I was preparing for a small party for my son’s birthday so I ran through the usual tidying steps to get the house ready: dust surfaces, check; vacuum floors, check; clean bathroom, check…then I walked by the desk in my kitchen. Eeek!! It was scary! I knew it was bad because it had been messy for ages but somehow in the last few weeks it had become a real eyesore.
I couldn’t have people over with the desk looking like that so I had to come up with a solution ASAP. This was an emergency organizing project that needed to be done quickly so that the space was presentable. Now I’m only talking about the surface of the desk. The drawers were messy too but nobody was going to see that. I needed to focus on the visible clutter and I thought if I could tackle that, maybe it would motivate me to do the rest of my desk afterwards.
My biggest issue with this space was the paper. It was everywhere; there were neglected piles in every corner. I’ve always had issues with letting go of paper and an even bigger issue with consistently filing it. But for the moment, the plan was to clear out the paper and go through it later. Even so that left me with a random assortment of other items that needed to be put away or thrown out.
I also needed to clean the desk surface and rearrange things so that they made sense and were functional. Except for the paper, I was pretty confident I could organize the surface of my desk in under an hour. I also knew that in that short amount of time I could set it up in a way that was good enough to keep me organized for a while without having to redo it again immediately after the party.
Here’s what I did:
Step 1. Made a List of How I Used the Desk Surface
This was a step that was important to go through before I started to do the actual physical work of organizing. It’s a good idea to think about how you use your desk and what you will need to store and use in the area. This is not a desk that I normally sit at unless I’m on the phone so I wrote a list of the kinds of activities that happen in this space. This is what I came up with:
- talk on the phone (because I’m the last person on earth still using a corded phone)
- organize paper files
- store receipts, mail and menus
- charge electronic devices
- unload car keys
- sharpen pencils
- take messages (this is rare but happens on occasion)
I know this adds extra time and can be annoying when you just want to get started but it did save me time later. This helped me decide how to arrange the space so that the activities listed above were prioritized.
The list also helped me to be realistic about how much I could do given my space limitations. Because I’ve been wanting to simplify this space for a while I had to give this some thought. You can only keep so many things out on the surface of your desk before it starts to look cluttered. This list will also keep me honest about what needs to go when things start to creep back onto the desk later.
Step 2. Gathered ALL the Paper
After I was done with my list I got to work. The first thing I did was to get an empty cardboard box. This would serve as temporary storage for the piles of paper on my desk. Next, I placed the piles into the box. I didn’t go through anything or even look closely at the papers. I simply gathered the paper and stacked it as neatly as possible into the box. (I didn’t realize how much paper I had until I saw it all together!) After completing this step, the desk already looked so much better. This took all of five minutes. Sorting and filing the paper would happen later, most likely after the party.
Step 3. Took Everything Off the Desk
If you’ve read my post about how I organized my kids’ art supplies this will sound familiar. If your space is small enough to allow for all of the items to be removed, I highly recommend it. It a) allows you to clean the surfaces and b) it forces you to really look at what individual items you have in the space. Sorting your stuff is also easier this way. It’s helpful to have another clear area nearby to place all the items while you work.
Because this space hadn’t been touched in a while except to add paper to the existing piles, it needed some serious cleaning. It’s really satisfying to start with a completely cleared out and clean surface. It was now a blank canvas on which I could create the kind of system that would work to process all the paper that comes into my kitchen.
Step 4. Placed Items Back in the Space Using the List from Step 1
This is where the list from Step 1 comes in handy. I only put back the items that would help with the activities I prioritized in my list. Those items included:
- my three-tier paper organizer (for my mail, receipts, restaurant menus)
- pencil and pen holders (also holds scissors)
- platter that holds keys, post-its and phone charger
- business card holder (has phone numbers for doctors, vendors, etc.)
- electric pencil sharpener
- old-fashioned corded phone
This is as much as I could put back on my desk while keeping a fairly clutter-free surface. Anymore than this would have been too difficult to maintain.
Also, my goal here was to make the space minimal and functional. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the aesthetics. I can always make it look pretty later. Once the desk surface is tidy I’ll have more of an incentive to make it look nice.
Notice that I didn’t put a paper filing system here. I will be filing incoming paper somewhere else. I think the temptation to make piles would be too great if I keep my papers on the desk. I’m fine with organizing the paper there but I want it to end up somewhere else, possibly in a spot where I spend more time and can be more vigilant about paper clutter.
The process of clearing everything off the desk and then putting only the essential items back, as well as putting away all the other things I didn’t want out in the open, took about thirty minutes. So this put me at about thirty-five minutes. Unfortunately, I didn’t time myself making my list before organizing but I’m pretty sure it didn’t take any more than ten minutes which still keeps the total time under an hour.
Now I didn’t have to be embarrassed to have guests over. Seeing a nice tidy space was a relief after having to walk by that scary mess for months. A tidy desk would also reduce my anxiety over people coming over unexpectedly. Phew!
If you have any tips for organizing a messy desk and would like to share please leave a comment below.
I’ll update this post once I’ve gone through all the paper. That may take a while…
If you’d like to see me going through this project check out the video below.