that “any improvement.”

    Throw away things that you don’t need. If you aren’t sure that you need it have a file and clear out that file every once in a while (kinda like a physical recycle bin.) Keeping the clutter level down seems to be a key strategy for me.

    1. anon 4 this 1

      I’m an archivist and so many people are shocked when I give the advice/beg people to throw away or otherwise dispose of the stuff that you don’t need. But it makes cleaning up so much easier! I have trouble taking my own advice with work files but I like to give myself and others permission: for your office records manager’s sake, get rid of or pass onto the appropriate department (maybe the records manager) any paperwork and files that you don’t need as soon as you don’t need it.

  90. Sylvan

    Assorted tips –

    – Come up with some system of separating papers that accumulate on your desk. Organize them in labeled folders. Stack them into piles based on relevance to one another, then hold the stacks together with binder clips. Whatever works for you with the supplies you have on hand. What you want to avoid is a pile of jumbled papers inside a lower desk drawer. That’s the desk equivalent of the receipt graveyard in the bottom of your purse. Don’t let that happen, because you probably won’t ever fix it.

    – Clean or dust the surface of your desk weekly. Keep whatever supplies you need in your desk. You’re more likely to do it if it’s easy and convenient. I like to do this on Fridays, because finding a cleaner desk on Monday feels nice.

    – Declutter your office supplies if you’ve been at your desk for more than a year or if you “inherited” them from someone else. Test all of your pens, markers, and highlighters.

    – Get rid of redundant supplies (except pens). If you’ve discovered you have five stacks of sticky notes, give four of them to your coworkers or put them back in the office’s general supply area.

    – Clean your keyboard, especially if you eat at your desk. It makes a bigger difference than you would expect.

    – If trying to schedule cleaning doesn’t work for you, then clean a little bit when you have free time. Have a minute or two between tasks? Put your pens back in their place, throw out any disposable cups or food wrappers, or dust the top of your computer monitor.

    – Try out the habit of putting one thing away whenever you step away from your desk.

    1. Rhymes with Mitochondria

      I do a lot of little mindless straightening projects, testing pens, etc when I am on a group conference call where I am not on video. I can listen and test pens or something. That averages 2 hours/month at my job.

    2. Sylvan

      Also, don’t fix what isn’t broken? If you can find everything in your tornado quickly and easily, don’t worry about it so much. I’m only giving advice based on the assumption that a neater space would be helpful to you. Take anything from this comment section that’s useful and ignore whatever isn’t natural or convenient for you (an unnatural, inconvenient organization system is a bad one).

  91. Rachel

    I broke down and bought heavy duty file folders (with inner tabs) that I use for work in progress paperwork. I have 8 right now that I take with me (work from home and office) along with my laptop.
    I get into the office and log into email and print what needs to be printed in 1 big pile, then put into the appropriate folders. Then I go through one a time (if needed) and process, file, reply to emails…

    Prior to this ‘system’, I was going back and forth in different companies and losing paperwork. This has become a time saver, desk organization saver and life saver for me.

  92. Cat Fan

    My desk used to be pretty messy, but then I started to clean and organize it on Friday afternoons. That’s been working for me. Maybe doing it weekly instead of monthly would work better for you.

  93. Oblique Fed

    The thing that has helped me the most for the longest is The Basket.

    Most of the paper clutter I accumulate is stuff that I either printed out for meetings or got at meetings and subsequently took notes on. So Part I is, when I get done with a meeting I try to take a few minutes to transfer my notes into the computer somehow (project management notes, a recap meeting, etc.) Then the paper goes into The Basket.

    The Basket is a regular wire basket for papers, a couple inches deep. I don’t try to file things; I’m terrible about doing it and worse at remembering a) that I filed it b) where I filed it. Everything goes in the Basket.

    If I need a paper, I get it out of the Basket, use it, then put it back on the top. This means that stuff I use stays at the top of the Basket and stuff I haven’t used sinks to the bottom.

    When the Basket gets full, I toss the bottom half.

    I have never needed something and not had it, using this system, and desk cleanup becomes easier because I can just gather up all the papers and put them in the Basket. It doesn’t require thought or much attention or a filing system. Bonus, I can’t lose stuff because there is only one intake for papers.

    I am also ADHD and this strategy also helps me at home in managing mail and other papers. No more snowdrifts of old mail on every surface!

    1. MoopySwarpet

      I love this idea! I’m totally cleaning out my basket and doing this for the non-essential-but-still-useful paper.

  94. Julie

    If the mess can be cleaned up every few weeks, than this person already has all the tools he or she needs, except a way to let go of the “but I’m so disorganized!” mentality. Whatever you’re doing every two weeks, do that twice a day (maybe right before lunch and right before going home).

  95. Delta Delta

    My desk is in my house. It looks sort of tornado-ish. It also has a cat on it. That’s a battle I know I’m not going to win. (Where are the stamps? under the cat!) I find I get the tornado when I’m either very busy, or when I’m in and out a lot. I have noticed I tend to run in, dump my stuff on the desk, and run out. I’ll second other folks who have mentioned taking 5-10 minutes at the start or end of the day to put things away.

    I also make sure I never leave the desk empty handed. My trash can is on the other side of the room. I always take any stray trash or coffee cups, etc. when I leave. I also spend a fair amount of time on hold – I try to tidy while I’m holding since there isn’t always a lot I can do during that down time.

    I am also a big fan of organizing in the way things organically organize. I organically put my stapler and pens to the right of my computer. I’m more apt to put things away if “away” is where I would naturally put them.

  96. Just Elle

    One thing I wanted to add… certain desk organizers can be great, but others just heap on the clutter. So evaluate what you really need before you go piling on the tchotchkes (yes, I had to look up how to spell that).

    For instance, I used to have a phone stand, a paper sorting tray, a mug with pens, a post it note dispenser, a little tray for push pins, etc on my desk. I always felt like my desk was so messy but really it was just cluttered with organizational stuff. I finally got rid of all the ‘organizers’ stuck my pens and everything else in my desk drawer in one large organizer. I changed one of my drawers to be temporary storage for files with plenty of blank folders, instead of the desktop thing. I just lay my phone down to the left of my keyboard.
    It take literally no extra time to open my desk drawer for a pen or push pin, and I’m finding I don’t even need to reach for those things very often anyway. Plus my desk area feels super neat and clutter free, and I actually have room to spread out and work on tasks because I don’t have ‘organizers’ in my way.
    (I do keep one pen and a pad of paper out… not in any fancy organizer, just pen neatly laid on top of the pad).

    1. Remember the Elmo

      When our office became an open space office, all the desk miscelleana (push pins, paperclips, pencils, stickies, highlighters) went into a big cabinet. Everyone cleaned out their desks. Surprisingly, nobody misses the clutter and with the exception of batteries (which we all keep in our laptop bags), there has been no office supply draught on pens, post its, sign here tags, highlighters, push pins, binder clips, etc.

  97. Elle Kay

    Hey I just want to chime in that some of this is personal preference/style! I love a 100% clean desk. (Not that I always achieve it) I put my stapler and tape dispenser in my desk. For me, since I don’t use them that often it makes sense to put them away. But this is the. weirdest. thing. to my mom. (We used to work together so she saw my desk) For her having those kinds of things on her desk makes more sense so they’re at an ease-of-access location.

    Now, yes, the biggest part of my mess is piles of “for tomorrow” stuff BUT coming to a personal understanding of what works for you is also important. Do you want a cute-colored desk organizer thing, or to-do list/post-it holder on your desk? B/c that can still be “clean” without your desk being empty. The piles of stuff are one thing but the other side to that is also to figure out your own style. :)

  98. Detective Amy Santiago

    1. Identify your office Amy Santiago (or Leslie Knope or Monica Gellar or Sheldon Cooper)
    2. Ask them if they would be willing to help you organize your desk
    3. Get out of their way
    4. Maintain the organizational system they implement

  99. Nita

    I have to keep stuff on my desk as a visual reminder to get to it, so it can sit around for a while. And then it builds up into a mess. I’ve tried to sort stuff I’m done with into folders as I go, but that system didn’t stick. What works better is having two neat stacks – one of to-do’s, the other one of stuff to be filed. I go through the second stack once every month or two, but in the meantime it’s just a big stack, not a giant mess all over my desk.

