How do you keep your desk organized?
October 5, 2004 2:23 PM   Subscribe

How do you keep your desk organized?

I have a run-of-the-mill office job, and my desk always looks like its trashed, and despite my best efforts. Every couple of months, I spend the whole day filing and/or trashing all of the paper that has built up over time. My job performance is not affected by this, and I can always find whatever I need, but I’ve developed a bit of a reputation.

What “systems” have you used, and which would you recommend to someone buried under a mound of paperwork?
posted by grateful to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
(I have this problem on my desk at home, too.)
posted by grateful at 2:24 PM on October 5, 2004

Ditto! At home and at work, as well.
posted by stoneegg21 at 2:40 PM on October 5, 2004

posted by luriete at 2:48 PM on October 5, 2004

I would say the one important rule in any system you adopt is "put it back the moment you are finished with it." Make sure everything has it's own place and do not stray from that.

Based on your work, you might file papers by client, say in hanging file folders. Or maybe things have to be by date or task. Doesn't matter, as long as you are consistent.

When I buy organizer items (file racks, carts, etc.), I make sure I have an idea of what every slot/bin/etc. will be used for. I'll immediately label them, too. Otherwise, they just become crap containers.

For example, at my home office, my power cords were all dumped into 1 box. Things got tangled up pretty badly. So, I put every cord in its own baggie, labeled the bag, then dropped the bag in one of several storage bins (peripherals, computer power, USB). No more mess.

Paperwork is the same way - grouped by client, then dropped in a "current" or "archived" drawer.

The secret for me was hitting a critical mass of storage containers. 1 bin or 1 folder didn't do it for me - I need a ton of them to keep organized.
posted by Sangre Azul at 2:52 PM on October 5, 2004

Sorry to skite, but I never have a problem with paperwork building up. Basically I subscribe to the 'do it now' school of organisation - I deal with each piece of paper as I handle it. I file everything either as I finish with it, or at the end of each day, and I trash everything that I think I can live without.

Is that any help at all?
posted by different at 2:53 PM on October 5, 2004

Use the floor ;)
posted by carter at 2:53 PM on October 5, 2004

i'm an attorney, doing criminal appellate work, so nearly everything i handle is hardcopy court files or cases and large reference books. i have adapted the "handle every piece of paper only once" philosophy. the day something comes into my office for the first time, it gets filed. it stays in its files in the cabinet unless i am working on it, and when i stop working on it (for the day or until the next stage in proceedings), it goes back in its file and into the cabinet.

distribution of recent opinions/legislative bulletins go into their folder until the designated day of the week when i read them. then they either get filed into the proper "for future reference" folder in the filing cabinet or get tossed in the recycle bin.

emails are the only place my system falls apart. i try to answer, delete or put emails their respective folders within 24 hours, but i don't always do so. largely because i get stymied by personal emails or email requests for assistance on a particular issue. i can't usually get back to those right away, but then they sit in the in box, taunting me and throwing me off track. oh.the.horror.

nothing sits in my in box overnight. i leave nothing out on the desk top overnight. i find the filing/disposing of any given bit of paper to be much easier if it's done the first time i encounter the particular piece of paper.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:56 PM on October 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

I had drafted a long response, but different said it much more nicely and succinctly.
posted by mnology at 2:57 PM on October 5, 2004

I clean off my desk every Friday before I leave for the weekend. It makes me feel like I am "done" for the week, plus coming in to a clean desk on Monday helps keep me calm.
posted by Coffeemate at 3:23 PM on October 5, 2004

I do the once a week major clean-up thing and the "try to touch everything only once" thing. I share a desk at my job, so I pretty much have to at least keep it mostly clean. I have a box where the important don't-lose-this stuff goes, a calendar where anything that is an appointment/meeting gets written down, a piece of paper that is each day's To Do list and a box for just filing stuff. I have files that are pretty much Deep Storage. All the actual in and out work goes on in my nobox where I have folders labeled To Do, Storage, Research &c. Anything in the inbox is an open task and I try to keep it down to 4 or 5 things if at all possible.
posted by jessamyn at 3:44 PM on October 5, 2004

I also throw away/recycle everything that I don't absolutely need at work.
posted by jessamyn at 3:45 PM on October 5, 2004

10 minutes of cleaning up/filing a day (probably an underestimate for some of the tidiness freaks I've come across) is the equivalent of about one full work day every ten weeks. I'm sure there a jobs where the mess is detrimental, but if not then the day every couple of months or so is effectively a wash. If, like me, you can put off the day's cleaning for six months then you are way ahead on time!

Mess = efficiency, QED.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 3:51 PM on October 5, 2004

how do you guys deal with this at home, though? you see an ad in the newspaper for an event or sale so you trim it out, then what do you do with it to remind yourself? or things that you want to look into?

I think my problem is I'm an out of sight out of mind person. I started folders for "things to look into" "things to do right away" but I don't think to ever look in them. so then stuff starts piling on top of the desk again.

Anyone ever overcome this? How? How did you figure out what you need when organizing? This is the hardest for me, esp. with stuff like the garage. I don't know what kind of storage I need until things pile up (first house and starting with nothing). At least that's how I feel.
posted by evening at 4:53 PM on October 5, 2004

evening - one thing that may help is simply knowing what types of storage and organizational products are available for a given problem.

