Get Over the Shame of Your Desk in 5 Easy Steps

Sep 7, 2017 | Jessica Ogilvie

If you’ve ever walked to your desk in the morning, ready to begin your day, and then promptly turned on your heel in horror because of the mounds of clutter, perhaps it’s time to make a change. After all, your desk should be a place that motivates you, that inspires you — or at least, a place that has a visible surface.

But clearing out your desk and making it look lovely enough to want to sit there is no small task. We spoke to two professional organizers to get an idea of where to start, and where you can plan to end up.

1) Think Before You Act

Before you start throwing things away and tacking up beautiful motivational quotes, you need to know what you want from your home office, says Lili Pettit, owner of Los Angeles-based Clutter Healing.

“It’s important to establish what are your needs are, first and foremost,” she says. “What are you doing in your space? If you’re a writer, maybe you need an environment that’s a completely blank space. If you’re a clothing designer, maybe you need inspirational images.” Pettit suggests defining what you’re doing at your desk carefully, and then reverse-engineering from there.

2) Start Anywhere, As Long As You Start

Anyone who has attempted to clean out their desk/closet/junk drawer/entire house knows that the biggest stumbling block often happens when you come across an item that requires (gasp!) multiple steps. But that medical bill you’ve been putting off calling your insurance about? It’s not going to resolve itself.

Beth Penn, owner of Los Angeles-based BNeato Bar and author of The Little Book of Tidying, often instructs clients to steer clear of sorting items into levels of priority or difficulty, instead suggesting that they simply start somewhere and keep going until everything is cleared off a desk and resolved.

“I usually start at one place and methodically work from point A to point B,” she says. “I’ll have clients who want to process some things and skip others because they’re difficult. It’s a resistance to making the decision. So I use the helpful tool of going through everything with no sort of order to it, meaning we are not going to go through the major priority stuff first, because we are going to get through everything.”

3) Go Digital When Possible

Penn adds that you might even consider how much of your work can be done digitally. “Most folks don’t need a lot of stuff to get work done,” she says. “These days, it’s basically just on your computer. So you could be setting up a digital organization system.”

To that end, Pettit recommends getting a scanner (she uses the popular Fujitsu scanner) and putting copies of important paperwork into digital storage rather than physical storage. “I personally do all my stuff digitally,” she says. “I really try to eliminate as much paper as I possibly can.”

As for paperwork that you do need to keep, adds Pettit, keep it simple and minimal.

“I like to make a very simple desktop filing system,” she says. “I have a ‘Scan’ folder, a ‘Bills to Pay’ folder, and then something with the language, either ‘Take Action’ or ‘Follow Up.’ There doesn’t need to be a super intricate desktop filing system with multiple folders and 50 papers. You need to deal with your stuff.”

4) Don’t Re-Clutter

Now that your desk is luxuriously clutter-free, it might be tempting to run out and buy four or 10 adorable objets d’art to place in carefully curated spots.

Avoid the temptation, says Pettit.

“It is scientifically proven that the more clutter you have around you that is visually distracting, the more your other senses have to work,” she says, “because the brain can only process so much visually at a time. That means you might feel anxiety and fatigue” if you have too many pretty things lying around as decoration.

And, adds Penn, be realistic about your things. “People keep a lot of stuff they don’t need,” she says. “Do you need the jumbo thing of paper clips from Costco? Do you need a printer, or can you get by without one? It’s very rare that I need to print something, for instance, so when I do I email those items to a printing center nearby and pick them up later.”

If you do want a few carefully curated items, try a plant, says Pettit. “Plants are a reminder of the life force, and really are great at cleaning the air,” she says.

Just don’t spend too much time with it. “That can get into procrastination,” says Penn. “If I’m always saying, ‘Let me set up the perfect space,’ then I don’t focus on work, I focus on getting things beautiful. Then when I do sit down there’s more things that can cause procrastination.”

5) Maintain!

Don’t forget that cleaning up your desk and keeping it clean is, sadly, your responsibility, and your responsibility alone. “People somehow think there is this magical organization fairy that comes in in the middle of the night and just cleans up and takes care of this stuff,” says Pettit. “It’s just not the case. Your house and your office, your paperwork, your mail — it’s never going to stop happening, as long as you are alive. You have to take the time; you have to make the space.”