How Tidy People Organize Their Desks in Under 10 Minutes

messy desk


Most of us spend at least part of our workday deep in a digital black hole, wading through our inboxes, or scrolling through Google search results. We know our way around because there’s a logic to the chaos. We can track down that email we sent last year to so-and-so in Accounting eventually, and the Notes app on our phone might be a little messy, but hey, there’s a search bar for that.

What many of us don’t do quite so well? Keeping our physical workspaces tidy. Call it paperwork creep or sheer sloppiness, the point is this: a clean desk may be a happy desk, but boy, oh boy, is it difficult to keep it that way.

The powers that be decided that today, January 14th, is National Clean Off Your Desk Day, and so we figured it’s the ideal time to talk about a new organization strategy—and the tricks that separate tidy colleagues from the rest of us.

Why not make this the year you join them on the other (sparkly clean) side? Here’s how to get your desk in order in 10 minutes or less.

Step 1: Split the Mess into Three Piles

Much like David Allen’s method for organizing an inbox into clear buckets (which you should learn, by the way), you can use a similar approach to organizing all the detritus you’ve acquired in your desk drawers in the last few months…or years.

To get started, plan for three piles:

  • Pile one = Trash. You don’t need these things, period.
  • Pile two = Save. You definitely need these things, period.
  • Pile three = Unsure. This pile will include items like the stapler you can’t remember using or the business cards you’ve been meaning to add to your contacts.

Once you’ve divided the contents of your desk, get rid of the trash pile immediately. Set the “Unsure” pile off to the side, ideally in a box on the floor so that it’s not in your way while you organize. As for the “Save” pile…

Step 2: Organize Your Essentials by Category and Priority

It may seem obvious that you should put all your desk supplies in one drawer, but how many times have you found yourself wading through all those loose paper clips just to find a pen?

Instead, think about the items you use daily. If you’re a serious Post-It scribbler, place those in the drawer closest to your writing hand along with your favorite pens and maybe the notepad you find yourself using several times an hour.

Work your way down, putting the items that you use the least frequently in the lowest drawers and/or the drawer farthest from your main work area.

Try your best to avoid leaving anything on your desk with the exception of the following: pens can stay in eyesight as long as they have a container to hold them (no loose pens rolling around, please!), and you may also want to keep your planner or desk calendar out if—and this is key—you use it regularly. If your planner is more like a “quick peek on Monday morning” type situation, it can go in one of the top priority drawers instead.

The fewer items on your desk, the cleaner it will look and feel. It also means fewer visual distractions, so you’ll be able to concentrate harder and longer.

Step 3: Centralize and Stash Important Paperwork

There will be some paper trails (tax info, insurance and employment paperwork, etc.) that you most likely look at only once a year—if ever. Still, you’ve got to keep them.

Designate a drawer in your desk specifically for all those essentials and use it. During this initial 10-minute organization, just stack everything neatly in there. Before you finish today, though, set yourself a calendar date to go through it all and organize and label according to type—Friday afternoons directly before your workweek ends are ideal.

Step 4: Consolidate or Digitize All Other Paper Stuff—And Trash What’s Left

So, back to those loose receipts and business cards. If you need to turn in physical receipts to your HR department for expenses, grab an empty envelope or file folder, stat. Place all those paper receipts in it, making sure to paperclip related ones together. Post-Its help, too, if you want to remind yourself which receipts correlate with that Q4 work trip or recent fundraising event.If you don’t need to turn in receipts, download an app to help you track them digitally, so you can rid your desk of them. I’ve used Wave and QuickBooks Self-Employed at different points and had great results with each, but here’s a great roundup of receipt apps to explore as well.

Same goes with business cards—add people to your contacts list manually or scan the business cards with an app (Evernote offers a great business card scanning feature) to file away for later review.

Step 5: Give Everything a Wipe Down

Now that you’ve cleaned off your desktop and drawers, it’s time to clean clean. The great thing about desks is that all this usually takes is a paper towel or two and a couple cheap supplies. It’s shocking how well Windex works in almost every desk-related situation. Another fun hack: using glasses cleaner and cloth to de-fingeprint-smudge your computer screen.

Step 6: Get a Plant

Yes, you just spent the last few minutes clearing everything off your desk, and yes, I did say earlier that minimal desks feel cleaner, but here’s the thing: studies show that plants make you more productive. And now that you’re a tidy person with a perfectly organized desk set-up, you suddenly love the idea of getting more work done.

Step 7: Set a “Desk Chore Day”…

Remember when you were a kid and your mom made you use one of those chore calendars? Saturdays were for bedrooms, Sundays were for bathrooms… Well, try a simplified version of her method by committing right here and now to assigning one day a week when you’ll repeat the actions you’ve just taken to maintain your new clean desk situation. Again, Friday afternoons before you leave for the week are great for this. Even if this means leaving a few minutes late, leave with a clean desk.

Step 8: …And Commit to Cleaning Off Your Desk Every Day Before You Leave

Don’t underestimate the beauty that is a spotless desk each morning. From here on out, never let yourself leave for the day without tidying up your desk. Dump out your personal trash bin, wipe off any dust or paper scraps, straighten your keyboard. Your tomorrow morning self will thank you.