When you get to your workspace, what do you see? For many people, it’s stuff, and lots of it. There may be piles of papers, books, and notebooks stacked up – as well as a littering of paperclips, pens, and dirty coffee cups. Perhaps your laptop is covered with post-it notes and there are files, boxes, and plastic bags stacked around and underneath your desk.
If this sounds familiar, then you’re certainly not alone. Many of us feel overwhelmed and discouraged at work by disorganised papers, endless emails, wasteful meetings, and unnecessary tasks. These things can slowly drain the joy out of work, limit our progress, and leave us feeling less than fully charged.
But, since many of us spend a lot of time at our workspaces, it makes sense to do what we can to help us enjoy being there as much as possible.
If you struggle to maintain a tidy workspace – either physically, mentally, or digitally – you might like to try these nine simple steps to help declutter and improve your productivity.
What are the benefits of decluttering your desk?
In their book Joy at Work, organising consultant Marie Kondo and organisational psychologist, Scott Sonenshein, say that a cluttered desk can cause you to lose energy before you even start working.
This is because research has found that being surrounded by too many things increases cortisol (stress) levels, which can lead to depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure. Studies have also shown that a messy desk taxes our brain – making us less focussed and productive.
Not only that but, a messy desk has a greater impact on our working lives than most people realise. For example, this study showed that people with a tidier space were valued more highly when it comes to their character and capacity.
However, according to the KonMari Method, which encourages decluttering by category rather than location (for example, clothes instead of the bedroom as a whole), decluttering is about much more than sorting your things and putting them away. It can help you to discover what you value most, reveal changes you need to make, and help you to experience more joy in your work environment.
If you’re drowning under a ton of work, tidying your desk may be the last thing on your mind, but decluttering your workspace can – believe it or not – be life-changing.
9 ways to declutter your desk and improve productivity
1. Start with a vision for your desk space
The first step to take when decluttering is to imagine what your ideal work environment would look like.
For some, this might mean going minimalist and having just the bare essentials around them, while other people may prefer to be surrounded by art, inspiring books, and meaningful mementos.
Everyone’s idea of a great workspace is different, so it’s important to take time to think about and discover what environment works for you.
As part of your vision, consider what you want from your work life. Are you aiming for a promotion? Or perhaps laying the foundations to launch your own business? It’s useful to keep your goals in mind as you think about how to create your work environment.
2. Set aside a block of time to declutter your desk
Setting aside a block of time to focus on decluttering and tidying your workspace all in one go can be beneficial.
Not only can clearing your workspace make you feel better, but research also shows it can improve work efficiency too. For example, data has found that, in the UK, one in five people surveyed had lost something of value because of a disorganised workspace, with 17% losing an item worth somewhere between £50 and £200.
If you’re struggling to find time to clear your desk, then it can be helpful to add it to your diary or calendar in the same way that you would a meeting. If it helps to make you more productive and improves your performance, then it’s something that’s worth prioritising.
3. Decide how you’re going to choose what to keep
Decluttering techniques like the KonMari method encourage us to focus on what to keep rather than what to discard. This approach can help us think about why we really want to keep something, and make it easier to let go of items we no longer need.
When decluttering your desk, you might find it useful to ask yourself three questions. Firstly, is this item essential for my work? Things like your stapler, hole punch, or highlighter may fall into this non-essential category and, in which case, may not need to be in your immediate surroundings and could be stored elsewhere instead.
Secondly, will this item contribute to my future work? This could be a manual you need to complete a current project, which, if successful, could lead to a promotion. These are the things that are worth keeping close by, such as on your desk itself or in a drawer.
And thirdly, will this item spark joy and positivity? Items that do this could include family photos, a house plant, and any personal meaningful objects. The happier we feel while working, the more productive we’re likely to be – so it could be beneficial to keep items like these where you can’t see them.
4. Declutter by category
Once you’ve got the hang of using the three questions above to declutter your desk, you could try applying them to categories of items in your workspace.
This can allow you to create some balance in your workspace by whittling down each category as much as possible – and can allow you to more easily see when you may have duplicated items or items that are very similar.
You might start with books before progressing onto miscellaneous items, such as gadgets and office supplies; sentimental items, like keepsakes and merchandise; and papers.
The KonMari method suggests gathering items from each category in one place or in a single pile, and picking them up one at a time as you ask yourself the three questions to decide whether to keep or part with it.
Sentimental items are often the most difficult to part with. So, if something no longer sparks joy but you’re still finding it difficult to let go, taking a photo as a memory can help.
When parting with your things, Marie Kondo suggests doing so with gratitude, as thanking the item for the role it played in your life can help you feel better about parting with it.
5. Store your items to spark joy
After decluttering your physical belongings, it’s important to give everything a home so your workspace remains tidy. If your belongings have somewhere to live, they’re less likely to get out of hand.