  100. Delovely Delightful Debonair

    I am not by nature a tidy desk person.
    That said, I have worked in the past at a financial institution where desks had to be cleaned off at end of day or else a write up.
    I now work in an office where it is “Open-Space” so there are no assigned desks, and desks must be cleaned off at end of day.

    If you have a tornado desk, the question is “why is it necessary to have all this stuff on your desk at end of day?”

    If it is because “I have six pending projects, these are the documents, these ares my most used files, here are my daily notes, this is my pile of stuff to send to deep filing/archive ” — Pending projects don’t need to live in piles on your desk. They should live in files in the 2nd filing drawer of your desk/cabinet. Or in files on a rack on top of your desk. Your most used files should live in the top filing drawer of your desk/cabinet. Your notes should be in the main desk drawer. And either file the stuff that needs to be deep filed or put it in a holding drawer on the bottom of your filing cabinet.

  101. Jessica Fletcher

    I recommend the blog and book Unf*ck Your Habitat. The biggest thing I took from it is to organize in small, manageable chunks. It sounds like you do that! The key might just be to do it more often, like 10 min at the end of each day.

  102. Autumnheart

    Even though I’ve been at my current job for ages, I still bear some scars from the dot-com crash. Rule number one: Don’t keep more things at your desk than will fit in one easily-carried box. Being laid off is bad enough, but it’s far worse to have to draw it out because you have to make 15 trips to your car with your giant load of stuff.

    Rule 2: If you haven’t used it in 6 months, get rid of it. Whatever it is. Bring it home, recycle it, file it, trash it, just get it out of there.

    Rule 3: Make use of organizers. I have a phone, tablet, Bluetooth headphones, and a Fitbit, and I have a charging station at my work with slots that allow me to put all my electronics in a small footprint. It’s a ton easier to deal with than having cables spread all over. Plus, it’s really nice to have all my stuff charged before my commute. You can also accrue employee goodwill if you have a spare port and cable, for the occasional colleague who forgot to charge their phone overnight.

  103. Secretary

    I’m an organized chaos person at home, but at work I’m not.
    Everything has a place, including a shelf where I keep work that I need to get done the next day. At the end of the day everything is put away where it belongs.

    If you have a place for everything, my next suggestion is to try ONE DAY where you follow this rule: If you see something that takes less than 1 minute, do it now.
    examples:
    You see 3 pens lying on your desk? Put them in the pen cup.
    You see that form you need to sign and mail? Put that in the mail.
    You see that appointment book that needs to be put back? Put it back.
    You see your water bottle that needs to be refilled? Re fill it.
    You see that post-it reminding you to log your mileage? Log it.

    Just be obsessed with this rule for one day, and see how your day changes and what habits you want to instill. The first time I did this I was amazed at how much more productive I got too.

  104. Laura H.

    I agree with the comments above saying lean towards where things sort of naturally end up and everything having a place.

    But sometimes a forced purging is necessary too- but as a last resort.

    The latter was necessary for my bedroom, but after that- I’m now able to better ascribe to my above agreements.

  105. Wantonseedstitch

    I found that a big problem contributing to my messy desk was when I would go to meetings and get agendas, handouts, etc. on paper there. I’d bring them back to my desk and not know what to do with them, so they just cluttered the place up. I realized that most of the time, it was all available electronically in an e-mail sent by the meeting organizer, so now I just recycle or shred them as appropriate. For other things that I don’t have in electronic form, I have created a bunch of file folders with fairly general headings (e.g., “Team Management,” “Database,” “Reference,” “$Major Project,” etc.). I find that having such general headings means that I don’t have to worry too much about where to put something, or go, “Oh, I don’t have a specific folder for this–I need to make one. I’ll do that later.” It means my folders aren’t all THAT organized, but just having stuff in big buckets makes it easier to find. “Oh, the instructions someone gave me on this kind of data entry? That’ll be in the database file.” And then it’ll take me two minutes to page through there and find it instead of ten to try to hunt it down in piles on my desk. Really, though, eliminating how much paper is used in meetings is a big help to everyone with this. I think that if someone is passing out handouts, it’s always worth asking, “can you make these available to the meeting attendees electronically?”

  106. Jaybeetee

    It can be hard when you’re in a job where there’s a lot of paper hitting your desk throughout the day. If you have a job like that, boxes (like, “inbox and outbox”, where new stuff or completed stuff can go so it doesn’t just randomly land on your desk) and file folders can be quite useful. At a previous job, I could have dozens of ongoing projects, which would need attention at certain timepoints/deadlines (like, “By Day 2 X needs to happen, by Day 8 Y needs to happen, by Day 15 Z needs to happen, and it must be off my desk completely by Day 30.”). I was taught early on to set up a filing system of 31 over-sized folders, and to put each item/file into the folder corresponding with the day of the month I’d have to address it again.

    Generally, Homes For Things is most helpful. Each Thing Needs A Home. Then whenever you’re finishing with The Thing, you Put It In Its Home. That way, Things shouldn’t particularly pile up that much.

    My cred for this is ADHD, and before I learned my own personal hacks, I was a pretty messy person. Also, I have an easier time motivating myself to do like, 20 minutes of chores every day than trying to force myself through hours of cleaning on the weekends, so unless I’m super-wiped out coming home from work, I try to do a couple of things around the house. The trick is to put a few minutes towards it regularly, so that you’re not staring at this huge pile one day going “I have no idea where to start, so Imma keep ignoring this!”

  107. Johan

    I recently heard or read this fantastic advice: “Don’t put it down, put it away.”

    In the moment I hadn’t realized what a remarkable difference this one little change has made in just my general tidiness in my apartment. (I used to just toss my keys here and bags there and drape various items of clothing over a chair or whatever as I came in instead of just as a routine use the same amount of energy to put it directly away.) I’m sure this would be helpful with desk items too — file it, put it in drawer, just use the same moment to put away your item when you’re done instead of putting it aside.

  108. Snow Drift

    Get an office cat. No, hear me out.

    So the only thing that ever got my ADD-saturated, squirrel-chasing husband to pick up after himself was the worry that he would injure our pets. He finally quit leaving a trail of crap behind him when I caught our Meezer eating his ponytail holder.

    So, what’s your motivation? Do you worry about the perception of your work ethic or your organization skills, losing important documents, leaking IP? Or are you just a bit envious of the neatnik the next cube over?

    You can’t change your ways if you don’t understand why you’re even trying. If you just want to stop the snide comments from Bill Lumbergh and you truly do know where everything is in your tornado, slide everything into a drawer and call it a day. If you’re resentful and resistant to tossing paperwork because you’ve been burned by having thrown out the “proof” of something, scan and archive your files. If you’ve had some close calls with deadlines or missing data, you need to actually knuckle under and plan out a more elaborate system.

    Nothing is going to work until you know what your “cat” is.

  109. Johan

    “Don’t put it down. Put it away.”

    When you are done with item, instead of putting it aside, file it, put it in the drawer, put it away.

  110. Vermonter

    I got diagnosed with ADD as an adult, started taking 40mg Strattera, and suddenly I could keep my desk organized. YMMV, obviously.

    I complained to my friend that my boss was being a hard-a** about my desk, and I said “why doesn’t he understand that organizing my desk is the hardest part of my job?” She told me that keeping tidy should absolutely not be the hardest part my job, that I do way trickier things every single day, and had I read about how ADD is underdiagnosed in (people raised as) girls? (We’re close enough that armchair diagnosing is acceptable between us.) I ended up getting tested, and suddenly my desk is clean.

  111. CDM

    My org wants certain papers we receive to be stored for 60 days before we put it in the shredder container – and the system I use works work great for all those papers you may or may not need again in the near future.

    I have 9 hanging folders labeled 1-9 in a drawer. Folder 1 also has an excel spreadsheet stapled to it showing about three years of Monday dates with the corresponding number, 1 through 9, so I don’t get off track, and so I know where to start looking for something I need to find. Add or remove folders depending on how long you want to keep things, or make it a 2 week system, or monthly. Or four files and ditch one quarterly. Whatever works for you.

    The required papers, or anything I might need again, goes into Folder 1.

    Next Monday, I move Folder 1 to the back of the line, throw everything in Folder 2 (that is over 60 days old) into the shredder bin, and start putting current papers in it. Next Monday, Folder 2 moves to the back, Folder 3 gets emptied and refilled. If I end up off a week by forgetting a Monday, I move an empty folder to the back as necessary.

    I also have a habit of putting things that can be immediately shredded into the second file in the line if I’m busy, so I don’t have to get up and that paper is immediately off my desktop and will end up in the shredder bin on Monday.

