I have a messy desk. Help me with better ideas.
December 30, 2011 8:24 AM   Subscribe

I have a messy desk. Please help with suggestions/ideas on how to make a better arrangement.

Here is a photo my desk at home in it's unstraightened glory. I have shelves, but don't use them a lot, except the bins where I keep my running & cycling accessories. Things tend to pile up on the desk rather than making their way to shelves.

How do you organize your desk at home? I'd love to see pictures of how you handle the endless flow of items and paper that crosses your desk.

I'm looking for ideas and concepts that my straight line, sharp corner, engineer mind doesn't come to naturally.
posted by Argyle to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If it were me - a person who infamously collects clutter on desks - I would remove EVERYTHING from the room and find a place that it can be piled for a few days. Then you can rearrange the room if you like and imagine what sorts of things you actually want in your desk area. On another day you can go through the clutter and see what things need to go back to the desk, what things need to leave the house, and what things need to find a new place in the house.
posted by jander03 at 8:41 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I second jander... It's very hard to unclear clutter if you continuing evaluate from a cluttered position. Remove everything like if you were moving and then take another moment to see if that object really needs to come back or be discarded. Of course additionally it could come back in a different form as well.

Those cables for example... cable management systems are all over the web. For example monoprice

The boxes for software you have... Do you really need the whole box still? I sometimes keep them to use as small boxes for receipts... but for software itself? Just a CD rack and maybe some way to store CD keys is all that is really necessary, right?

But first things first, remove everything! New Year's cleaning for you!
posted by Bodrik at 8:52 AM on December 30, 2011

Best answer: Dude, part of the problem with your really messy desk is that you're treating the really messy desk as a closet. Bags, pliers, boxes, biking bits and cords do not in fact belong on your desk. I suspect this is less of a desk issue and more of a broader storage issue.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:54 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You don't have enough room between the desk and shelves for all of the things in your photo. That's your first problem. You're trying to put 40 arbitrary units of stuff into 20 au of space.

Second, I agree with everyone else that you cannot organize clutter. Remove everything. Find a home for the most important thing (computer, monitor, etc). Next find a home for the next thing. And so on. Eventually, you will hit the point where you realize my first point is correct. Put up more shelves, get some under bed storage or, god forbid, get rid of things.

Once you're done with all of this (and it will take an afternoon to do it right, think about how often you use something and in what manner, walk through it), label everything. Everything has a home. If you acquire something, the first think you think when you walk in the door should be "what is this item's home?" (I'd argue that you should answer that before you acquire something, but people call me ... "extreme".)

The idea that you're a straight line thinking engineer doesn't conflict with this. Where each item goes and how important things are and how often you use them and how important it is that you get to it immediately, quickly or with a bit of work is one big optimization problem. (Life is an optimization problem.)
posted by Brian Puccio at 9:01 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Spend 15 minutes, 2x per day, looking for 22 things to throw away. Leave everything else and really stop after 15 minutes each time. Do this for 3 days.

Don't introduce anything new during this time.

After 3 days, you should be able to make sense out of what's left.

For the next 3 days, take those 2 15-minute sessions and remove 22 things that don't belong on your desk. Put them away.

After 3 days of that, organize what's left-- the stuff that belongs.

From now on, spend 15 minutes at the end of each day throwing away, putting away and neatening up.

Every time you leave a room --with spend 5 minutes tidying up.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:14 AM on December 30, 2011

Best answer: If you can, replace the shelves on top with a closed shelving system. Not being able to see clutter is a huge plus. Nothing attracts a crowd of stuff like more stuff. If you can't do this, I still think you'd benefit from putting everything into storage bins that fit on the shelves.

Start with a couple of piles:

1) Things you use daily

2) Things you use at least once every two weeks

3) Things you use rarely

Go to IKEA or a storage place and get a bunch of storage boxes.

Get some bigger storage boxes for the things you use rarely. Organize as best you can with these, but pack them away and put them in a closet, or a basement if you've got access to one.

For the items you use once every two weeks, you can put them on the bottom of your hopefully closed shelf. Get some smaller storage containers (IKEA has some tins, or translucent plastic ones that should work) for these items. It would help to know what you're going to put in these, to really help with organizing them, but at least they're in a container you can just pull out when you need access to them.

For the items you use daily - I would still put most of these away in the shelves. On your desk, remove everything but your computer stuff, and speakers. Get a Desk Organizer (I prefer one where the envelope divider has no back, so longer items can fit there fine) One of the envelope sections will be for incoming stuff, the other for stuff you'll need to reference in the next week or two. Keep ONE post-it note pad, and a few pens and pencils in the organizer. Some scissors too. Maybe you have some other tools you need here too, but you really don't need more than one or two pens, a highlighter, and a pencil, I imagine. Ideally you' want to just have your computer and your desk organizer on the desk.

Get a filing cabinet and keep it close to the desk. When something comes in, it goes into the first section of the desk organizer if you can't get to it just then. Once you've acted on it, file it immediately (this is why having the cabinet nearby is essential). I organize all my bills by when service and when they come in, and I move them out of the filing folder and into storage boxes at the end of every year, so I'm dealing with an essentially empty cabinet every January.

It looks like you may have a printer - if you can, tuck this away in a closet, or get a separate stand for it (it might fit nicely on the filing cabinet, and you can store any necessary supplies for it inside the cabinet.

I'd guess all of the top shelf of your cabinet, most of the second, and probably a good portion of the first could be stored in a storage bin and put elsewhere in your place.

For cable management, get something like this organizer from IKEA. Hopefully it'll work with your desk, otherwise there are alternatives.