To simplify things, it can help to group items by function. For example, in the KonMari method, books can go on shelves and papers can be stored upright, in folders in a filing cabinet, or in box files – so they’re easy to access and take up less room.
Meanwhile, organised, but out of sight is suggested for miscellaneous items, to avoid distraction. These may be stored in separate boxes or sections for each category, in your desk drawers.
Last but not least, consider putting at least one item on your desk that sparks joy and inspiration. This could be anything from fresh flowers to a photo of your loved ones.
6. Declutter your digital life
It’s not just our desks themselves that need tidying, as many of us are overloaded with digital clutter too.
When you open your laptop or computer to start your workday, what does your desktop look like? Are you faced with an inspiring picture and one small folder in the corner, or do you have so many files, folders, and applications on your desktop that you have to squint to read the titles?
To declutter your desktop, you can ask a variation on the three questions mentioned above to help you. Firstly, do I need this file to get my job done? Things to keep could be a word document you’re using to create my next presentation, or a photo you need to put in your next social media post.
Secondly, will it provide me with guidance or inspiration for future work? This could be a document you used for an older project which could inspire a similar project in future, or a memo about a project you’d like to start one day.
And thirdly, does this document spark joy right now? For example, a Google Analytics document showing how you hit your targets last month or photos of your loved ones.
Files that you may want to use include unused applications, temporary documents, and files or photos that have already been uploaded, on both your computer and smartphone. And, once you’ve purged your files, experts suggest simply storing them in one of three folders: a working folder, a record folder, and an archive folder.
You may need to spend a day sorting through your emails too if you’ve got a backlog of unread ones (which many of us have!). Chances are you’ll have plenty of junk emails that can be deleted – but it can be helpful to think about ways to organise the ones you need to keep too, such as by creating folders.
Our article, 8 easy ways to manage your inbox, has plenty of tips and tricks for how to manage yours.
7. Tidy your time
If you’re keen to keep a tidy desk and a tidy mind, it can also be useful to consider how you could declutter your time.
Research has found that there are three activities that tend to suck our precious time at work: over-earning by working too hard for the wrong results, prioritising urgent tasks over important ones, and multitasking.
The 2020 State of Work report also found that 60% of an employee’s day is wasted by excessive emails, unproductive meetings, and a lack of standard processes and collaboration.
The key way to avoid these traps is to be mindful of how you’re spending your time and to work out how you could make the most of it.
There are plenty of techniques that can be used to help you work more efficiently and get more work done in less time; such as time blocking, minimising distractions, and learning when to politely say no to non-priority meetings or requests.
For a more in-depth look at these techniques and more, you can check out our article; 9 ways to work smarter, not harder.
8. Declutter your decisions
Being inundated with information and tasks to do can have a negative impact on our decision-making ability and leave us feeling less in control – and this feeling of chaos can be reflected in the space around us.
So, to avoid becoming overwhelmed, it can help to keep things as simple as possible.
Consider your clothing, for example. You could follow a similar approach to ex-US President Barack Obama by keeping it simple. He decided to only wear grey or blue suits to work for the very reason of limiting the decisions he had to make.
Another example could be deciding what to work on first when you have a million things to do – and in this case, it’s usually all about prioritising. For example, you could make a list of those tasks that are critical for the work you do and work from the top down. Anything not on the list will have to wait or possibly be delegated.
When we’re freed from an overwhelming number of choices, we can better connect to what we’re trying to accomplish, and difficult decisions can suddenly feel easier to make.
9. Declutter your social network
Disorganisation can be found in our professional networks too, which, again, can have a knock on effect on how clear and focussed we are at work – and, in turn, the space we work in.
Many of us think of networking, whether in person or online, as a way to gain as many connections as possible: Facebook friends, Instagram followers, LinkedIn connections, and so on.
However, there’s a difference between having a big network and actually having valuable contacts who’re willing to help. Studies show that we can handle around 150 meaningful connections, but beyond that, it’s difficult to genuinely know people and keep up with them – and trying can be hard work.
Therefore, decluttering your relationships platform by platform can make a huge difference to the quality of your working relationships.
Consider keeping only connections you’re likely to reach out to and are useful for your job, those who enhance your work-life vision, and those who bring positivity. This can give you the time and mental space to connect with the people who really matter to you.
You may be surprised at how empowered decluttering can make you feel. By taking control of your workspaces – practical, digital, and beyond – you may feel more in charge of your work life.
When you only keep things that are necessary for your job, contribute to your future work, or bring you happiness, you’ll often be left with the items you need to work effectively.
The true value of decluttering isn’t only about having a neat desk or inbox – it’s also about reducing stress levels, increasing productivity, and boosting satisfaction at work and in life.
For more advice on creating better habits at work, you can head over to the career advice section of our website. Or for more decluttering tips, you might be interested in our article; How to declutter and reorganise your home.