Productivity Superstar: 4 Ways to Organize Your Office for Fall


Women Climbing Paper Stack PhotoSometimes it seems like the world is divided up into two camps: the people who neatly arrange every file, folder, report and receipt — and can find them at the snap of a finger — and the pile people. You can tell a pile person by the 3-foot-high stack of paperwork on their desktop and the masses of magazines shoved into the corner of their office. I’m sure you know at least a few of these pack rats. You may even be one.

But regardless of which end of the clutter spectrum you fall on, too much clutter can cause your productivity to take a powder. No, really; it’s true. According to one poll conducted by, over a third of respondents avoid going home because of the overwhelming mess. So if you work from home full-time or telecommute part-time, clutter can have a noticeable impact on your productivity. Another research project from Pricewaterhouse Coopers found that businesses spend 150 hours a year looking for incorrectly filed documents.

At this point in the post, you should be feeling an urgent desire to declare a new day and clean out your office. If so, what better time than the coming change of seasons to start anew. It’s never too late to become a recovering pack rat or join the ranks of us neat freaks. OK, if you don’t want to go that far, at least consider this expert advice on four simple ways to organize your office for fall.

Ask the right questions. Janet L. Hall, of, says the key to conquering clutter in your workspace is to ask yourself some basic questions about each item you have sitting on or near your desk including: Do I actually use this? Do I really want this? And where does this really belong?

Hall says that once you’ve honestly answered these questions, you can take action to eliminate the clutter in your workspace. When you get ready to sort through your piles, drawers, filing cabinets, bookcases, briefcases and anything else that needs to be sorted through, be ruthless, determined and honest, using these questions as a guideline to help you decide whether you should keep it or chuck it. With a few tweaks, you can apply this process to cleaning out your email inbox as well.

Use the 15-Minute Rule. Regina Leeds, who bills herself as The Zen Organizer, suggests setting a timer for 15 minutes and then doing a blitz through your office with two large, green garbage bags in tow. In particular, be on the lookout for anything that is outdated. Some likely candidates might include: old trade publications and magazines; flyers to seminars that have passed; swag picked up at conferences and white papers that — let’s face it — you won’t ever get around to reading.

Learn to label. Lisa Zaslow of Gotham Organizers says that labeling is one of the easiest changes you can make to get your office organized. “While this may seem obvious,” says Zaslow, “it is amazing how many offices I visit where the lack of labels and inaccurate labels leads to wasted time, misspent money and unnecessary stress.” Zaslow suggests labeling the following so you can easily identify their contents and purpose: file folders; boxes (especially if they are stored on a high shelf); binders; keys; switches; cords, cables and chargers; shelves; drawers and file cabinets. She even suggests putting a label on your cell phone or PDA with “reward for return” and a different phone number so you can be contacted if it’s lost.

Manage your manuals. Web workers seem to collect all manner of technical and reference manuals, many of which are out of date or rarely used. Monica Ricci, author of “Organize Your Office in No Time,” suggests freeing up precious storage space by removing those manuals that are rarely used from your immediate workspace and storing them elsewhere. In addition, go through and throw away any outdated or old manuals. Consider keeping only frequently referenced titles on — or near — your desktop.

Spending just 15 minutes a day over the next week working on these items can net you a clutter-free office and get you ready to rush headlong (and organized) into the coming holidays. Don’t you feel the strain of clutter and stress of mess leaving your shoulders already?

Share your office decluttering tips in the comments.


Lisa Zaslow

Stephen, your Desk Reference sounds terrific. Excellent point about labelling the spine – all too often people have “mystery binders” on their shelves!

For additional space-saving you could put your daily schedule in the cover of the Desk Reference, if your binder has a clear plastic sleeve in the front to customize it.

Stephen McGehee

One of my favorite organization tools is my “Desk Reference”. It is a three-ring binder that has heavy-duty plastic dividers for the major information sections appropriate to what I do (write software). I use the 1″ size – it’s small enough to stand up easily on my desk so it takes up almost no room, yet big enough to hold what I need. If I start to outgrow it, then it’s time to clean it out.

It opens up to my main To-Do list and my general daily schedule (reminders so that I don’t get out of the habit to check things on a daily basis), followed by my written business strategy (some would call this “goals and objectives” or something similar). After that are various sections such as error code reference lists, ASCII code list, sales tax information, ideas, projects that don’t yet have their own folder or binder, and that sort of thing. Most tech manuals only have a few pages that are regularly referred to, and my Desk Reference contains those pages.

The Desk Reference (as well as all of the binders on my bookshelf) has a printed label on the spine. Each section divider also has a printed label. The “Learn to Label” section is right on target. I use a Brother P-Touch label maker with either 1/2″ or 3/4″ TZ tape.

Each night, I print out a daily schedule of how I want to spend my time. That goes into a transparent plastic envelope that has a spot on my desk. I try hard to stick to the schedule, but just as battle plans only survive until the first shot is fired, it is very subject to change. Without it, though, it is too hard for me to get far off target. I need the discipline that a schedule provides.

Stephen McGehee

It works (most of the time) for me. I suspect that if we were all completely honest with ourselves, we would admit that the biggest battle we have is with ourselves. The ideas that help me the most are those that help me overcome my own tendency to stray far off track. Web Worker Daily and Life Hacker have always been great sources of ideas that work for me. Setting a very specific “to-do” list the night before gives me one specific project to begin the day. It is like a writer overcoming the “blank page syndrome”.

My “to-do” list is in the form of a daily schedule divided into 30-minute intervals. I made up a template in OpenOffice Draw (I am a big fan of the OpenOffice suite of tools). That takes up the left side of the page. The right side of the page is one long column labeled “Notes”. That is for all those little tasks that pop up during the day that can’t really be planned for.

I envy those folks who (if they really exist) do not need scheduling tools to keep on track. I have been working from home for 14 years now, and getting a system down that works for me has probably been the biggest factor in making it work successfully.

Stephen McGehee

I might also mention that, while I tend to be rather “old school”, preferring pen and 3×5 cards rather than “cloud working”, I keep a fairly paperless office. Just about any paper that can be scanned and saved as a PDF gets shredded or trashed after scanning. Considering how much paper gets generated or received, there is very little of it in the office. I have one full desk file drawer and about 6″ worth of files in another – and that includes mostly personal paperwork.

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