  112. Amelia Pond

    I have absolutely no idea, so I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on the comments. I have ADHD (and I’m not medicated. F*@#ing medication interactions) so it’s been a struggle for me my whole life and I hate it.

  113. Sarah

    I know everyone is saying tidy your desk at the end of the day, but honestly, when 5PM hits, I just want to go home.

    I set up an outlook task that says “Clean Desk” for Tuesday and Thursday morning, so it’s the first thing I do in the morning. This also fights the tendency for me to jump into email right away, and I can ease into my work. At this point, it’s just more of a reminder to check if the desk is a mess.

    For those who have messy computer desktops or very busy download files folder, I have a monthly reminder to go and clean up my desktop so it’s organized in one place.

    1. IT But I Can't Fix Your Printer

      The 5 PM thing doesn’t work for me but it’s a good use of time if I finish another task at, say 4:50 or 4:55 and it’s not worth it to start something else.

  114. IT But I Can't Fix Your Printer

    At home I practice “floordrobe” so that’s my credential here. What’s worked for me is having a Plan A and a Plan B for organizing. Plan A is to tidy a little bit often instead of one big cleaning periodically, having containers that are cute so I’m motivated to use them, and immediately recycling papers when I get back from meetings. Plan B is having an available drawer where I can dump stuff if needed and deal with it later.

  115. Autumnheart

    The thing that cured me from being a slob was being roommates with an absolutely epic-level walking hurricane. After a year of living surrounded by someone else’s mess, I find my stress levels start rising if things get more than mildly cluttered.

    I also have ADHD, so I do an incredible amount of mental labor around cleaning and planning to clean, but it really is easier for me to manage my daily life if things are straightened up and put away properly.

  116. Let's Get Some Shoes

    I’m a bit of a chaos muppet by nature.
    Here’s a few things that help (I have a VERY tidy work desk)

    – Everything has a place it lives. I have a fair amount of little storage containers in my drawers and two on my desk top for ephemera, which helps prevent a wave of nail files, chap sticks and lotions from taking over my drawers and desktop

    – Have a filing system that doesn’t make your life miserable if you have a ton of paperwork. If it’s too complicated, you won’t do it.

    -Checklists. Include a tidying step on your checklist!

    – Have set times to tidy (depending on what makes sens for you- I tidy for 2-3 minutes at the end of every day and before every chocolate teapot supplier meeting- so that ends up being about 10 times a week for a few minutes at a time)

  117. Celaena Sardothien

    Fellow “organized messy person” here. The best advice is I can give is to spend five minutes at the end of every day just putting things in their place and tidying up. When you do it every day like that, you can stay on top of it and get it done quickly.

    The other thing is to look at the stuff on your desk to see if there’s anything you can get rid of so you don’t have to work about it. I looked at my desk once to realize I had two mugs full of pens when I only need one. So I got rid of the second one and that’s no longer a problem.

    I am chronically messy though, so that’s about all I got.

  118. MissDisplaced

    I like to do this end of day while the computer powers down. If you want a longer-term solution, I’d suggest folders and file folios to tame the paper and mesh trays or magazines holders to hold the folders. Likewise, if you have a drawer, it helps to put stuff in it.
    I also try to simplify not bring a lot of stuff into work, like all those tchotchke things.

  119. SuspectedDragon

    Fellow messy person here who has trained herself to keep her work space fairly neat. My house is another matter, but here are my basic rules for my desk:

    #1 – don’t worry about the mess while I’m working. I generally have multiple projects going at once, and there’s no way to keep it looking pretty while I’m in the middle of it. I take 5-10 minutes at the end of my day to put things away, neaten the piles, straighten up all the sticky notes, etc. This is also a nice way to look busy at the end of the day when you don’t want to do anything else.

    #2 – prioritize functionality over aesthetic. Filing everything away in the cabinet or desk drawer certainly looks better, but that system always falls apart for me. Keeping a tiered file holder on the corner of my desk might not be as pretty, but it keeps everything neatly stored where I can see and access it. Find what works for you, and don’t worry about whether or not it’s Pinterest worthy. (also a good tip for housekeeping, though I’m not quite there yet)

    #3 – weekly cleaning (or bi-weekly, as the schedule permits). Slow Friday afternoon? Time to clear off the entire desk to dust. Then I sort through all the stuff that has accumulated and see if it actually needs to be on my desk, or if it can be put away. I also dust my monitors, clean the chip crumbs out of my keyboard, and so on.

    And, ultimately, forgive myself for when I’m not as neat as my office mate (who is a genuine, grade A organized person). As long as all the confidential information is locked up, I’m getting my work done, and my space isn’t gross, it doesn’t matter in the end.

  120. Mr. Darcy's Wench

    These comments are fascinating and super-helpful BUT my scenario may well be hopeless. I have been a paper junkie for years and don’t see any hope.
    Context: I teach AP Lit and Comp to 176 kids who ALL TURN IN THEIR WORK which means multiple papers for multiple kids pretty much all the time. (The test itself is still resolutely paper-pen, so we have to practice for it and do written work in that vein to build stamina.) I have an L-shaped desk covered in their work, and a long counter along the back wall also covered in their work (more in display mode) and if I dare throw anything out they get emotional. (“But I wrote that extra thing for youuuuuuuuu!”)
    And that’s not my only role here, and all of the ancillary responsibilities are paper-intensive, too.
    I feel personally responsible for destroying the rain forest.
    My boss likes an immaculate desk, but it’s just not possible. He also would like everything to be digital but in AP world that is also not possible. So I bribe him with Starbucks and hope for the best.

    1. WafflesForPresident

      Can you change the format so your students turn in papers via email? You can mark up the paper even just in word with comments, etc, save it as a PDF, and email it back to your student.

      Also for the more sentimental papers can you scan them into a network drive and recycle the physical copy?

      Best of luck!

      1. Mr. Darcy's Wench

        Thanks and I do scan what I can. The problem is that they have to hand-write three essays in two hours for the exam, so their in-class essays have to imitate that format. It’s a lot of paper.
        Great ideas, though! Thanks for the feedback!

        (We do use an online grading program for longer essays. It’s the timed writings that kill me.)

        1. A Non E. Mouse

          Thanks and I do scan what I can. The problem is that they have to hand-write three essays in two hours for the exam, so their in-class essays have to imitate that format. It’s a lot of paper.
          Great ideas, though! Thanks for the feedback!

          (We do use an online grading program for longer essays. It’s the timed writings that kill me.)

          Do *they * have physical access to the scanner? I realize they might not, but if they do, could you (when you return papers with grades) then allow them to scan in the document, copying both your email address and yours for the send?

          I realize I am assuming you can scan-to-email, but if you can and they have physical access…you could shift this work to them.

          I’d also highly recommend creating a second email address for this, if you can within your district policy. You could then search by email address to find all of that student’s papers, if they scanned them in. PLUS they’d have a scanned copy in their own email, in case they needed it for the future.

          They can then toss the paper, keep the paper, whatever. You can keep a display, but only of their latest paper or something like that. Maybe really great quotes from papers, instead of the whole paper itself?

          1. Mr. Darcy's Wench

            This is a brilliant idea and I am meeting with admin today to see what we can do.

            And this is yet another reason I love Ask a Manager–great ideas from the commentariat! Thank you!

    2. Argh!

      I’m a little disturbed by the display that the kids won’t let you discard from. When your next class starts up can you just not do that? They are too old for pictures on their teacher’s refrigerator.

    3. Koala dreams

      Do you never return the graded papers to the students? That is what my teachers used to do. Also, can you require the students to write their homework in a homework notebook (one each)? That won’t save any paper, but it will help to keep it organized. I found it helpful as a student, since I could go back in my notebook and see the different grades I got for different assignments. Sadly I only had one teacher use this system, the other teachers wanted one document at a time, and then I would lose them after I got them back.

    4. lurker bee

      Do you have enough space to get one file crate for each class period, and letter-size hanging folders and tabs? First or second day of class, have each student LEGIBLY write name on tab and slide into the little plastic thing. If you have first period use first slot position, second period use second slot position and so on, you’ll be able to spot stray hanging folders at a glance.

      Also consider having students have an in-class composition book to write in. You mention practice longhand tests; maybe those could be written in the comp books, too? Anyway, I’d have them take notes in there, write briefer essays and such. It was a handy way to see development over the span of a semester or year, for both them and me. Those books can live stacked up on a bookshelf or two.

