March 15, 2021

Time to Clean the Desk

March of Trash asks you to take action on clutter every day for a month.


When it’s long past time to clean the desk, where do you start?

You may have to start at the top. The only practical way to clear a desk is to consider items in the order that they are in. Any other approach would risk ending up in a bigger mess than you see already.

To say it another way, the desk has turned into an in-box.

Pull items off the top and put them in categories as well as you can: general interest, future projects, documents to keep, action required, urgent action required. Your categies will likely be different, depending on the purpose of the desk.

The main goal at this initial stage may be to find that last category. Is there something due yesterday, today, or tomorrow?

Paper clips may be essential as you remove papers from the desk to put them in boxes. Some papers lose much of their meaning when separated from the papers around them. The most familiar example of this is a bill and its accompanying return envelope. It is harder to mail a check to pay the bill if you do not know where the envelope is. Paper clips allow you to keep the bill and envelope together as you toss them in a box.

The recurring mistake in desk clearing, as in clutter in general, is keeping too many aspirational things. They look interesting, but in the end, you don’t have time to pick them up. If you end up with a box full of announcements and magazines, that is surely too many. If that box is untouched a month later, you might as well throw the whole thing away. Get out ahead of this scenario by throwing the most marginal things away sooner, as soon as you pick them up from the desk.

More than any other form of clutter, a messy desk is a sign of time pressure. Work piles up precisely because the capacity to do the work is not as large as you had planned. After your desk is clear again, look for ways to reduce the work coming in so that you don’t find a new backlog piling up on the desk.

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