Unless you're planning on moving soon, and think you'll need them - ditch any boxes you're saving from routers, or other computer devices. File the manuals in your filing cabinet, along with the receipt and you should be fine.
posted by backwards guitar at 10:08 AM on December 30, 2011

Best answer: Good advice here. I'll just add a few more suggestions:

1. You clearly have too much stuff for your space. Consider getting rid of much of it. Do you really, truly need those notebooks? The food? The toys?

2. Aim to go paperless. Scan whatever you really need (I do this with receipts and paycheck stubs) into your computer and then toss or shred the paper.

3. In and Out boxes are great organizers going forward. In the "in" box goes all things to be done like work projects, bills, letters to be answered, whatever. Clear that regularly. Touch everything in it once, to deal with it. In the "out" box goes what needs to be filed or shredded or otherwise taken somewhere else. (There is also my favorite path, from the in box into the trash.) Clear that regularly too.
posted by bearwife at 11:35 AM on December 30, 2011

Best answer: Check out Lifehacker's Flickr pool called "Workspace Show and Tell".
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:49 AM on December 30, 2011

Best answer: Great advice here! Here's my two cents:

Paper organizing has always been my downfall when it comes to keeping my desk clean. (And while I'm glad that it works for some people, there's no way I'm going to spend time and energy digitizing receipts, student loan notices, pay stubs, and the like.) This is the method I've been using for a few years, with surprising success.

1. Gather all the loose papers you have around. Sort them into categories that seem useful and not overly-fiddly. In my case, I have "student loan paperwork," "pay stubs," "tax returns," "other documentation for taxes," "personal letters/cards/artwork," and a few others.

2. Now this is key: Set up these piles somewhere, maybe labeled so you don't forget which is which. Live with these piles for a few weeks. Every time a new piece of paper crosses your desk, put it onto the relevant pile. You may find that you need a few more piles, or that you can consolidate some. The point is to see how you actually need to be organized, rather than get caught up in idealistic tidying.

3. I have a very traditional boring way of dealing with these categories - each one gets a labeled hanging folder, and into my black wire mesh filing cabinet they go. I use paper clips to group last years' anythings (e.g. 2010 pay-stubs are now paperclipped together; receipts from conference trip are paperclipped).

The best part is that my desk stays tidier when I can easily find paper without having to take out multiple folders or dismantle piles.


Addressing incoming paper is another piece of the clean-desk puzzle. My lazy default with new paper is to drop it on the desk and walk away, so every piece of mail I get is another potential item of desk clutter. I try to keep that lazy pile to one small wooden tray, which I force myself to empty once it's full (about 10 business envelopes, or a smaller amount of bigger stuff).

I add new categories whenever I notice I have lots of new items that don't quite fit. (Sometimes the wooden tray is overflowing for this reason, not just my usual laziness.)

YMMV of course. And I'm a librarian, so maybe this whole categorizing thing comes easier to me than most normal folks. :)
posted by brackish.line at 12:05 PM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for pointing out the obvious, I don't need a better way to store the stuff, I need to get the stuff away from my desk. I was pretty focused on packing more stuff in.

I appreciate your help! Any other ideas welcome.
posted by Argyle at 2:23 PM on December 30, 2011

My first thought upon seeing the pic was: You need a bigger desk. Then follow the advice above, much of which is great.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:17 PM on December 30, 2011

How do you organize your desk at home? I'd love to see pictures of how you handle the endless flow of items and paper that crosses your desk.

Previously... Mine is not there, for the record. But after I hit "Post Answer" I will again poke around and enjoy myself some desk p*rn.

Before I do that, I'm going to invite DarlingBri to come over here and sit on the sofa by me. You have stuff there that doesn't belong on your desk. You have a lot of postponed decisions.

I have shelves, but don't use them a lot
Means that stuff can be packed away, or disposed of. If you don't use or reach for it regularly, it doesn't need to be there. That's prime real estate, and that stuff isn't paying the rent. Give yourself a deadline for items with "potential", and find an out of the way place for out of date items. Use a checklist and a calendar - make it a task. Or, take everything off and put it on the floor and give yourself a deadline. As you use an item, put it on an empty shelf. When you reach your deadline, then either store of dispose of the items remaining on the floor.

...except the bins where I keep my running & cycling accessories.
Which, if you do use them a lot, need to be where you would normally reach for them.

Things tend to pile up on the desk rather than making their way to shelves.

Because the shelves are full of things you don't use. See?

Seriously, the shelves are about half an hour of quick decision making, sorting into three piles - Trash, Act On Within a Short Time or Store Where It Belongs. Since items also seem to be piled near your knees, can you make your more inactive items go into file box (or two or three) out of your line of sight, and keep your shelves and desk for items only in current use? You're obviously very visual, and I am both a person who makes piles and a horizontal organizer myself - but you also seem to have a blind spot toward items that you probably meant to deal with later on. And, as I often say "The longer it sits, the more it looks like furniture." Put on some music that gets you going, make it fun, and aim to power through it for fifteen minutes, or three good songs, or whatever. You'll make the space you need for things you use in a short time.

As well, something I once heard or read about is that pieces of furniture and various items tend to stay where they're placed when people first move into their homes - whether or not that really works. It is entirely possible that if your cycling items and other things are there, and you use them regularly and that's convenient, that it's your desk that's in the wrong place. Look at your traffic patterns - don't just consider that because your outlets are there that that's where your desk goes. Maybe your desk has become the "landing strip" for a lot of items because it's the landing strip. Your desk might do better somewhere else, where it is placed so that it only accommodates what you need to do there? Separate and conquer!
posted by peagood at 7:34 PM on December 30, 2011

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