      1. Scandinavian Summer Visitor

        Off topic, but thank you for teaching these AP classes. Both my sons took APLAC and APLit, and I am in awe of these courses. My 18 year old starting writing poetry and taking photographs to illustrate his work due to APLit, just as creative expression. AP classes are amazing!

  121. WafflesForPresident

    Admittedly I’m that obnoxiously tidy person. Everything is at right angles and Marie Kondo is my idol.

    There are a lot of good suggestions in the comments!

    My recommendation is don’t be afraid to purge old documents. I understand some organizations rely on paper more than others. Luckily my current position is mostly digital so I have very few physical documents. If you don’t have that luxury, try digitizing and archiving old papers. You can keep active or recent paper work in a physical format but once it’s “done” scan it into a network drive. Of course check with your supervisors to ensure this is ok. An added benefit is that other people can access documents from their computers without having to go to your desk!

    1. furloughed fed

      I hate when people leave the organization and don’t clean out their hoard. I hope the self-described messy folks clean out their desks, cabinets, and file cabinets when they leave. Clean up your electronic mess too.

  122. Messy

    Messy desk is a sign that you’re working hard. Don’t worry about it.

    As long as you can find things you need easily, it’s all good.

  123. Atomic Cowgirl

    Hey there OP! I’m an adult with ADHD, and clutter has long been both my nemesis and constant companion. When my last promotion came with a much larger office complete with meeting table and very nice desk, I decided that I would need to become much better at keeping my workspace neat. It’s not easy to do for me. I’m not a neatnik by any stretch of the imagination, but with my ADHD I do find that a less cluttered environment makes me feel so much better mentally.
    Every night before I leave for the day, I straighten my desk. I put everything back where it’s supposed to go. I have a basket for work in progress that doesn’t have to be kept locked up, anything outstanding is put in that basket. I put any papers that aren’t needed (sticky notes I took on the phone, notepad sheets I’ve scribbled on and don’t need any more, etc) and put them in my paper recycling box, throw away any trash and generally put everything away. It takes about 10 minutes a day, but if I don’t do it, my desk quickly ends up looking like a disaster. I keep a feather duster and some pledge wipes in a drawer, and once a week I remove everything from the surface and wipe it off. I’ve occasionally let this routine slip, but I’m trying very hard to keep doing it until it becomes more of an automatic habit for myself.

    Keeping my office looking professional is important for me not only because of my position at work but also for my own mental health.

    Best of luck to you in your quest for neatness!

  124. Serin

    I used to assume that people with messy desks were just sloppy. Then I worked with a boss whose office looked like Vikings had ransacked a print shop, but if I asked her for anything at all — “do you still have the samples from that artist that we decided not to do an article on back in July, the one who did maps that looked like watercolors?” — she could find it instantly. I’m a filer, myself, and I was stunned by this, but she said, “My memory isn’t verbal, it’s visual.”

    If that’s you, but you need to make your space look neat to people who don’t have visual memories:

    – I second the advice to straighten up your stacks and set them at right angles.
    – Stackable in/out boxes are good for storing things out in the open, but categorized and out of the way.
    – Do a search on “storage for artists” and you’ll find more options for storing things flat and visible but not all over all your working surfaces.

  125. GS

    My space was really messy last year and is better this year. I ended up losing some invoices that someone had dropped on my desk (!), so I really had to up my game. Some of what I did:
    -a lot of my mess was notes to myself or things I had to remember to do “soon”. I got a big desktop calendar (the kind you can scribble on) and a spiral bound notebook and a big corkboard. I scribbled notes on the appropriate days of the calendar or in the notebook instead of on loose pieces of paper, if it was something I’d need to reference often it went on the corkboard. The corkboard has some “stacks” on it of similar-type items (like one tack holding five phone number lists) but at least they’re not lying on my desk.
    -now that I have the big calendar on my desktop I clear it off regularly so I can see what’s on the calendar
    -I used to try to keep things to file in a couple different piles by type, but now I keep everything that needs to be filed in one big pile. It takes a couple extra seconds when filing but keeps my desk messier.
    -If any references can be saved as a file instead of as paper I do that; I used to keep a lot of reference papers but now I pay the extra minute to look up the file for anything that won’t fit in a small bookshelf or on my pegboard.
    -I do a visual sweep before I go out the door of my office and think, “if someone put an extra paper on top would I notice?”. Often this leads me to square off a pile of papers, combine 2 piles, or make a pile of loose things right before I go out the door.
    -I put a cardboard box beside my desk (don’t need to stand to access it) for recycling so there’s no time disincentive for me to get rid of something.

  126. Lilysparrow

    One rule of thumb that helps me with tidying in general, is to make things easier to put away than they are to get out.

    My natural tendency as a distracted and messy person, is to want to be able to see what I have going on, and to resist putting ongoing projects away because they aren’t finished yet! So I default to making things very easy to access, while putting them away is complicated and requires a lot of decisions (Is it complete? How will I know what needs to be done with it? How will I know when to look at it again? How will I know where to find it?)

    But of course, that’s a false efficiency. When everything is piled up, it’s harder to find things, not easier. More things get forgotten. And trying to keep that mental map of where everything is, burns a lot more mental bandwidth than you (we) realize.

    The hack that helps is to consciously reverse the order. You make some decisions in advance about how to containerize and label things that aren’t finished, how to notate where you’re leaving off (for example, I stick a postit on the top page in the file that lists the next step), and what type of reminders you’re going to use to prompt you to pull it back out and follow up. Containerize everything in a “pending” or “tickler” file. Then when you leave off from one task, you can just shut the file and stick it in the “pending” spot.

    I’m a big fan of vertical sorters, especially the kind where you can stash things by date. Then you have a physical reminder when the day comes of what you need to do when. Of course, not everyone’s workflow is cued by dates, but you can apply whatever sorting system works – priority, name/topic, or whatever.

    Retrieving the thing you need to work on takes, like 30 seconds of thinking and looking. But it winds up much easier in the aggregate. And your space is tidier and calmer.

    1. Lilysparrow

      Oh, and one tip I got from a YouTube channel I like called “Clutterbug” (home-oriented, not work, but some of the same principles apply):

      Visible clutter is often a result of invisible clutter. If your drawers and cabinets are too stuffed to get things in & out easily, or there’s just no space to make “a place for everything,” that means you need to purge. It helped me a lot, because as I said, a lot of my problem with tidying is the decision-making. And if there’s a complicated game of Tetris standing between me and tidy, tidy goes by the wayside.

  127. I'd Rather Not Say

    Take a walk around the Container Store, Office Depot, or even Home Goods and look at the various organizing supplies. Find boxes, file organizers, and other supplies that will motivate you to organize, then set aside a regular time to maintain it.

  128. LaDeeDa

    Going paperless as much as possible has helped, but I still find my virtual filing can get pretty untidy! I spent the last day before the holiday vacation recognizing my shared drive as well as my desktop files.
    For physical things, I organize very similar to the way I did when I was in school- projects (classes in school) each have their own color. So, for example, all my physical files for Project X are in blue file folders and my notebook for meeting notes is also blue. This helps to make putting things away or grabbing the right thing go much quicker.
    That’s all I got!!
    My worst is my email- I am so bad about creating email folders and saving things any place but my inbox! Maybe this should be a goal for 2019!

  129. LaDeeDa

    For those with ADHD or any type of executive dysfunction- do a Google searches for “executive dysfunction work organization” You will find some really great resources and tools to help you. Even if you don’t have ADHD or executive dysfunction (or have a teen) the tips can really help!

  130. Rose

    1) Instead of 30 minutes every few weeks, try 10 minutes per day. 2) Pitch what you have an electronic copy of. 3) Practice minimalism because it’s easy to file file file and end up with a bunch of papers you’ll never need to refer to again.

  131. RissaCW

    I currently have a boss who insists on a clean desk at all times and I am naturally a very messy desk person. This is not actually about being really super organized, its more about as you say, not looking like a tornado hit. Here are the things that have helped me:

    1.) Have lots of file folders (you can hide all manner of mess by using folders instead of piles).
    2.) Have a “using this right now” folder (I just use plain file folders). I put anything that I will probably have to grab soon in that file folder because I know that if I have multiple folders for my current stuff, it will just end up laying all over the desk. Once a week or so I take a look and pull out anything that I don’t need anymore/won’t need for a while.
    3.) Similar to my “using this right now” folder, I also use labels that make sense to me, but are not necessarily project names or something that specific. They might be as simple as “April 2018” or “Miscellaneous 2019.” This way, when someone asks for something rather than rifling through stuff on my desk, I am grabbing a folder and it looks organized even if its not really any more organized than the desk pile.

