How to Clean Your Desk

How to keep your physical desk clean.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #60

Now that we've conquered your closet, today's topic is keeping your desk clean. The quick and dirty tip is to put everything in arm’s reach, possibly vertically.

Jim wrote in:

Do you have tips for keeping everything off the desk and organized? And once the desktop is clean, let's say thru the use of a blow torch, how does one keep it clean and have more to review later than, say, ashes?

Desktops are the worst. And it’s not just physical desktops, either. My computer desktop also gets cluttered. Whatever genius came up with the idea of having my computer mimic my office deserves a few dozen lifetimes of being drenched in honey and tied to a stake over an anthill. Productivity tool? Excuse me? Giving me the convenience of having a computer as cluttered and chaotic as the rest of my life is not a big “plus” in my book. But I digress.

You have the skill within you.

I’ve noticed that my desktops all gravitate to a certain level of chaos. They start off clean, get cluttered very quickly, but then maintain about the same level of chaos going forward. This is good news. It tells me that once there’s clutter around, I must actually be not letting more accumulate. So I must have the skill to deal with stuff buried somewhere deep inside my psyche. Otherwise, the mess would have punched through the ceiling by now, and it hasn’t. In fact, if I stand on my tip-toes, it’s barely over my head.

Looking closely, here’s what happens. The desk starts pristine and beautiful. Then something happens. Maybe some mail arrives, or I need to find a citation in my collection of extremely rare Marilyn Monroe/Bugs Bunny romance novels. I put the stuff on the desktop until I deal with them. And sometimes, I do deal with them. Especially if there’s an expiration date.

My thinking goes like this. Hmm… A medical bill from my checkup last Spring. It’s 90 days past due. Since I don’t need another checkup for over a year, I’m sure I can just leave it here and pay it in about eight months. Oh, what’s this? My doctor saying she’ll never see me again because I don’t pay on time. Well, if she really means “never,” I guess that means we’re all settled. Right? See? Leave stuff on your desk long enough and it takes care of itself. (Oh, what’s this? From… what’s a collection company? Whatever.)

Tickling can save the day.

What I should be doing is using a tickler file. At your local stationery store, you can get a file folder with 31 compartments, one for each day of the month. When an item comes in that has to be dealt with at a certain time, just put it directly into the tickler folder on the appropriate day. Don’t even let it touch your desk. Then each morning, pull out the items due that day and work on them. If you schedule more than a month in advance, you can also get a monthly tickler file for postponing stuff further out.

And speaking of further out, you know what part of my desk gets messy and never, ever gets cleaned up? The whole part of my desk that’s out of arm’s reach. Once I set something down that requires me to lean, stand, reach, or do anything that might burn a calorie in order to reach it, I never touch it again. So the simple rule is never, ever put something down outside of arm’s reach. Or better yet, get a desk small enough that everything is within arm’s reach.

If you want to impress your boss with how much you’re responsible for, fill the entire area of your desk outside of arm’s reach with stacks of phony papers. You can even think of it as a modern art installation commentary on the futility of organizational life.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.