10 tips for digging out your desk today

by Eve Abbott, Excerpted from her new book, How to Do Space Age Work with a Stone Age Brain(TM)

How long has it been since you saw your desk? Has your polished mahogany (or pitted Formica) been buried for so long that you can’t remember what your desk is made out of? If so, use these tips to clear yourself some space to work in-and stay on top of your most urgent action items.

“I know I had it here somewhere…”
One big reason we can’t find the information we need when we need is that there’s just too much of it. Not just too much coming in, but too much piling up. Resist unnecessary information overload and protect your mind-and your desk-from clutter. Why go through three inches of stuff when you’re only looking for one piece of paper?

When you take a piece of paper and you put it somewhere flat, it takes up almost a square foot of space. The instant that you put anything on top of it-Bingo! You’re halfway to compost. You’re creating a random access office. On computers, RAM works really well. In humans, most of our memory is in context, so random access is a recipe for disaster.

Having to look through piles of paper steals your time every day. Even worse, while you’re looking through those piles, your focus is dissolving. And then you have to get back into what I call work-state or focus in order to do a good job again.

When you get your paper vertical, you can fit more than two reams of paper into that same one square foot of physical space that just one piece of paper occupies when it’s horizontal! (If you didn’t need to actually open the files to put things in and take them out, you could fit three.)

To start with, let’s look at this escalating wire sorter, which makes a great visual to-do list with the most important things in the front. Notice how it “climbs” – so the top of each file sticks up above the one in front of it. That means you can see all of the contents at once, without having to actually touch any of the others. You can use several sorters to improve fingertip access to your information. For example use one each for related People, Projects and Meetings to-dos.

There are many different organizing tools to help you get your paper vertical, and most are available in any office supply store.

Does it really belong on your desk?
The only things that live on top of my desk are the computer monitor, desk caddy with pens/paperclips etc., my phone and message book, and the electric stapler. I strive for nothing else on my desktop unless I’m working on it that day.

In deciding what really belongs on your desk, you need to think: “Frequency of use determines ease of access.” If you’re not using it that day or every day, put it somewhere farther away from you.

Remove any materials, supplies, etc. that you are not using or actually working on today or tomorrow from your Action Zone. Even if you don’t take the time to file them now, get them off your desk and out of your way.

Defining your Action Zone
Your Action Zone is the area you can reach comfortably while sitting in your chair. That means no stretching and no standing up. How big an area this is depends on how long your arms are. No matter how large your office is, your Action Zone is limited by the size of your “wingspan.”
That’s why the work area available to you on your desk is so crucial. It’s also why you want an L- or U-shaped workstation: you can turn your chair and be in a whole different Function Zone. If you have an L-shaped setup, set it up so your Computer Function Zone is on one side, and your Paper Function Zone is on the other side of the L.

Making Room on Your Desk
Ditch all those cracked coffee cups of pens and pencils and use one small desk caddy like this, which circles around for easy access. It has all the basic desk tools in here that you usually need.

If you took all the tools that fit in here and spread them on your desk it takes up two square feet. (I confess I’m a little nutty, I actually did this). The desk caddy footprint only uses up eight inches square.

If you like to spread out big projects, you can pick up the desk caddy, take it into another room, spread out your materials, and you’ve got an instant “office” no matter where you are.

Desk Drawers EQUAL Action Drawers
In the shallow “bureau” drawer in my desk, I keep a 10-key solar calculator, a tray for my expenses, business cards, stamps, return address labels, and Post It notes-all things I use frequently while working at my desk.

Another good way to use these small drawers is to get a tray-style organizer for your desk tools instead of a desk caddy like mine. When you sit down at your desk, just leave the drawer open so your tray is available the entire time you’re working. Then none of those tools is cluttering up your desk surface.

When you’re sitting at your desk and your file drawer is pulled out, instead of having your files face the front of the drawer, turn the files 90 degrees, so the file tabs face your chair. Then when you pull the drawer out the files (and their labels) are facing you.

The categories in my Action Drawer are: Business, Finances, Clients, Networks, and Eve. These are the files that I’m into on an almost daily basis. This is where my quarterly expenses and invoices go. Come the end of that quarter, these files get moved into the Expenses part of my History File Zone, and I set up new files for the next quarter in the Action Drawer. Keep the paper flowing through and out!

Keeping Your Desk Clear

  1. Don’t let it land on your desk unless it’s an action item. Establish a separate inbox for mail and a “file pile” away from your desk.
  2. Keep your Action files vertical and clearly labeled, so you can see what you need to do today. Use the same categories for the sorter on your desk and your Action file drawer.
  3. When you finish working with any piece of paper, move it out of your Action Zone. Put it into that file pile-or recycle it if you really won’t need it again.

Have fun getting control over your desk again!
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About the author
Copyright 2005 Eve Abbott. All Rights Reserved.