  132. Ben H

    I have a personal time management rule that helps me keep my desk clear:

    First, my schedule is broken up into blocks, and I keep myself scheduled for weeks out.

    I use these blocks to carve out when I’ll handle different aspects of my workload so that I can adjust my week around external factors that I have no control over. I’m at the executive level, so rarely do my days match.

    I carve my day into halves, and at the end of each half, I have a 30-minute block for handling miscellaneous work and at the end of each Friday is an extended 2-hour block for the same purpose. I have a fluctuating block time each week for handling repetitive tasks, like managing A/P. There’s a scattering of planned meetings, travel commitments, rounds to check on my staff, and so on. Major projects get scheduled as if they were a meeting, or series of meetings so that I make sure I’m treating them with an appropriate level of commitment.

    I also “plan” for meetings throughout the week so I can drop someone on my schedule at a moment’s notice. If the meeting goes unused, I can then pull one of these other blocks into that time.

    If something hits my desk and I can take care of it in:
    – under a minute, I do it then.
    – under 5 minutes, after my current task
    – under 15 minutes, at my next misc block
    – under 30 minutes, I try to work on it during my shorter misc blocks, or it hits my Friday block.
    – more than 30 minutes and it gets a specific slot scheduled for it

    Tasks under 5 minutes stay on my desktop to work on throughout the day and go into my inbox at the end of the day. Then I have a separate folder for 15 minute and 30 minutes to keep those items separated and filed away. Longer tasks get a specific filer, and I sort in schedule order, I record the estimated work time and due date on my calendar in case I need to bump items for newer tasks.

    I prefer a calendar rather than a task list, as it lets me drag and drop items and visually see what time I have available throughout the week.

    Doing this keeps my desktop clear and keeps me from ever needing to play catch-up. If I don’t fill my Friday misc block, I leave early! :)

    Other tips:

    If it’s not yours to handle, get it to the correct person ASAP.

    It’s best to handle organization like this as broad as possible. If you get too specific you can end up spending too much time organizing rather than working or potentially large swaths of time that you have no plan to use efficiently. Example: Don’t give yourself 5-minute blocks for specific tasks every day.

    Stick to your schedule or it becomes pointless.

    If you’re at the supervisory level or higher:

    Make sure your staff is continuously upskilling so that they may handle more of their workload on their own.

    Don’t be afraid to delegate. If you can reasonably instruct a junior staff member to handle something, you should. Plus, you hamper your employees’ professional growth if you never expose them to new things.

    Resist the temptation to do something for a staffer that is struggling, rather than training them to handle it appropriately. This training can and should be delegated.

  133. E.J.

    I know it’s trendy right now, but with that in mind I recommend one aspect of Marie Kondo’s organizing ethos which is to simplify your organization. Your system needs to work so that you won’t be overwhelmed by filing and putting stuff back. Try having one container for all of your pens, another basket for office supplies and a pared down filing system and then commit to “re-setting” your desk at the end of the day. Having fewer obstacles to a state of organization makes it more likely to get done.

  134. Lisa

    This is kind of a band-aid fix, but honestly it works for me. I used to reserve the bottom drawer of my desk for “junk that would normally be on top of my desk.” I’d just throw stuff in there, and then every few weeks, clean up the drawer. I think it worked for me because it’s not actually trying to work against my tornado nature; it’s just channeling that tornado energy in a way that not everyone can see.

  135. A Very Smart Airhead

    I confess I didn’t read the whole thread (it’s huge already!) but since I struggle with this mightily, I figured I’d add my two cents. My husband literally has called me a tornado, btw. I laughed when I saw this post title.

    For context, I’m salaried and exempt, and this method isn’t a huge deal for me because I don’t have kids to go pick up or anything like that.

    I schedule my work days slightly long, and I block out my calendar at the beginning and the end. The balance is I stay a little past when others leave, so I “work” a little longer than 8 hours most days (I don’t presume I can just work 6 hours every day because I need an hour before and after work to keep my head and desk straight!). I put “work” in quotes because I almost think of this as I need to do this to prep to work. If I need to look nice for important meetings, I don’t call fixing my hair nicer than usual “work” so I guess I think of organizing myself along the same lines. I HAVE to set aside time at the end of the day to tie up loose ends, put things away, etc. I almost always make sure to completely shut down my computer and put things away. It takes concentrated effort and it still gets out of hand sometimes, but overall this has helped a lot. I got super tired of being embarrassed anytime someone came into my office!

    It may also be worth noting that I can pull that schedule stuff because I work in a pretty flexible environment and I also have legitimately diagnosed ADHD, so I can play the disability card if someone thinks I’m being weird about my schedule. But honestly, nobody has ever mentioned it. If this is just run of the mill messiness for you versus an executive functioning issue, and your boss is reasonable, I think it’s still worth worth saying, “I have some trouble staying organized and tidy, and it’s really helpful if I can take the last 15 (30, 60, whatever) minutes every day to focus on putting away my projects, tying up loose ends of the things I was working on, etc. It helps me be best prepared when I come in the next day. Will that be ok with you?” It’s particularly effective if you can be flexible and not overly rigid about this if something comes up.

    I also have several sorting baskets so that I don’t just have piles of paper everywhere.
    Beyond that… well, I need to make time to read this thread because I’ll bet I can use some of the tips. ;-) Best of luck!

  136. The Happy Intern

    Depending on what the mess is and how well you can keep yourself to using certain tools, a little can go a long way! Instead of using sticky notes, start keeping a small notebook that you can jot things down and cross off as they’re finished – it’ll save a flurry of little papers from building up on certain areas and that alone can go a long way! Or instead of a notebook, starting making a to-do list on your phone so no paper is ever involved! For actual documents, maybe invest in a file folder system or an accordion file and make sure you stick with it so there’s never more papers on your desk than what you’re actually using. Lastly, those little organizational boxes and cups actually work for keeping stray office supplies from being spread out! The key to any sort of maintenance of organization though is to actually hold yourself to it – after a week or two though it’ll become habit and you won’t even think twice!

    And if none of these work for you, if your desk has drawers sweeping everything in haphazardly will always make your desk look neater! As for functionality… that’s a different story.

  137. GreenDoor

    My colleague had one of those “in” baskets on her desk. At the end of the day, she’d scoop up all her papers/folders, plop them into the basket and plop the basket in her drawer. It gave hte appearance of a clean desk at the end of the day but also gave her the convenience of having all her pending work corralled into one basket. I kind of do the same – I have three folders in different colors that I’ll randomly shove my stuff in at the end of the day. It looks like my work is color coded and tidy, but really it’s like throwing a rug over the dirt pile.

    I also find that washing my coffee mug & keeping on it’s own little placemat…putting my pens all in a jar….and keeping my shoes neatly lined up under the desk make smy area look that much cleaner than it actually is. Also, taking all your desktop items and simply lining them up is a great way to “clean” without cleaning.

  138. Argh!

    I’m the same way. I have managed over time to manage my issues through self reflection, acceptance, and a few organizational tricks.

    Are you someone who has to see things to feel a connection to them? That’s how I am. I use paper sorters and open-top brochure holders for the things I need to keep on hand. Current projects do live on my desk. I keep a small notepad with a to-do list in front of my CPU (which is rather large). Sticky notes and scraps of paper go underneath it. That way it looks neat but I can keep using these little pieces of paper for phone numbers & messages etc. I also have sticky-notes on the front of my CPU and along the bottom of my screen. I may or may not need them for as long as they’re there, but I do go through them to pull things off or put them under the pad once or twice a week.

    The last hour of the work week is clean-up hour. I have an Outlook reminder for it, and it’s set for an hour before that so I can wind up whatever I’m doing at the time. Then when the time comes, I turn off Outlook. YES! I TURN OFF OUTLOOK!

    If nobody happens to be around, I switch from headphones to speaker, put on fun music, and go through whatever piled up over the week. I have a notebook for current meeting notes, but I sometimes forget it, or there are hand-outs at the meeting. During that hour I update the notebook as I find stuff that needs hole-punching. At the same time, I add things to the to-do list.

