Being organized in your work environment can directly affect your productivity, efficiency, and — not surprisingly — your peace of mind. Yes, Getting Things Done is one of the most important drivers of success. That means taking action and making progress. But your mental state is just as important. It directly affects how well you can accomplish those action tasks.

How to stay organized at work

Happiness and contentment leads to better decision making, higher levels of optimism about the future, less sick days taken, and a higher personal investment in the work itself. And clutter… well, clutter takes away from that contentment. It adds unnecessary stress to our lives. It’s distracting, de-energizing, and kills creativity.

Now that we’ve established how much disorder can hurt us and how the opposite can transform our lives, let’s talk about how to implement a strategy for staying organized at work. There are two major places where disorganization seems to overwhelm us: the physical workspace and the digital workspace. Let’s talk about specific ways to organize both.

A Clean Desk is a Productive Desk

This is all about the actual physical space where you do your work. The area that you make calls, generate ideas, and set goals. This is where you spend a lot of your time. And it’s important to be able to do your best work within that space. This means systems and processes that welcome creativity and encourage clarity of thought. If that sounds good to you, check out the tips below to help you create a more organized workspace.

1. Assess what you need the most

What does your daily workflow look like? The items within arm’s reach need to be the ones you use the most. Everything else can be put away. If you are constantly scrambling for a pen and paper for notes, then that should have a permanent place on your desk.

"Bottom line is, if you do not use it or need it, it’s clutter, and it needs to go."

If you rarely make a phone call, move your phone further away. If you throw a lot of paper in the recycling but your bin is across the room (leading irrelevant papers to stack up on your desk), then move a bin closer.

2. Start over

If you have a little extra time (and yes, you should make time for it as it will make a difference), then clear everything off your desk and work areas. Put it all in one designated spot out of the way. And start over with filling your workspace. This is a great opportunity to wipe down your desk and dust areas that haven’t seen the light of day in months.

As you bring items back, “audition” each one. Do you really need it, and how often do you use it? This will determine where it goes. Have you had a bag of stale granola sitting there for weeks? Toss it. Are those ink pens dried up? Bye, bye. Does your heart fill with joy and inspiration every time you see that photo of your kids? Keep it close. Which brings us to the next tip…

3. Keep sentimental items and knick-knacks to a minimum

Your desk doesn’t need to look like a thrift store aisle. Unless perhaps you work in a thrift store. Too many decorative paperweights and trinkets can be a distraction. If you have a large workspace and you have the freedom to choose decor, then put your trinkets on a wall shelf or in another area of the room.

But if you have limited space, don’t fill all of it with items that aren’t functional. Choose one photo or personal item only. And make it one that really inspires you.

4. Leave room for flow

Don’t fill every inch of your desk. A good rule would be to leave at least 50% of it open. Books, notes, project briefs, proposals, and the day’s coffee cup will come and go. You want to have space for those unpredictable and ever-changing pieces.

Space for the day-to-day. You just don’t want those things to become permanent. File documents away after you address them. Better yet, create a bin or section that is strictly for items that need to be addressed.  

5. Create a system for paperwork

Now let’s talk about how to file those notes, papers, and briefs. Use a filing system that works for you. Depending on your work, you might want a cabinet, tray system, drawers, etc. to organize the kind of paperwork you deal with. If you don’t need to keep a document, don’t.

If you do, put it in a specified place, labeled in a way in which it can be found in the future. If you can minimize paperwork (my favorite thing!), then scan it and make it digital or better yet, change the system that gives you a document on paper in the first place. Many companies these days allow you to opt-in to a paperless method. If the paperwork is internal, meet with your team to see if you can create a better, more paperless system.

6. A place for everything and everything in its place

There’s always the extra items that aren’t necessarily work related. Do you keep snacks in your office? Instead of a drawer of chocolate here, a basket of fruit there, a bag of nuts on the corner of the desk, etc., put it all in one designated place.

Make a “snack basket” and keep it off to the side. Are you the kind of person who has writing utensils everywhere, but when you actually need one, you don’t know exactly where to look? Put them all in a cup on your desk or in one single drawer. If you always ignore an ink pen because you hate the way it writes, then get rid of it. Minimize and condense items, and you’ll waste less time when you need to use them.

Say Goodbye to Digital Clutter

It wasn’t that long ago that physical clutter was the only clutter. Technology has continued to tumble into our lives and now there’s no turning back. While it offers more conveniences than we could have thought possible, it’s also one more desktop to keep clear.

"Organizing is a journey, not a destination."

We’re talking the space on your computer, your email inbox, your note-taking programs, your cloud storage, and your hard drives. Here are some tips for getting them in order.

1. Audit your computer files and storage

Are there virtual spiderwebs in your computer files? Many people ignore it because they can’t see the files in plain sight and they don’t take up physical space, but an excess amount of digital files can slow down your computer and make it really hard to find things when you need them. Do the same thing for your computer files as you would your paperwork. You need a digital filing system. Don’t be afraid of folders! (And sometimes you can even use folders inside of folders. *Gasp!*)

If you’re one of those people whose desktop is covered with an overflow of thumbnails, you know what I’m talking about. Organize your desktop into a handful of categories that you use most, make a folder for each category, and move each file where it belongs. This goes for any external hard drives and cloud storage systems you may use as well. Oh yeah, and if you aren’t backing up your computer already, you need to be doing that.

2. Get your lists and notes under control

While many still use pen and paper for lists and notes, more people are seeing the exceptional benefits of digital systems. With a constant flow of information thrown at us all the time and the need to access it wherever we are, a digital system is a no-brainer.

The trick is to have all your to-dos and reminders in one place. A list on a post-it, reminders in your email, notes in your calendar, and … oh, where did I put those details from that last meeting?! You see where I’m going with this. The point of a list is to save your sanity, not take it away. So consolidate all of it into one program for optimum organization.

3. Makeover your inbox

Are you inbox zero or inbox 456,093? Twenty years ago, this wasn’t a problem. But it certainly is today. And with so many decisions being made, meetings scheduled, and details shared via email, it’s crucial you have a system for your inbox. Most email programs allow you to create folders.

Just like with your computer desktop, make folders for the types of emails you usually receive and engage with. Maybe you need folders for specific projects or clients. What works for YOU? That’s most important.

Now that you have a way to organize your incoming emails, you have to trim the excess. All those newsletters that you subscribe to that you ignore (or maybe even delete right away)? Unsubscribe. Are you on email threads that aren’t relevant to you? Politely asked to be removed. In fact, if you dislike email as a communication method, let people know that you prefer a call or text. Basically, you want a clear path so that the important stuff can make its way through and not get overlooked.

Bask in the Glow of Great Organization

It takes a little effort. But so does anything worthwhile. Your brain will thank you for the peace; your boss will thank you for the efficient work; and you’ll thank yourself knowing how good it feels to be so amazingly productive.