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Organizing your workspace

A messy desk can make your work and thinking messier, too. Here are some organization tips for better productivity.

5 min read


Organizing your workspace


In a previous series for SmartBrief, I laid out my five-step productivity process for leaders, which I then turned into a Productivity Blueprint. This post goes deeper on the first of my five steps — planning for maximal productivity — and picks up from the last one, which detailed how to set positive, actionable goals.

Research is clear that we get more done when we know where things are. This is true with our physical things (papers, files, gadgets, etc.) as well as our digital ones. Not only can things be found more easily when they are systematically organized, but there is also a significant psychological benefit of keeping our things in order.

Our external order creates internal sense of orderliness and allows us to do more while handling challenges in stride. It makes us feel in control of our situation and allows us to clearly focus and identify areas that need attention

In contrast, a messy workspace sends a subliminal message that our work lacks importance or that the processes we are involved in are not meaningful. It also increases distractibility and can promote both negative energy and anxiety.

(Of course, there are exceptions on both ends of the spectrum. There are those who work incredibly well out of piles and can find things in an instant when needed. On the other end, some people keep their workspaces looking neat by shoving important papers into closets or under their desks.)

While it is easy to give excuses about one’s organizational style and even blame a messy desk on space limitations, et al, there are creative ways to keep your space neat and organized. Here are some tips for cleaning and organizing your workspace (and your mind) so that you can get your best work done each day.

Wipe things down

In today’s environment, having a clean, disinfected desk is more important than ever. But the benefits of cleaning extend well beyond sanitation. Since you cannot properly clean and disinfect a cluttered desk, a decision to operate in a frequently cleaned area means that you will work harder to keep your space clutter-free.

A clean, decluttered workspace is also a more enjoyable place to work, which — you guessed it — will help you be and stay more productive.


Every major change starts with a thorough housecleaning — literal, mental or both. Declutter your workspace by emptying, shredding and ridding it of any frivolous space-eaters that add no value to your work.

Give your stuff a home, with a clear address

It is hard to get things done when you cannot fine what you need. Whether it is a physical item, like a document, or a virtual file, countless hours are lost each day due to an inability to quickly find things. Invest in folders and storage boxes to organize all the loose papers and other items cluttering up the surface of your desk and elsewhere. Throw away anything that is not important enough to put into storage. If you are unsure about needing any of your papers someday, scan and save them first before discarding.

Put a system in place

Choose a proper labelling and/or coloring system for your office. Take the time to label shelves, folders, bins and drawers. The content on your computer or other electronic devices also affects the output of your work and life. De-clutter and organize your desktop by deleting files, pictures or software applications that you don’t need. Many people also use their computer desktops as a de facto to-do list. As a result, the things that they need to remember start to accumulate and create disorder. Instead, create a proper to-do list, as discussed, and move all important files into folders and subfolders.

Sort and filter new (e)mail

When new mail arrives, quickly sort through it and take out the pieces you need right away. Set aside time to read through or pass along the rest. Emails should be filtered as well based on urgency and importance.

Limit personal items

Though personal items like family pictures and vacation souvenirs are nice to look at, they often take up a lot of surface area and can be distracting. Aim to limit yourself to one personal item on your desk, and preferably position it out of the line of sight when working.

Help yourself out

Identify office supplies that make you more productive, such as a beautiful timer to help you stay focused and inspired. Make space for a desktop calendar to keep you on track and other beneficial items.

Put it in the plan

Clutter is often as much a time management problem as it is an organizing problem. With all the work we must achieve, there’s a good chance that we won’t put things away unless we actually schedule the time to do it. Suggestion: build in 15 minutes at the end of the day to put everything back where it belongs.

Remember where you are

If you work from home, you need to have a dedicated workplace that can be partitioned from your home life. This will mentally allow you to “check in” to work and be more productive. It also encourages you to keep work and home items — such as computers — separate. The last thing you want is for sensitive data to be accesses by family or, worse, infected with some nasty virus.


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.” Read his blog and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new productivity blueprint and his e-books, “Core Essentials of Leadership,” “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing” and “How to Boost Your Leadership Impact.”

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