Time to Be Clutter-Free

Make a plan to filter, file, shred, and print with discretion. Your desk and your colleagues will thank you.

EVEN in this age of technology, I seem to collect and accumulate more paper than ever. I have piles of this and that on my desk and can honestly say I don?t know what treasures I have (or don't have) right at my fingertips. Disorganized is the operative word here, but I am trying really hard to recoup some semblance of order.

Along with keeping electronic mail archived on my computer, I also save it in paper form. I am not sure why, but I do. I have tried to regulate this habit by keeping the really important ones, but my criteria for what is really important changes often. Maybe it's because I had a computer crash a couple of years ago and lost some irreplaceable files, or maybe it's just because I need something tangible. The funny thing is, I never seem to go back and read those "really important" e-mails. They just keep accumulating, becoming more difficult to manage and less important with time.

E-mails are the least of it. Agency-produced letters, memorandums, policies, etc. are also really important to keep, right? They must be, because I have so many of them. It is always an adventure to wade through these piles and learn what I don't know about what I have on, in, and around my desk. I love to come across that one particular memo I just had to keep (and have been looking for ever since), only to learn that it is no longer relevant.

Some want to be neat but lack that last bit of discipline that allows them to do so. However, they are all excellent at knowing exactly where everything is.

Then of course, there's the box of papers ready for the shredder. Oddly, it is much smaller than the heaps of really important stuff. And what about the things that actually get filed--the paperwork that essentially makes it into a bona fide folder filed under the proper code and in the right spot in the file cabinet? Well, it's full, too--no room for anything else in there (which is probably why I started some of these piles of files in the first place). I know I am supposed to keep some of this stuff for five years and some for two years, but 1988? Hmm, maybe I can get rid of that.

I often wonder how we ever worked without computers but seem to have repressed that memory for some reason. However, I can remember hearing and reading about a "paperless society." Where did that go? I have more paper than ever before, and it seems to grow exponentially every year.

Experience tells me there are basically four categories that office workers fall into:

  • Neat-to-a-Fault: I am amazed at just how neat some people are! I don't like to enter these spaces for fear of knocking something out of balance. How do they ever get any work done if they are so reluctant to mix it up once in a while? But they do and are often just as meticulous about their work.
  • Somewhere-In-Between: Those in this category can be near-neat to near-disaster, depending on the situation. Most want to be neat but lack that last bit of discipline that allows them to do so. However, they are all excellent at knowing exactly where everything is, regardless of the overall condition of their space. Ask for this, they can find it without thinking. Ask for that, and they know precisely where to locate it. They are hard workers who believe in production versus perfection; they do good work.
  • On-the-Verge: These folks are at the edge, waiting to fall or be pushed into total disarray. They manage to hang on simply on skill and ability but could care less about how or where anything is kept--they have no time for that. They get their work done but spend an inordinate amount of time looking for it.
  • The Dark Side: There's little hope for those who have gone beyond and into the realm of total dysfunction. Their workspaces are incapable of supporting any valid effort to get work done. They don't know where anything is but have plenty of places to look. Don't dare enter these spaces; you may never come out.

Papers and files are not the only problem. I believe each of us has a right to personalize our office or office space, to a degree. Pictures of friends and family members, diplomas and awards, and desk-top items such as pen holders and file organizers are all very important in establishing our personalities at work. Some people like to keep live plants in their space to give it that "homey" feeling. (I would rather not kill any more living things, so I refrain from this practice.)

Collectors of books, magazines, catalogs, newspapers, trinkets, tokens, and signs all contribute to the clutter effect. Some people simply can't throw anything away, which creates a logistical nightmare: where to put all the junk they keep.

What does not fit on top of the desk might fit under the desk. The problem is that the area under the desk soon becomes "The Land of the Lost"--once it's under there, it is gone forever. Besides the obvious effect this has on comfort (ergonomically), under-the-desk storage creates a fire hazard. Electrical cords often are hidden under these masses of whatever and can subsequently heat up, causing shorts or even fires.

Besides the obvious effect it has on comfort, under-the-desk storage creates a fire hazard.

The second effect of such storage is placing or retrieving some object. Typically, one would have to kneel, and often double-kneel, to do this. This causes extra pressure on the knees and back while risking the chance of bumping your head or other body part on the desk while entering/exiting this area. Let's face it: The space under the desk is not intended for anything other than your legs and feet (properly situated in an ergonomically sound chair) and the wires and cables to your computer equipment. Anything else creates a hazardous condition.

If I can't heap it under the desk, then maybe I can stack it above the desk and on top of the file cabinets. Flat, level and perfect for long-term storage--well, maybe not. These areas often produce avalanches and can be out of reach, causing you to hyperextend your back when attempting to place or remove items. And there is always that one person who thinks a chair is really a stepladder/stool in disguise. Never mind that it tilts, rolls, and rotates (making the ride more exciting), a chair should never be used for anything but sitting.

Let's Get Moving
Enough is enough! It is spring and I have decided to make a concerted effort to organize my own little corner of the world. After all, I spend most of my waking hours here, so it is important that I figure out a way to make it more efficient and functional. Neat is the goal, so cleaning up is essential. I plan to:

  • Filter. I must become more selective in what I keep. If it something that must be kept but can be done so electronically, I will do that. Everything else is gone.
  • Develop a reading file. I am going to place the "really important" stuff in a folder for reading (at my leisure), keeping the most recent items in the front. After one month, I am going to cycle through it and purge the back half of the folder. I figure if I haven't read it by then, probably it is not that important.
  • File immediately. Any items that are required to be kept for specified periods of time will get a properly annotated folder and be placed in the file cabinet immediately. I have learned this takes about 49 seconds to do (faster if you know what you are doing). Those files that require indefinite or long-term storage will be taken downstairs to our storage room.
  • Shred even faster. If I don't need it but it contains sensitive information, I will shred it.
  • Print with discretion. I will print only those items that absolutely require printing. Everything else will be saved electronically or deleted appropriately.
  • Keep business-only items. I will recycle or dispose of any bits and pieces that are not strictly business related and simply serve to clutter my space. Catalogs, magazines, newspapers, and junk that end up on my desk will not be kept if they have no direct link to what I do.
  • Implement a clean desk policy. My desk will be void of extraneous paperwork at the end of each day.

Bear in mind that such a house-cleaning exercise might take some time and may be a monumental task for some. Set aside a day or two, or even a week, to tackle the big items and then use your spare time throughout the day to fine-tune the little stuff. Recycle where you can and discard the rest. Once you have your space in order, maintain it. Develop the neat habit and strive to be clutter-free!

This column appeared in the April 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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