I’ve been on a bit of a minimalism kick lately.
Ever since, I’ve been on a mission to declutter all my spaces, take stock of what I own, and carefully assess what things I bring into my home.
One of the hardest areas to declutter, however, has been my office. From piles of papers littering my desk to disorganized folders and endless cords (seriously—I can’t count the amount of times I found myself wondering, “What does this cord even go to?”), my office space was in serious need of decluttering.
The case for creating an optimized, organized workspace
When it comes to decluttering and organizing the spaces we spend the most time in, home offices present an interesting challenge. On the one hand, they’re highly functional spaces, so oftentimes the need for an aesthetically-pleasing space is relegated as a less important priority (and hey, sometimes it’s hard to make offices look nice—printers aren’t that attractive).
On the other hand, with so much critical time spent in our workspaces with the goal of producing our highest-quality work possible, we shouldn’t just settle for “good enough” when it comes to our workspace. After all, what’s the point of spending so much time brainstorming ways to be more productive while working from home and creating our own “user manual” if we are hindered by a cluttered, poorly-defined workspace that makes us less focused and creative?
How clutter impacts our ability to work effectively
The value in applying the idea of decluttering to your office space is backed by science:
When we’re around clutter, we have difficulty processing and retaining information. This can make it more difficult to complete your work effectively, think creatively, and remember important information. In addition, a cluttered space can make us feel depressed, stressed, and generally have an overall mood-dampening effect—hardly conducive to producing high-quality work. This is based in part by the fact that clutter overwhelms us with excess stimuli, which makes it harder for us to hone our focus in on what is actually important (like our current work-related tasks at hand).
On the flip side and unsurprisingly, the lack of clutter produces the opposite effect. When we’re in an uncluttered, organized environment, we experienced increased ability to focus and concentrate.
However, it can be difficult to part with our things—namely because they are ours. This phenomenon, known as the endowment effect, is based on the fact that we place inordinately high value on things that we own, simply because the are ours. As such, it can be hard to part with our own possessions, because we assign a much higher value to them than they actually have.
Step 1: Designate space
The first step in creating a productive, organized workspace is to clearly delineate what your workspace is.
Do you have a home office? Great—problem solved. If you have a designated office in your home already, it’s a lot easier to structure it to your needs and demarcate the space for work-use only.
However, you might not actually have a designated home office. That’s okay! The goal here is to make your space feel like an office, even if you’ve set up your workspace in the living room. Do a little searching online (Pinterest is a great resource here) to get some inspiration on how to set up a home office in your living room, out of a closet (really), or in some other corner of your home.
Once you have an idea of where you’d like to fit your “office,” you’ll be able to get a sense of what you need to outfit the space with to make it feel like a designated work area. The goal here? Making sure that your workspace itself isn’t doing “double duty” as a repository for keys, mail, and other miscellaneous junk. Start by setting up a workspace that is just for work.
Step 2: Get rid of clutter
Having a cluttered workspace is, frankly, a huge nuisance. It’s hard to find anything, it’s easier to get distracted (hello, internet bill you forgot to pay), and it’s just visually distracting.
As I touched on earlier, a study by Princeton neurosurgeons found that the more things you have around you, the harder it is to switch between tasks, focus on work, remember things, and filter information. Whether or not it’s material that is useful to your life in some way, all the excess “stuff” competes for your attention, and makes it difficult to focus. This means that the more clutter you have on your desk and in your workspace, the less you’ll be able to be productive and do good work.
So, once you’ve determined exactly where your designated workspace will be and started to give it shape, the next step is to thoroughly declutter the area.
There are endless guides online that cover how to declutter your spaces (as well as the book I mentioned earlier, which goes into decluttering your entire home), but here are the basic steps you’ll need to follow:
Determine why you’re doing this, and set your goals
Why are you decluttering?
Do you want a more aesthetically-pleasing workspace? Do you want to be able to find important items more easily? Do you feel distracted and unfocused as soon as you walk into your messy, disorganized office? It’s likely a combination of these things, but having a clear understanding of why you’re undertaking this project and what your goals are will help you going forward.
For example, if you primary goal is a more aesthetically-pleasing workspace that makes you feel creative and inspired, you’ll probably be focused on finding storage solutions that are attractive as well as practical. Or, if you’re in need of an organizational system that helps you find things more easily, structure your decluttering and organizing project around that specific end goal.