    I also have a to-do pile, since piles of visible stuff really does work better for me. I alternate landscape and portrait orientation for piles of projects that are half-done or just starting, and the most urgent one goes on top. The pile is never more than 4 inches tall – if it were there’d be a bigger problem than messiness and a visual orientation). So my “organized” but slightly messy desk includes: a pile of big papers, a pile of small papers under a notepad, and an old-fashioned 3-level paper sorter. I have other stuff in upright magazine/brochure holders on a bookshelf. This leaves the center of my desk clean.

    I also have a few decorations. I would rate myself about halfway between the neat-as-a-pin minimalist offices (inhabited by demented & diagnosable yet obnoxiously smug jerks who look down on people like us) and the hoarded up disorganized offices of people who can never find anything, never return messages, yet always seem frantically working away but never catching up because they spend too much time looking for things.

    The key thing is: is your desk functional? Are your work habits working for you? If not, do something about it. If not, don’t worry about it unless it’s in a client-facing area where other workers’ desks are also visible, and then just devise a system that looks neat but is designed specifically for your brain, not for someone else’s.

    That’s my 2 cents. I hope it helps.

  139. Chrysanthemum's The Word

    I don’t have a need for it in my current position but I used to work in an environment that had daily deadlines. I developed I system for daily folders for my action items. There were 5 folders in a holder on their desk where I could sort and prioritize items that needed action on whatever particular day of the week they needed attention. My daily routine would be to see if there was anything from the prior day still left in that folder, take whatever action if needed or re-sort it into what day may now be appropriate and then move on to today’s file.

    In order for me to be successful I need to be able to see clearly what work I need to do whether that be in files that are in my line of sight on my desk or in my email inbox. Without those visual reminders I get lost.

    I still use a file sorter on my desk but I organize my files by categories of work (pending offers, projects, etc.) since I have more long-term deadlines

  140. Alianora

    This method is specific to receipts, but it could probably be modified to fit different types of paper documents. Essentially, digitize everything and use naming conventions that make things easy to find.

    I used to handle all the financial transactions for my (former) department, so I had a constant stream of receipts and other paperwork coming in. The first couple weeks I definitely had the desk tornado going.

    I got a file folder divided into five sections and labeled them according to the type of transaction (ie, reimbursement versus company card). As soon as I got a paper receipt, I would write the important contextual details on it and scan it. People would also email me their receipts sometimes, which I encouraged to reduce paper. The goal was to have all receipts in one folder on my computer, instead of some physical, some scanned, and some emailed.

    Then I would file the paper copy until the transaction was approved, and discard it afterwards unless company policy required that I keep it for X amount of time. (I still kept all receipts in digital form, just liked to get rid of the paper copies.)

  141. Red 5

    It can be hard, but there’s a couple things that really help me.

    1-Don’t actually let most things into your space in the first place. Don’t print stuff out unless you absolutely have to, don’t even let junk mail get close to your desk. If your office doesn’t have a recycling bin next to the mailboxes, get one put there (or put it there yourself) and just drop stuff straight in it by sorting your mail at the box.

    2-In the same vein, be brutally honest with yourself about “someday” items. Catalogues you might want to look through? Are you actually going to? Journals that you subscribe to because sometimes they have stuff you sometimes get to read? Go digital if you can, but really, you probably don’t need to keep them.

    3-Don’t spend 30 minutes cleaning every few weeks. Spend 5-10 minutes cleaning at the end of every day.

    This last one is the big one and it’s the one everybody pushes back against and if you’re not ready for that, then you’re not ready for a clean desk, and that’s fine if that’s what you want but it seems like it isn’t how you want to be. This is the kicker, it’s the most important part of it.

    At the end of your work day, you spend five minutes clearing your desk. Make it non-negotiable in your schedule. Decide what items are permanent fixtures on your desk (they should be items you use every single day, like say your calendar you reference while you work, or maybe the notepad you take notes on throughout the day). At most of my offices I don’t even leave a stapler on my desk because I only used it once a month or so, but you don’t have to be so severe if you’ve got the space to spare (I usually don’t).

    The other thing I usually do is have a drawer that’s usually the top drawer that I keep predominantly empty.

    There are days my five minute cleaning is going through every scrap of paper I’ve collected and deciding to keep or recycle it. There are days where I just pile it up and dump it in the drawer and spend five minutes the next morning going through the pile as I take things out to get started on my day.

    End each day with a clean desk, which means that you start the next day with a clean desk. Which is also a clean slate for planning and mental processes.

    I’ve also done two things to handle long term papers with the same kind of idea. One is a very small hanging file folder box (container store sells pretty cheap ones) with just a couple hanging folders that I can cycle through what’s in them. In a project based job it’s easy to make the labels for the projects that are still pending, but you could do it with say “next week” and “two weeks out” or something like that. I prefer hanging file folder boxes just because of the smaller footprint, I know people who have folders laid out on their desk, that just isn’t the way I prefer doing things but it’s the same idea.

    What I’m doing now since I don’t have space for even a box on my desk is three ring binders. I have one at work and at home, with dividers in them that have sections that make it easy for me to find what I need. Once a month I go through the binder to make sure everything that’s expired or got missed as I filed things gets put where it goes, etc. It’s a bit of a pain to punch holes in everything but you get used to it, plus you start thinking more about “do I even really need to keep this anymore?” when the act of keeping it takes a little bit of effort.

    I swear, it sounds like a lot, and like a lot of work, but it is so much less work than it sounds like and it’s incredibly rewarding when it comes to helping me deal with ADHD and a hectic workplace. It’s a bit more effort up front sometimes to get in the swing and figure out the system, but as you go you figure out what’s the most useful for you and you develop habits that enable the cleaning up process to go faster. Eventually it becomes a small blip in your work day that has a lot of benefit in saved time/effort over the course of the rest of the day.

    But I really do start and end each work day with a few minutes of organizing. Sorting my emails into folders, going through my planner to make a fresh to-do list (sometimes with the previous one as a guide, sometimes not) in the morning. Cleaning off the desk in the evening. Most people I know that have adopted similar strategies have realized that their mental state of “it’s a disaster but I know exactly where everything is” wasn’t actually true, and was costing them more time/effort in their day than they realized and the few minutes of bookended organization plus a tidier mindset was much more beneficial.

  142. Snickerdoodle

    I got this one! (*waves hand Hermione Granger-style*)

    I get a TON of comments on how organized I am, but I didn’t start out that way. When I was a kid, I struggled with keeping track of my homework in school, so my dad taught me to arrange all my books in the order the subjects were taught throughout the day and to keep papers in the binder rings so they couldn’t fall out.

    Around the same time period, I read a magazine article for preteens called “Ten Ways to Save Ten Minutes Fast” or some such, and the biggest help to me was the tip “Take ten seconds at the end of every class to make sure you wrote down your homework and remembered your books before you head to your next class.” This is a great idea to translate to work when you need to remember what you need for a meeting, etc.

    Here are the main ways I stay organized, both at home and at work:

    – Use check lists and to-do lists. I keep a planner because writing things down helps me to remember better than entering it into my phone. I color code my grocery list (green for produce, blue for dairy, etc.—it’s much easier than it probably sounds) and planner for extra visibility (blue for doctor’s appointments, green for sporting events, etc.). You can get fun stickers for calendars and so on. Color coding notes also works on different items at work. Color-coded labeled folders make categorizing paperwork a cinch.
    – The age-old saying “A place for everything, and everything in its place” is famous for a reason. Put into practice, that expression for me works like “Always put items away as soon as you are done using them, not ‘I’ll get to it in a minute’ because the next minute, something else comes up and your unused stuff is still lying out, etc.” If something needs to be put away, don’t set it down until you have put it away. I use this rule at work and at home and consequently almost never lose anything, and everything is tidy.
    – I do not have a junk drawer. The reason why is in the name. Items either have a proper space or else I don’t need them.
    – On a related note, I refuse to sweep everything into a drawer just to keep the desktop tidy because all that does is relocate the mess. It’s still there. No bandaids. It’s so much easier to just take a brief moment then and there to put it where it belongs than shove it aside, hunt for it later, etc.
    – Shelf dividers and a label maker are your friends if you have a lot of different papers/folders to sort. Keep items you need the most within easy reach and rarely-used items in less accessible spaces.
    – I prioritize my day according to which tasks need to be completed first and put them in the to-be-done order in my inbox. I have exact systems that work best for me for each task and have created checklists tacked to my cube wall for each task type.

