It can be hard to be productive when your desk is covered in paper. Clutter has a way of making people feel stressed out, distracted and/or overwhelmed. When this happens, it’s a good idea to invest some time in organizing the paper around you so it doesn’t slow you down.
Paper can be one of the most time-consuming things to organize because every sheet is a decision. Am I going to attend the event on this flier? When will I file this claim? Should I call about this $5 charge I don’t recognize or is not worth my time? This is one of the big reasons why people accumulate paper so fast. However, there is a relatively quick way to organize the paper on your desk and set up an organizing system so your desk doesn’t get covered in paper again.
The trick is to sort into five broad categories first and then sort some of the piles into subcategories afterwards. This prevents you from having 20 piles of paper take over your office and finding yourself in the middle of an all day project you didn’t plan time for. This method gives you multiple opportunities for stopping points without a big mess.
To begin, move the bin you use to discard paper next to your desk before you start sorting. The most basic categories for sorting any kind of clutter are Keep and Get Rid Of, so that is the first thing to decide about each piece of paper.
Category #1: Trash/Recycle
When you decide to throw something out, put it directly into the trash or recycle bin as you sort. Make a pile of the paper with sensitive information that you want to shred next to the bin.
Category #2: Shred
After you’re done sorting all the paper, put the Shred pile in a box labeled “To Shred” so you don’t mix it up with other paper later. Schedule a time in your calendar to shred the paper yourself or take it somewhere to be shredded. From now on, collect all paper you want to shred in that box and shred it when it’s full.
Category #3: Take Action
This is paper you’re keeping because it pertains to something you need to do.
Some common examples are:
Category #4: Refer To Later
This is paper you want to keep because you want to look at it later.
Some common examples are:
Category #5: Supplies
Supplies are blank paper products like legal pads, unused envelopes, craft paper, computer paper, sticky notes, etc. Only keep what you use frequently on your desk. Trash or recycle any that are crumpled, dirty, or otherwise not useable. For supplies in good condition, give away the ones you don’t think you’ll use and put the rest where you have other office supplies.
Your first stopping point for this project will depend on the volume of paper you’re dealing with and how much time you have left after sorting into the five categories. I recommend boxing up the shredding and putting away supplies right after you’ve sorted all the paper into the five categories.
The Take Action pile is where the urgent and important paper is, so I recommend sorting it next. My favorite thing to do with this kind of paper is to store it in a container that holds paper vertically on top of the desk, with categories like:
Everyone’s categories for action paper will be slightly different. The examples above are some common themes to inspire and guide you. Don’t forget make time to deal with action paper on a regular basis.
The Refer To Later pile will also need to be sorted and put away at some point. My favorite way to store this kind of paper is in a filing cabinet, with exceptions for certain kinds of memorabilia. Being organized is a lifestyle choice, so keeping things organized requires diligence.
I’d love to hear about your desk paper organizing challenges and successes. Please share your stories in the comments. Your experiences and ideas can help other readers change their habits and learn something new.
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Based in Madison, Wisconsin, Dane County, and serving clients around the world virtually.
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