If it's office type stuff, go to Office Depot or the like and just see what they have. Or one of the many organization-type chain stores (like The Container Store) or hardware stores for closet/garage items, etc.

It's far easier to come up with solutions when you see a bunch of options sitting in front of you than it is to stare at your mess and wonder.

However it's also easier said than done - if you looked at my home or office desks right now you would probably be appalled...
posted by pitchblende at 5:17 PM on October 5, 2004

I am currently enthralled by Dave Allen's Getting Things Done. (Current fave GTD site: 43 Folders).

In a nutshell:
- get yourself an in-tray, a filing cabinet, a labeller and a calendar.
- everything, and I mean everything, that needs processing goes in your intray. If said thing is a physical object that is too large, write a note on a sheet of paper to represent it.
- once everything you can see that bugs you is in the tray, do a braindump of things on your mind into the tray, writing each item on a piece of paper.
- process the in tray one item at a time.

With each item:
- is it actionable?
- if no, either file it in a labelled file, or throw it away
- if yes:
-- describe the successful outcome
-- ask what the next action you can do is that will advance you towards that outcome
-- if you can do that next action in less than two minutes, do it
-- if it's someone else's job, delegate it
-- if it needs to be scheduled (ie it's a meeting or appointment) put it on your calendar.
-- if it's deferred but does not have a definite date, put it on a "next actions" list

If you have nothing to do, take an item off your next actions list.

Repeat the exercise ad lib throughout the day.

And so it goes. It is amazing to have everything under control. There's a little more to it, to manage projects (things that have more than one action) and higher-level goals, but the

So to come back to your original question, I use GTD. I have an in-pile, I have a file drawer, and I have a large waste-paper basket. And I have the same set up at home.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:30 PM on October 5, 2004 [2 favorites]

Age piles. ie: let it all pile up on my desk, and place it in the next filing folder in my desk drawer. Also, if you're looking for something, you try to remember about when it was and dig in the pile at that point.

Yeah, ok, so that isn't that helpful. SOSUMI. It works for me.
posted by shepd at 12:40 AM on October 6, 2004

My desk is always trashed. Everything else is organized chaos. I try to keep the pile on my desk thinner than an inch, but it can almost always just be thrown out without more than a glance, as it's usually old to-do lists and the like.

Other than that ... I'm in sales, and we have a very long sell cycle. I have four parts to my filing systems to keep me on top of things.

Here's the basics:
The basic element is the client file. Each client file has a "contact information" file with phone numbers and a contact history in it.

Filing systems:
1) Before a client becomes a client, all they have is a contact information manilla folder. This stays in the Prospects drawer so that I can keep track of who's who and acceess my history with them at a moment's notice.
2) Once the client gives us an opportunity to work on a project, they get a hanging file folder and get moved to the actives file drawer.
3) Then a manilla file folder for the specific project, such as "Fall Catalog" gets created and goes in the "funnel", which are projects that are currently in the estimate/bid/order process somewhere. I usually need to access this information in ten seconds or less, so the physical manifestation of this 'funnel' is a large rack on top of the file cabinet that I can reach by spinny my chair around.
4) To help the funnel along, I keep all of my orders w/ their order #'s up on the whiteboard until I've called the customer and confirmed that they received their product and everything is hunky-dory. That way, if one of my production plants calls, I can access the basic order details (customer name, order #, expected ship date, customer need by date) just by glancing up at the board.

Two keys for me with filing and organizing systems: 1) They have to be a physical manifestation of a concept. (My "pool" of prospects, my "Funnel", etc.) 2) They have to be visible and remind me of what I've got going on ... out of sight is out of mind.

If you're a naturally messy person, I would reccomend AGAINST an in-bin. I have two of them, they never get cleaned out. In fact, I try to keep from having bins at all. If something is sitting in the middle of the table I need to deal with it, and it gets dealt with and cleared off. If it's in a bin, it's "put away" somewhere in my subconscious and I never deal with it.

As far as email goes, everything gets received into my inbox and I clean it out except for things that I need to answer or handle the next morning, which gives me a decen to-do list.
posted by SpecialK at 11:45 AM on October 6, 2004

SpecialK - My work can't be distilled to a single process, as such, but I'm intrigued by the "physical manifestation" concept. I, too, have an inbox that I use as a miniature filing cabinet...

Great suggestions, all. Keep 'em coming.
posted by grateful at 12:11 PM on October 6, 2004

This is not an answer but a new question: do you even want to organize your desk? (from someone who has piles of stuff everywhere he looks . . . although it is a home office, and thus not shared w/ anyone) Messy Desk = Ordered Mind. (p.s., you're not alone)
posted by LeLiLo at 12:50 PM on October 6, 2004

actually, I've found the best method is what you already do. I let stuff pile up for a few months, then throw everything in a bag and sort and throw stuff away. Desk is now clean and organized. Works pretty well for me -- I guess I need to work on that.
posted by bob sarabia at 12:51 PM on October 6, 2004

That's a good point. Maybe what I need is a better response to the criticism I get. What do you say to people (incl, SO) who tell you that you should really clean up your desk?
posted by grateful at 1:49 PM on October 6, 2004

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