    OP, you mentioned cleanup days. I don’t have cleanup days because I clean as I go throughout the day. This is also true at home; I put dirty dishes in the dishwasher as soon as I’m done with them and assign chores to given weekdays (changing or postponing a day or two as my schedule demands). You can do something similar at work if possible; e.g. “Work on project X Monday, project Y Tuesday, meetings Wednesday,” etc.

    Everyone’s talking about Marie Kondo these days. That vertical folding trick of hers is great, but I didn’t get much more from her than that because I long ago learned to discard items I didn’t actually like that much or never used anymore or realistically never would. I’m not sure how well that translates to your workspace when you may not be able to discard a lot of files, but you might discover old files you no longer need, etc. You could watch an episode or two of her Netflix show for ideas. I can’t watch her Netflix show without clapping my hand to my mouth in horror and hitching my blanket up around my ears because I abhor clutter so, but if you’re looking for ideas on organization, a couple of those episodes might be a good starting point.
    Much more so than Marie Kondo, though, the book that I found tremendously useful—if a bit dated by today’s standards—was Getting Organized, by Stephanie Winston. There was a trick in that book about cleaning a room in five-foot-by-five-foot blocks rather than tackling the whole room at once. That could also be a good idea when tidying a workspace, though I think the KonMarie method of sorting each category individually is probably more practical.

    Also, the Container Store has some really great solutions. You don’t have to drop your whole paycheck there of course; you can peruse the site for ideas and go from there.

    Anyway, that’s the gist of how I stay tidy. Immediacy in tidying rather than procrastinating is the only real trick, I think, after making sure that everything has a proper place in the first place.

    And yes, I can fold a fitted sheet perfectly. :-D

  143. John

    Take this with a grain of salt, since I’m someone whose relationship with cleaning and tidying is unhealthy enough that I’m seeking therapy for it:

    The first step is to determine *why* your desk, once clean, becomes untidy again. Are you working long enough hours that by the end of it, you’re just too exhausted to straighten up what you used that day? Are you constantly called away from your desk in the middle of things, and unable to get recentered once you return?

    Once you know why this happens, you can try to work in routines that work for you that accommodate your schedule and needs. For me, it worked well to come into work a few minutes early each day and tidy up before the day started. I know people who block off a half hour in their schedule at the end of the week and make it part of the mental and emotional cleansing before the weekend.

    The thing to keep in mind is that general advice given about cleaning and tidying is just that – general. Your life and work has circumstances unique to you and it that impact your ability to create and maintain a workspace that is as clean as you want it to be, and any method or routine that does not consider those unique circumstances is likely to be difficult and/or fail.

    I also found the general advice in “Unfuck Your Habitat” to be particularly useful to me in creating my own approach to cleaning without marathons – it seemed to consider my personal traumas around cleaning and tidying more than other books on the topic, and if you find yourself in a “marathon followed by weeks of nothing” pattern of cleaning (even if that marathon is only 30 minutes), it may be useful to you too.

  144. Cat Meow

    I used to be this way and it is embarrassing and can make you look less professional than what you really are – so now I clean it up a few times a week and it’s really helped my productivity and confidence

  145. Jack Brown

    Hi! I am not the most organized person, but I stay ahead of the hurricane as follows:

    1. places for everything. I have a 6×6 cubicle and I keep a filing cabinet in here on top of all the cabinets and drawers that are built in. My working files are alphabetical by business name, and as a rule I never have more than 2 out at a time. Otherwise they’re alphabetical in either the file or my briefcase (if I’m taking them home).

    2. more places for everything! the things on my desk are immediate office tools (stapler, computer, dock, tape, adding machine, hole punch) and a storage boxes and a caddy for smaller supplies and Post-It Notes. And a fan, because Florida.

    3. a bulletin or magnet board. fan out the stuff you regularly need to use as references in plain sight but off the desk. if you don’t have a wall, a rolling file cabinet can double as a magnet board.

    4. decide what else can be on the desk in advance. Ok, I can have two files and my planner, so if I need to get out a third file, one has to be put away.

  146. Daisy Avalin

    I work in retail, so no desk as such, but I spend the first ten minutes of my shift tidying around the tills & making sure that the only paperwork and equipment out is what I need for my shift, and then the last ten minutes filling in paperwork/putting my equipment away and making sure the equipment is there for the next person. I’m usually doing it alongside filling in required checklists for the shift, so to me it’s just another thing on my mental checklist!

  147. Chaotic Neutral

    Speaking as one who is both ADD and chronically disorganized- things that helped me get organized were 1) Label everything. everything. 2) Color code- and have a key for it written down so you stick to it. 3) Start organizing by putting things where you tend to look for them. Always open your left drawer looking for a pen? Boom that’s where all your pens goes now. Make a label. 4) Anything you use frequently keep in plain sight. This doesn’t have to be messy! I got a clear acrylic box at IKEA for my pens, hi-lighters, clips, post-its, etc. I can sweep my desk in there to quickly tidy, but because the box is clear I can always find everything. 5) did I mention labels? For documents I give them ridiculously specific labels. Example: Town State Lease for Address Name Date or Paper Title Teacher Class Date or Pictures from specific date location. That way I only need to remember one thing to search for the document, and don’t need to open anything to check the contents. 6) just commit to spending 5 minutes every day to straightening up your space. 7) accept that it will never be perfect and THAT’S OKAY.

  148. ER

    Don’t clean your desk every week. That turns it into a Project.

    Instead, form a habit of cleaning your desk every day, so stuff doesn’t pile up:
    1. Get a ton of hanging file folders, an absolute TON (and a cabinet or frame if you don’t have it) and use them.
    2. Tidy a little bit EVERY TIME you stand up. If you go to refill your water bottle, put away something you’re not working on at the moment. If go to the bathroom, straighten your stapler and tape dispenser.
    3. Reset your desk at the end of every day. Wrap up your actual work a few minutes before it’s time to leave, then get your desk looking the way you like it. It won’t take long because you also cleaned throughout the work day.
    4. Put it away, not down.

    I’m not the neatest person at home, but my desk looks good and a lot of the habits are starting to carry over.

  149. jcarnall

    I never had a tidy desk until I began a job share – I was working two and a half days a week and my job share partner was also working two and a half days, at the same desk.

    Suddenly, I found that pressure of absolute necessity – to get everything tidily and findably stacked on my in-tray or filed in my drawer at the end of every working day, so that my jobshare partner could use her desk – let me be tidy and organised.

    Of course when I left the job and had a desk of my own again, it became tornado-hit within a few days and I only tidied up every week or two.

    It’s not really a “secret”. If you get into the way of tidying everything up at the end of every work day, your desk stays tidy and organised. But, I’m only able to do that when I have to: otherwise, I’m a classic leave papers where they lay person.

  150. KyCo

    I am the same way! I have found that committing 5 minutes a day before I leave is the key to maintaining it. I often don’t even need 5 minutes, but carving out a few minutes every day really helps stay on top of things. I had to get in the habit of forcing myself to do it but it’s worth it. I also stay late on Fridays and tidy/sort/organize/clean whatever I need to because it’s so nice to come in to a clean workspace on Monday.

    I’m a teacher and put a “this desk has been clean for X days” sign above my desk. The kids love busting me when it gets too messy and I lose all my days. Nothing like 120 14 year olds to keep you accountable.

  151. chickaletta

    My desk is super tidy. Here are my tips:
    – Everything has a place. If you have a filing system, use it daily. If you don’t have a filing system then make one por dios de todos subo lo cielo!
    – Toss everything right away that doesn’t need to be kept. By right away, I mean in that moment. If you can’t physically get to a trash bin/shred bin, at least toss it that day. If it needs to be kept (for compliance purposes, record keeping, etc), see if you can scan it and then toss the paper copy. If a paper copy must be kept, this is what the filing system is for.
    – If there are other things clogging up your desk – post-its, snacks, drinks, knick knacks, thank you cards, corporate swag, books, folders, etc – use the file/toss system on these as well. Throw food/drink or take it home daily.
    – ****Use your desktop for current work projects only****. Trash goes in the trash bin. Knick-knacks go on a shelf/bookcase. Items left on your desk are true work-in-progress items that will be atteneded to within a day, maybe 1-2 weeks at most depending on your job.
    – Do a quick visual sweep of your desk about half an hour before you leave at the end of the day. This is a great time to see if you forgot to do something. Leave your desk in a zen state so when you arrive the next morning you can get started on that day’s tasks in peace.

