Happiness Is a Clean Desk

Happiness Is a Clean Desk

How to beat the paper monster

J. Bud Feuchtwanger
Institute for Business Technology

G round zero in the battle against clutter and lost time at work is the desktop. To win the war, and win that raise or promotion, you must have a clever system for routinely processing all of the reports and follow-up projects that pour into your office.

Here are our strategies for gaining permanent control of your desktop no matter how disorganized you are.

blue circle bullet Clean your desk well. The biggest peril of a messy desk is that important tasks will get buried, causing us to waste precious time on trivial paperwork. Then, when we're reminded of the truly important paperwork, many of us can't find it. In fact, it has been estimated that we each spend six weeks a year looking for misplaced papers.

Just the sight of a disorganized desk confuses most people and triggers procrastination, another roadblock to success. Helpful:

blue square bullet Dedicate time specifically for desk cleanup.

blue square bullet When the time comes, create space for the following files:

blue circle bullet Working papers that are needed for ongoing work.

blue circle bullet Reference papers that may be needed in coming weeks.

blue circle bullet Archive papers that are important but to which you probably no longer need to refer.

blue square bullet Go through every piece of paper on your desk, and place each one in the appropriate file.

blue square bullet Throw out those papers that are trivial, that are of no use or that exist elsewhere.

blue square bullet File all loose papers. Since "working papers" represent 80% of your work, file them in your desk or within arm's reach. Store reference papers in a nearby closet or cabinet. Box your archive papers, and store them outside your office.

blue circle bullet Set up a desk-tray system. Properly positioned desk trays are critical to processing your work efficiently. Without them, you will be unable to keep track of the volume or flow.

Strategy: Set up three desk trays within arm's reach on your desk. Label them:

blue square bullet In, for mail and paperwork that have not yet been read.

blue square bullet Pending, for items that you have acted on and are awaiting responses that will complete them.

blue square bullet Out, for completed tasks.

Action: Schedule at least 20 minutes at a designated time each day to process your in tray. Take one item at a time, and act on everything that is in there.

If an item is unnecessary, trash it. When an item has been completed, put it in the out tray. If you can't complete it immediately, make a folder for it and file it with your working papers.

Next go through your pending tray, and check on any responses due to you to ensure they don't fall through the cracks.

Schedule at least two more times during the day to empty your in box the same way.

Helpful: Get a fourth tray if you have a lot of reading material. Prevent any buildup by reading short items and disposing of them at once, by scanning tables of contents and clipping articles rather than keeping entire publications. Schedule time for reading each day.

blue circle bullet Use your pending tray as a tabletop management system for important items. Everyone has a stack of materials that are awaiting responses or callbacks.

To save time and avoid delays when those replies come in, you should be able to grab those papers quickly.

Strategy: An upright, stepped file-holder is an alternative to a tray for pending items. Place the crucial papers in the rack. Flag each with a Post-it note that has the person's name written in bold letters.

At the end of each day, review what's left in the rack and decide if you need to take further action to get a response.

blue circle bullet Overcome paperwork procrastination. Self-imposed delays eat up more time in the workplace than anything else.

What compounds the problem is that most people who procrastinate not only don't do the task, they also worry about not doing it, further wasting time and energy.

Strategy: Ruthlessly adhere to a "do-it-now" mentality. Whenever possible, tell yourself to act immediately on every item you pick up: E-mail messages, phone messages or callbacks.

Push yourself to do unpleasant tasks. Tell yourself that by completing these tasks, you make subsequent tasks seem easy by comparison. This strategy will also boost your self-esteem and confidence.

blue circle bullet Once you have recaptured your desktop, develop a routine to maintain your new system. Screen out unnecessary stuff before it gets to your desktop. Avoid procrastination. It creates backlog. Strike a balance between fast-reaction items and work that requires concentration.

Strategy: Plan ahead. Work that can't be completed in one step (working-papers files) must be scheduled. At least once a week, schedule time to look at those files and determine what actions are needed to complete them. Mark on your calendar the times you are going to dedicate to them. Then do it.

Helpful: Never have anything directly in front of you but the project on which you are working. Everything else should be in a file or in a stepped file-holder rack on your desk.

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