Declutter Your Desk to Improve Your Productivity


We web workers tend to focus on our computer setup and our online work setup, naturally. That’s where we do the majority of our work. But we don’t work in a vacuum — there’s always a real desk and papers and other work tools around us.

And if we don’t pay much attention to the offline stuff, that work setup can become cluttered and distracting and disorganized.

If you’re looking to declutter your work setup, and create a minimalist surrounding area, read on.

1. Notebook and pen. I suggest that in a minimalist setup, the notebook and pen are the two most essential tools. You could use other, more complicated tools, but nothing is simpler or more useful than the simple notebook and pen. I use a Moleskine pocket notebook, for aesthetic reasons, but any cheap notebook will do. It’s good for easy note-taking, capturing ideas on the go, capturing follow-up tasks from meetings, project planning, and writing down your to-do list, among other uses. These two simple tools can be the start and end of your minimalist setup, if you let it.

2. What else is essential? Of course, most people need a few other tools, but that really depends on your needs. What other tools are most important? I suggest making a short list of the things you use often — daily, or at least once a week. Anything you haven’t used in a few weeks probably can’t be considered essential. The essential tools are the things you need to keep.

3. Reconsider all other needs. If it’s not on your short list, reconsider whether you really need it. If not, get rid of it. Declutter as much as humanly possible. Then declutter some more.

4. One inbox. Have one inbox on your desk. It’ll keep all incoming papers, notes, Post-Its, phone messages in one place, instead of having them all over the desk. Clean out the inbox once a day.

5. Minimal filing. If you do a lot of work on the web, you may not need much of a paper filing system. For example, using web apps such as Gmail, Google Docs, WordPress and so on means that just about all of my info is stored online. No need to have paper copies of any of my work. There will be a few things you need paper copies of, of course, but keep that to a minimum. With just a few papers to file, you’ll probably only need half a drawer, using a simple alphabetical filing system with manila envelopes.

6. Office supplies. I’ve minimized my needs for office supplies. Basically, the only thing I need beyond my Moleskine notebook and pen are Post-It notes for writing notes or phone messages to my co-workers. When I work from home, I don’t need any office supplies at all. Your needs will be different, of course, but often people have a lot of supplies just because they’re cool or just in case. If you don’t really need them, ditch them.

7. Desk. Clear the top of your desk completely, other than your computer and printer, your inbox, your notebook, your phone, and perhaps a family photo or something like that.. Office supplies should be in a drawer designated for them. Papers should be in your inbox or in a file in a drawer. Knick-knacks don’t belong in a minimalist setup.

If you have ditched office supplies and a filing system, you actually don’t need a traditional desk. The true minimalist setup is a nice wooden table, big enough for your computer setup, your inbox, your phone, and a lot of working space. Nice, clean, empty space is beautifully minimalist.

8. Drawers. Some people stuff drawers with lots of stuff. Go through each drawer, one at a time, and toss as much of it as possible. Only keep the essential tools (from Step #2 above), and designate a drawer for each type of thing. One drawer for office supplies, one for files, one for your gadget clutter (if necessary). Don’t mix stuff together, or it will be harder to find.

9. Your walls. The minimalist work setup has nothing on the walls besides one or two nice art pieces. No memos, no printouts, etc. Take it all down.

10. Gadgets on the go. Do you carry a lot of gadgets with you? I’m not saying you should give up your gadgets. However, if you’re looking for a minimalist setup, you should reconsider which gadgets are truly necessary. Because gadgets, while fun and useful, also mean lots of cords, chargers, cases, etc. The minimalist setup would be a paper notebook for taking notes, and perhaps a cell phone (if that). You might have different needs, which is totally fine, but give some hard thought to what is really necessary.


Corey Anderson

Any desk organization needs a good feather duster. They can be hard to find. I have found some at,, or

Office Stationery

Your tip #2 for deciding what qualifies for essential is bang on. I’m not sure that being minimal and clearing out the clutter will work for everybody, there’s a lot of people out there who are “messy” by nature.

Corporate Productivity Guy

In addition to what you said, I find a white board is great, as is a Nerf football – no joke. Everyone needs a break, and playing with a football – either by yourself or launching across the office – is a quick one minute way to get your mind off things.


I went minimalist with my desk at work about 6 months ago. At first, everyone thought I was getting ready to quit…I was giving away all my knick-knacks, etc. Once I assured everyone I wasn’t going anywhere, I noticed others in my group also getting rid of THEIR clutter.

Infectious minimalism…can’t beat it! :)


Hello Leo,

I’m reading your blog at zenhabits. I’m also a fan of minimalism, but most of the things you suggest only work for a handful of people (bloggers…). There are so many corporate workers out there.
I’m somewhere in between as I’m running my own purchasing consulting company from home.

Anyway, good post.


Great site and so full of useful information. I have recently started my home organizing site and have found your site through blogrush.

Am really keen to start gaining links to my site and to link back to others.

Matthew Cornell

Essentials I use daily (see for a complete list):
o pen and paper (as mentioned)
o letter opener (use the “sliding razor” type, not the “snake bite” type)
o craft blade (for “rip-and-read” technique on journal and magazine articles)
o filing: absolutely *required* – no paperless office yet, and probably never
o rubber bands (you’d be surprised how useful these are – cables, equipment, etc.)
o sticky notes (super handy when passing things along to others, or for “bookmarking” projects when interrupted)
o paper clips (can’t get away from them)

Regarding the desk, I suggest keeping a “clear 180” (from Len Merson’s “The Instant Productivity Toolkit”) – helps to focus. And about the layout? Liz Davenport (in “Order from Chaos”) says a “U” shape is optimal. At the bottom of ‘U’ is the computer, on the one side is projects arm and on the other side is the interruption/urgent arm. Second best is an “L” shape, third is two parallel desks, and last is the straight line.


I prefer to keep a pen, some 3×5 cards, my monitor, my mouse, and keyboard on my desk. I keep a bulletin board over my desk for all of my tasks. I think that it works very well for me.


About the walls. I find a white board extremly useful to have on the wall when planning projects for example.


Wow! You mean I have to give up the mess? ;-) Actually, this is a great checklist for getting organized. I’m going to print it out and keep it nearby so that I can refer to it often. My work area tends to get cluttered very quickly. One word that I would say about storing information online is to make sure that you back it up frequently.


One inbox is great, and i find literally “one box” to be deal. i bought a nice faux leather inbox that i keep everything in, from papers to gum to gadgets to aspirin. keeps things neat and uncluttered, i know where everything is and it’s all at arm’s length.

Comments are closed.