When I was a student, I used to regularly make my desk a thing of stark beauty.
I’d gather up the contents of the desktop and drawers, lay everything out on the floor in my room and attempt to organize it in to some sort of order.
Largely, this method of working was successful.
For about 15 minutes. :)
Inevitably, I’d soon end up dumping stuff back on my desk again because (a) I didn’t know where else to put it, and (b) it looked neater there than it did on the floor.
And do you know what?
Looking back on those years, I’m sure it affected the way I felt about working; in fact, I know it did.
When I saw a messy desk, knowing I had to wade through a bunch of files, folders and papers to find what I needed, or to create some space in which to actually do some work... well, let's just say it gave me another reason not to.
Some people -- and I’m one of them -- just do better when their work environment is appealing as opposed to appalling.
If your desk is where you do a good percentage of your work, and you want to focus more on what you want to do and free your mind up for creative productivity, then maybe keeping a clean desk is the answer.
But there’s a difference between a clean desk and a constantly clean desk.
And that’s what I want to focus on now.
These days the people I work with continually comment on the state of my workspace.
“How do you manage to keep it like that all the time?” is the usual line.
Of course, I don’t keep it spotless every second of the day. The only way to do that would be to do no work.
Actually, that’s not a bad idea...
But it is usually neat and organized. In fact it’s unusually neat and organized.
Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Get a clean desk
If yours is piled high with a mountain of mess, it’s because you’ve either been away from it, been too busy to deal with it, or (most likely) that’s just the way you work.
Whatever, it starts with cleaning up. There’s actually some skill in cleaning up a messy desk, so make time to take your time and do it right, as opposed to making the mistake I made of repeatedly cleaning it up, then making a mess of it again.
Once you’ve got it looking so nice you could eat your dinner off it, you could easily fall into the trap of thinking the hard part is done. But desks are deceptive.
Make sure you follow the next steps to ensure your clean desk stays that way...
Step 2: Organize your desk and the space around it
As I mentioned before, I used to dump stuff on my desktop because I didn’t know what to do with it.
Take the time to learn how to organize yours so you know where everything goes. That applies particularly to things that don’t belong in or on your desk.
Right next to mine, I have a two-drawer filing cabinet that contains my most used files, folders and papers. I put it there when I realized that they were the ones that crossed my desk most frequently. Now I don’t have to leave my chair to file most of my paperwork where it belongs.
Step 3: Use a simple system
This way of processing work comes from Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow book, one of the best time management systems I’ve come across:
On my desk I don’t have much, but I do have two A4 trays. One is my Capture Tray -- everything that comes in during the day goes in there.
Unless it’s genuinely same-day urgent, I’ll deal with it tomorrow.
The other one is my Action Tray. This is everything that came my way yesterday. I’ll process this throughout today.
This processing system is the secret to success in keeping a clear desk, and, if you learn how to organize paperwork, it will be for you, too.
Step 4: Tidy once a day
Every day, put everything back where it belongs.
It took me a while to get into this habit, but eventually I worked out that the best way to do it is at the same time every day. (I do it in the evening.)
During the day, my desk is generally tidy. If I get a minute or two, I may clean it up. But I try to make sure I leave 3-5 minutes at the end of the day to put it all back.
And, honestly, that’s all it takes to get a clean desk every day.
* * *
When you open the door and see your clear desk, the day gets off to a good start. Whatever else comes your way, you know that you’re free to focus on dealing with it.
Anyone can keep a clean desk. You can too.
The benefits make doing it more than worthwhile.