Digging Out: the Low Stress Way to a Clean Desk




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We work from home - which is great, because of the flexible work hours, no commute, easy access to the fridge, and general efficiency of getting things done. It's not so great, sometimes, when it comes to staying organized. Things tend to pile up if you let your guard down.

Household stuff gets mixed in with business stuff get mixed in with family stuff and so on. And sometimes you end up with the perfect storm of clutter.

I know Einstein said, "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

While I get the implication, and it's funny, the answer of course, could also be "an ordered mind" as opposed to an empty one. And you may get more done with an ordered mind than a cluttered one .I know I do.

And I found an efficient and low stress way to clean up after myself and get from clutter to clean pretty easily.

Step 1: Box It Up!

The first step in this decluttering method is to just sweep all that stuff off the desk and right into a box.

Honestly, if it's gotten that bad, you know you're just using your desk to pile on stuff for which you have no immediate use. You're not throwing it away because for some reason it seems important. But you're also not doing anything with the stuff you're piling up because it's not that important, or you'd have done something with it by now.

What's at the bottom of the pile? Any idea? Me neither.

Just sweep it all into a box.

Step 2: Wipe It Down

Clean off that nice uncluttered desk, and feel inspired by the fresh wooden (or composite or glass, as the case may be) canvass of open space!

Step 3: Stash It & Wait

Take that clutter filled box and slide it under that now nice clean desk.

Then walk away.

Leave the box untouched, if you can, for at least two weeks, and even better - four! If you find you need something that may be in it, by all means, dig it out and put it to use: Pay the bill, call the person, save the receipt, etc.

But unless you actually discover you need something you think is in the box, leave it alone.

Don't touch.

Step 4: Sort

After 2-4 weeks, enough time to have either dug something out or to realize that most if not all of that stuff in the box(es) has been totally unneeded, start sorting.

Use sticky notes to make some action categories:

  • File
  • Follow Up
  • Donate
  • Toss

Then start pulling things out of the box.

Don't allow yourself to get distracted here. Enough time has gone by to show that you probably don't need much if anything out of the box, so adopt a critical eye as you sort and it'll go pretty quickly. Make sure you assign everything to one of those categories - those are the only four actions that matter right now.

Step 5: Put Things in Proper Places

A lot of the stuff that ends up on our desks have proper storage places elsewhere. Go put them there!

These types of things can fall under the "file" category - you're just filing them back in the room or cabinet where they really belong.

Step 6: Keep Going!

Your stash box should go down in volume, while the trash/recycling and donation bins go up in volume. You'll have a few things in smaller separate piles on the desk, but you're going to act on those, not leave them there.

So keep going until the clutter stash box is empty.

Step 7: Follow Up and FIle!

Now you should be down to two main and hopefully small(ish) piles, labeled "Follow Up" and "File."

The things that say "file" - scan them into digital folders or put them into actual file folders. Scanning is better, if you can. Reduce paper volume wherever possible.

If you have an accumulation of items to follow up on: notes to call or email people, bills to pay, etc, do each task as you find it. For emails owed, just send a quick note: "Hi, just found that card/note from 19__. Sorry to take so long to get back to you. Please let me know if you'd still like to chat..." or "buy my car: or whatever, and then toss the reminder.

Put donation items in another box as you go - and then donate them!

Step 8: Clean and Tidy!

And there you have it: a clean and tidy desk, free of the ambivalence and disappointment of clutter.

The main step here is the "Stash and Wait" piece. It's generally the needed proof that the stuff being piled up is simply being stashed in the open. Putting it in a box, out of sight - but with a time capsule opening date should help you discover that you probably didn't need most of that stuff in the first place.

If you're like me, you'll need to do this process a couple of times a year, at least, especially when you get busy and just start piling things up again. But it's easy enough to do, and periodic reevaluation is always a good thing.

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    9 Discussions


    2 years ago

    Great technique,
    Though my items seem to get cluttered befroe I can even tidy it, almost as fast as a snap of my fingers! :)


    2 years ago

    Fantastic I'ble! I've found myself using a similar strategy, but I like the steps you've laid out here. I'll have to try this out next time I find my desk getting cluttered.

    Bonus points, by the way, for the Boeing, NASA, and FIRST paraphinalia. ;)

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    Ha! Thanks! My day job is Regional Director for FIRST in Central FL - hence a messy desk with cool junk on it. :-)


    2 years ago

    Good tips! I have a large worktable in my office, and it's currently covered with stuff. I've found that I put off tasks that require me to use the table, just because it's cluttered and I don't want to clean it!

    I need to just put everything in a box and shove it under the table, as you've suggested. Thanks! :)

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    Thanks! It really does work - although I have to do it a couple or three times a year. But I do get it done that way, and I'm pretty good for a couple or three months after I do it, so generally things stay pretty tidy (up to a point!) :-)


    3 years ago

    Thank you for this "low stress way" to unclutter a desk. I often need the steps written out for me to follow with this type of action or in my case "no action". I have gotten to the Box part, but often it is still in the box, many months.....dare I say years, later. Boxes pile up and.......sometimes panic sets in when a really important item has gone missing. I have downloaded this and will use it to activate myself and/or re-activate myself as needed. Thanks again PJ Upshaw

    1 reply

    Reply 3 years ago

    Glad you enjoyed it! You're right - I've let them pile up a bit too sometimes, but sticking it out with that sorting and action effort really helps!