  152. Margaret

    My desk has three drawers in it. The bottom is a filing cabinet where things are organized. The next drawer up is junk, and the drawer on top of that is loose papers in a state of chaos.

    I absolutely know that my desk is going to be total mayhem, but what I can control is being disciplined about confining my natural predilection to have random nonsense flying around to being out of sight. I swung it open just now and it contains a hole punch, moisturizer, earplugs, a water bottle, a roll of toilet paper, hair product, tea, oral rehydration salts, three teaspoons, a bottle of cranberry capsules, two pairs of broken headphones, a brooch, a whiteboard marker that I definitely accidentally stole from somewhere, and a couple of internet cables.

    About once a week I try to sort the thing out; move the papers into their real home, return the teaspoons and whiteboard markers, get some stuff into my bag to take it home, throw out the broken headphones.

    I work in an area of the office where senior leadership frequently walks through, too, so I make sure my coworkers know the system and can fling things into the right drawers during the day if I’m away from my desk and they need to get the place looking neat in an emergency.

  153. tangerineRose

    I have found that if I identify areas of procrastination and think up a way to deal with it that isn’t a pain, that usually helps. For example, at home I have a spot for things I want to take upstairs. Also, I have a file that’s for “stuff that needs to be filed”. This gets too much sometimes, but usually it helps.

  154. nnn

    What I find works best for me is to look at where things (especially frequently-used items) end up naturally, and define that as Where They Live. Then I figure out a way to make them look neat/tidy/put away in the place where they live, rather than trying to summon up the self-discipline to put it back where it’s “supposed to” be based on general social norms.

    For example, I always end up doing my nails at my desk in my home office, multi-tasking it with various computer activities. So I decided that my manicure stuff lives on my desk. I got a little box from the dollar store to put it in, and when I’m done my manicure I put it back in the box and tuck the box between the monitor and the printer.

    It’s far easier to get myself to go that than to get myself to take it back to the bedroom or bathroom, only to have to retrieve it again next time I do my manicure.

  155. Enginerd

    Don’t fight it embrace it! I read somewhere it’s there sign of a creative mind. I tried for years to keep an orderly desk but it was too difficult to find anything after it was clean and too stressful trying to maintain it.

  156. Shannon

    Some people are naturally better at this, so I think accepting to what degree you can function with a bit of mess is important. My husband and I have conflicting levels of mess/clutter. I can’t handle it and he can’t really “see” clutter as much. It makes our home office sharing lots of fun.

    A couple of things…making small amounts of time every day definitely helps. I put away what I won’t need tomorrow at the end of the day, it kind of coordinates with my to-do list, which I also make at the end of the day for the next day. It’s a routine. It’s not perfect, and sometimes I miss the routine for some reason, but it helps to know the last 10 minutes of my day are typically set aside for this and I’m also set for the next day. Also, pay attention to the way your brain works for a filing system. You’re more likely to use a system you’re comfortable with and naturally inclined to, not a system someone pushes on you.

    And, I’m not trying to cross a line by saying this, but sometimes people who suffer from more anxiety or ADD have a little bit of chaos/messy inclination. I’m not a doctor, I’ve just anecdotally seen this…and then when they treat the anxiety, the mess/chaos cleans up a little. It’s like the brain was quieted/decluttered first and then it translated to their external environment. Or, the “mess” seemed overwhelming and too much to deal with and then after treating, it doesn’t feel like such a big hill to climb.

  157. Lissa

    I am a naturally messy person who loves neatness and it is THE WORST. I’m a waitress so I can’t speak to the work side of this, but I can say that the only way I’m able to maintain any level of cleanliness at home is to make it part of my daily routine. That means taking a minute every single day to clear my desk, wipe down the kitchen counter, clear off the nightstand and dining table, and check for random crap lying on various other surfaces. Every. Single. Day. Do I enjoy this? No. But doing it every day is the only way I can do it.

    Maybe spending the last 5-10 minutes of your work day tidying up and sorting/filing/managing whatever is on your desk would help manage the chaos?

  158. Jo

    CONTAINERS.

    Containers, containers containers.

    I am a messy person by nature. And my desk at work has no drawers. But having small containers to group similar things together helps me to pass for tidy and organised. I have a cup for pens, a little cardboard cube that has other random stationery (ruler, stapler post-its etc) and a small bowl that has my hand sanitiser, hand cream and lip balm. Some time in the afternoon I usually notice that my desk is strewn with everything I’ve used that day. And it takes 30 seconds to put everything back in its container and my desk is magically clear and tidy again.

  159. Tallulah in the Sky

    Former total slob here, I’m gonna repeat what many people already said : clean up a bit at the end of each day. It’s not rocket science, it’s not something impossible to do, it’s just a habit to create. Sloppiness is not in your dna, it’s not something that people are born with, it’s the little habits that one does or doesn’t acquire in life (for many people at least, I’m not talking about people with mental health issues here).

    So put an alarm on your phone at the end of your day (like, if you leave work at 17h, put an alarm at 16h55 or 17h) to remind you to take a minute to clean up a bit (and it really only takes a minute or two if you do it regularly). After a while, it will become second nature to do it. Seriously, it’s a pain to start and remind yourself to do it, but at some point (and quite quickly even), it stops being a chore and starts just being something you do.

    Additional tip : give everything a home. It sounds so stupid, and so cliché, but if your things have a place to go, you won’t waste time or mental power to know where to put it. “A place for everything, everything in its place” seriously changed my appartement. I stopped putting things down randomly because I just didn’t know where to put them. Again, once you know where something needs to be, it stops being a chore putting things away, you start putting them away automatically because you don’t even have to think anymore about it. It becomes a reflex, a habit.

    These are things that helped me at least, hopefully it’s useful to someone else :-)

  160. Monkey Puzzle

    What I used to do when I cleaned my desk was to take whatever papers were there, and mix them in with the F5 tornado mess on a coworker’s desk. He didn’t pick up on it until he finally cleaned his desk, several months later.

  161. Nicole

    Can you take a few minutes each day to do some tidying so it becomes a daily ritual? Maybe the first 10 minutes after lunch? Or for 5 minutes every time you use the restroom?

  162. architeuthis

    I was a total organisational disaster until I moved into the World Smallest Bedroom(tm) and had to learn to tidy up or drown in my own possessions. What saved me was a super simple rule: “a place for everything, and everything in its place”. Now how you decide what goes in what place, how you group things, etc depends on you and your workspace, but each item or type of items has one place that is its home ALWAYS. When it’s time to straighten up, it takes 98% of the brainwork out of it, because you don’t need to question “when am I going to use this again? where will I put it away? how will I find it again?” because you KNOW that your stapler goes there, and bills go in this folder, and on and on. And once you actually have a desk to repopulate with items, you can find them again easily because you know where its home is. Once cleaning up is easier, it’s so much quicker and less of a hassle for me, so I don’t mind just putting things away on Fridays before going home, or clearing a workspace before I start a big project.
    Admittedly, none of my experience involves giant mountains of paperwork to go through regularly, but this technique has helped me immensely in my personal and professional lives (especially when I lived out of a suitcase in a microscopic hotel room for 3 weeks!). It’s so so basic, but I hope it can help somebody else.

  163. Penny

    Bins! Bins, baskets, anything that can sort the mess. Not too many, that gets in the way and counter-productive, but organizing the *stuff* helps organize the brain. Label them if you have to, dedicate some for small things, one for paper, one for snacks, whatever it is that’s cluttering up your life but that might even set you on a path to cleaning or throwing away things you find you don’t need in the first place.

  164. Quinalla

    I’m a (mostly) recovered organized pile mess of a desk person. They only thing that helped me is having a place to put everything including creating a reference file for stuff I wanted to save, but had no immediate use, and a vertical stack for papers I wanted handy, but wasn’t using right that second. My desk will still get a bit messy when I’m really, really busy, but I clean it once a week(ish) when I go through all my to-do lists so it stays in a good state now. It isn’t spotless, but usually there is a stack in my in-tray, a small stack of what I’m working on currently and a few work “tools” that may not be back in their spots. So much better than it used to be!

  165. Brianna

    I straighten up everyday at the end of the day. I’m not saying things are super tidy, but I make it a point to straighten up before I leave. I’m an accountant so I’ll “deep clean” my desk when month end is over and file all of the reports at that time.

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