Go through all materials in your office, separating them into three categories
The categories are simple: stuff to keep, stuff to get rid of, and stuff that belongs elsewhere in your house. This sounds incredibly reductive, but the reality is, that’s essentially the only criteria you need.
Take some time to assess everything in your office, and ask yourself the following questions about each item:
- Do I use this on a regular basis?
- If not, do I need to keep a copy of this (for tax reasons, and so on)?
- Is there a way I could keep this without keeping a physical copy? (Think scanning documents as opposed to keeping everything in files, or similar—see step 4.)
- Do I like this, and does it make me enjoy being in my workspace? (This questioning is best applied to things like office furniture, decorations, and so on.)
- Does this really belong in my office?
Once again, every item in your office should be subject to the same line of questioning. Ruthlessness is advised here; after all, if you jump right into assessing your possessions without screening them based on their usefulness, you’ll probably come across some things that you think, “Well, I don’t use this now, but I might use it in the future.”
However, by asking yourself a series of questions about each item, you’re more likely to only hold onto what you genuinely like, need, and use on a regular basis. Is it broken, unused, or not relevant to your day-to-day operations? It can probably be donated, given away, or thrown out.
Step 3: Organize, organize, organize
Now that you’ve cleared out the junk, it’s time to create a system for the remainder of your office—you know, the stuff you’ve decided you actually need to keep.
Note that organizing your office is step three for a reason: you want to be careful not to take on this step until you’ve actually cleared out the clutter and pared down your space.
Although it can be tempting to run out and buy some storage bins right away, experts advise waiting until you’ve gone through your space before buying storage solutions. Otherwise, you may end up storing things that don’t serve you and could be thrown away, donated, or converted to paperless versions (see the next step), and it will be harder to keep your space organized in the future.
When you actually get down to organizing, it can be helpful to break your office into “zones.” For instance, you might have a section of your office for filing and reference material, a space specifically for writing or work on your computer, a supply area, and so on. Clearly defining what part of your office is used for what task or function will help it stay organized in the future. After all, if your “zone” for filing important papers is a filing cabinet next to your desk, it’ll be easy to see that they’re out of place in your “writing zone,” and you’ll be more likely to put them where they belong.
Beyond establishing different zones for different types of work tasks and materials, you’ll probably want to invest in some materials like a label maker, filing solution, storage boxes, and so on. What you’ll need will be unique to your individual office situation and type of work, but here are some tips that’ll help you brainstorm solutions that work for you.
Step 4: Look into paperless solutions
I can’t tell you how excited I was to find out about the Genius Scan app; I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this scanner app is pretty much the most exciting app I’ve discovered in recent memory. Now, when I get an important document in the mail, it gets scanned immediately and saved. While I still file away really important documents (like tax and housing info), this dramatically cuts down on the amount of paperwork I have to deal with and shift around my office.
Of course, going paperless in your office can be applied to more than just keeping electronic records of documents. Making an effort to conduct the majority of your business without using physical paper documents is easier than ever, and it will dramatically reduce the amount of clutter in your office and cut down on time spent filing papers or hunting around for an important bill.
One quick way to cut down on the amount of papers that make their way through your office is to look into switching to paperless billing, both in terms of the bills you pay and invoices you send to clients. This might look like setting up online billing for all your accounts, and switching to a invoicing service such as Paypal invoicing or Freshbooks that allows you to bill clients online. And, it should go without saying that using an electronic template solution like Bidsketch for business proposals also serves as a great way to cut down on your paper clutter.
Step 5: Create an environment that inspires creativity
What kind of environment do you prefer to work in? What motivates you, inspires you, and gets you into your office in the morning? Maybe you enjoy a clean, empty, minimalistic space, with few added visual elements. Or, perhaps you feel more creative and inspired by decorating your office with your favorite quotes, art, or snapshots from important moments in your life.
The goal here isn’t to create a uniformly uncluttered, homogenous space, but rather to optimize your workspace to reflect what helps you work best. If that means streamlined minimalism, great—but it’s fine if you like a busy vision board, or a desk where you display mementos, too. The key is to make it purposeful, and reflective of what type of environment works best for you.
Have you made an effort to declutter your office, and create an organized workspace that invites focus and creativity? How did you go about this process?
I’d love to hear from you. Leave me a comment and let me know what your experience was.