office culture

How to get your messy workspace under control

January 13, 2014: 10:15 AM ET

January 13th is National Clean Off Your Desk Day. Here are some things you can do to make your workspace (and you!) more functional.

By Jolie Kerr

140113100411-messy-desk-620xaFORTUNE -- Happy National Clean Off Your Desk Day! Falling, as it does, so early in the new year NCOYDD lands at a great time for getting your desk tidied up. Out with the old, in with the new!

Here are a few tips to get you on your way to a cleaner work space.

Out with the old: The first step to cleaning up your desk is to get rid of any trash that hasn't yet made it into the wastepaper basket. The focus of this task should only be on trash; if you've spent more than 10 seconds considering whether or not to keep something, put it down and move on. For now you'll want to pitch or recycle those piles of napkins, plastic cutlery, pens that no longer work, scribbled reminders from months past -- anything that rightly can be called garbage. Out that stuff goes. This includes anything that you may have tacked to a bulletin board.

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The next step is to exert control over your papers and files. If you've got large stacks of papers or files, sort by them project or subject matter, and review what's there in a systematic way. Recycle or, if sensitive in nature, shred any papers that you no longer need, being sure to remove staples, sticky notes, or paper clips before you do so.

If you're organizing a home office, or if you keep personal files at work, and aren't sure what papers you need to hold onto and for how long, consult this guide to managing household records.

File your papers: Now that you've got the papers you need or want to retain organized in stacks, you can determine what kind of storage you need for them. Procure the appropriate supplies -- file folders, binders, desktop letter trays -- and file those papers away.

For ease of identification, label the folders clearly.

To make accessing them as easy as possible, documents relating to current projects should be stored in a desktop file sorter; look for a style with slots on an incline, which allows labels to be easily seen. Files for completed projects that need to be retained can be stored in hanging file folders in a drawer or filing cabinet or in binders on a shelf.

Clean up and cluster your desktop accessories: With the files in order, it's time to turn your attention to your desk accessories -- including electronics -- and the work surface itself.

Gather all the non-electronic desk accessories together and get rid of anything that's broken or not being used. This includes anything from the stapler, to the tape dispenser, to your pens and whatever vessel is holding them. If you don't have a pen holder, and are just tossing writing implements around your desk, go ahead and get one. Pare down your collection while you're at it -- five to 10 pens, pencils, markers, highlighters, etc. should be more than enough. Once you know what you'll be keeping, cluster them together. Generally speaking, it's a good idea to keep your stapler, tape dispenser, pen and pencil holder, and a small pad for taking notes near the telephone, so you can easily find and grab them. Less frequently used items like staples, rubber bands, spare sticky notes, and the like should be stored in an easily accessible top drawer.

Next turn your attention to your electronics -- computer, keyboard, telephone, chargers, etc. Start by de-crumbing the keyboard using canned air; it's important to do that first, because debris will blow about and make a mess of areas you've already wiped down. Then, using tech wipes or isopropyl alcohol applied to a soft cloth (never use paper products of any sort, no matter how soft, to clean electronics as the paper can cause scratching), wipe down the computer screen, keyboard, mouse, and the telephone receiver and keypad. Untangle any cables and charger cords.

By now the desk should be looking significantly tidier! The final step is wipe the desk surface down with all-purpose spray and paper towels, or with a pre-moistened wipe. If you've got a stone or marble desk, use a cleaning product designed for that material; avoid acidic-based cleansers, like lemon and vinegar, which can cause pitting. While you're at it, go ahead and wipe down the arms of your desk chair too.

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Create a cleaning toolkit: Who among us hasn't spilled coffee on our shirt in the middle of the work day? A good go-to remover for fresh stains is something that most offices have right on hand: dish soap. It's not a bad idea to keep a small bottle of your own in a desk drawer, along with a quick-drying sponge that can be used to tamp at the stain.

With that in mind, a good office cleaning toolkit might include:

  • A tube of pre-moistened wipes
  • Canned air
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • A chamois or other soft cloth for cleaning electronics
  • A small bottle of dish soap and a quick-dry sponge for cleaning up spills on clothing, upholstery or carpet

Calendar reminders to tidy things up: If you're a habitually messy person when it comes to your workspace, it's not a bad idea to create a recurring calendar entry every two to four weeks. Taking 15 minutes a month can go a long way to ensuring that your workspace remains tidy and in order.

Follow Jolie Kerr on Twitter: @joliekerr

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