How to declutter workspace for increased productivity

Part 1: Physical clutter

I blog about decluttering for obvious reasons, but have you noticed my posts tend to be somewhat abstract and generic? I can’t help it because I’m trying to address different clutter situation when I write.

Today, I’m switching a gear a bit and talk about how to declutter specific workspace. I’m doing this by treating three pictures I found via visual hunt as my clients’ workplace and discuss how I would tackle their clutter.

I’m also doing this in a two-part series. Today, I’m going to cover the physical clutter in the workspace. Next week, I will be addressing digital and mental clutter. 

I hope that you can use the information and extrapolate it to your own situation. 

How to declutter workspace for increased productivity

Office 1: Cacophony in brown

I guess that you’re a student, an intern or work at a university. I see that you have a really neat handwriting. 

Photo credit: orphanjones  via  Visual hunt  /  CC BY 2.0

Photo credit:orphanjones via Visual huntCC BY 2.0

Garbage and recyclables

The first thing you should do is to pick up any garbage or recyclables. I see several empty pop bottles and take-out coffee cups. I also see a plastic fork. 

How about that yellow paper bag and that See’s chocolate box? Are they empty?

Let’s get rid of them.


Next, let’s go through every single paper items on your desk and sort them into:

𝥁 Recyclables
𝥁 To shred
𝥁 Current tasks
𝥁 To be filed

Put recyclables in a designated box or a bag. Shred sensitive and confidential documents. 

Sort the documents you’re currently working on by their priority so that the most urgent one comes on top. 

Examine the documents that you put on the “To be filed” pile. See if you can locate a digital copy either on your hard disk or the shared drive. If there is a digital copy, recycle the paper copy. If there aren’t any digital copy, consider digitizing the documents by scanning or photographing. 

Since you have a laptop, try to work with digital documents as much as possible in the future: this will reduce your paper consumption, reduce paper clutter and makes it easy to locate your documents (You can use command F or control F to look for documents instead of manually look for that elusive piece of document by hand.)

Don’t forget to go through documents and memos pinned on the divider wall. Are all of them still relevant? 

Put things back where they belong

I see a couple of rolls of tracing paper. You can at least put away one of them. You can also put away your camera. 

And we’re done.
Estimated Time required to declutter: 30-60 min (not including time to declutter drawers and anything not shown in the picture). You will need more time if you’re going to create filing system (hard copy and digital) from scratch.

Office 2: Engineer’s lair

The photo is named “An Engineer’s Desk,” and I see the back of a magazine or a catalog with a photo of a sound do you work in a recording or TV broadcasting industry? That’s so cool. 

Empty boxes

I see several presumably empty cardboard boxes on the left side of your desk. Can you flatten and recycle them now? If you need to keep them for now, can we put them in the storage? Make sure not to put them under your desk. 

Paper items and booklets

Let’s gather all of the paper items on your desk and sort them into following piles:

𝥁 Recycle
𝥁 Shred
𝥁 Bills and receipts
𝥁 Booklets
𝥁 Binders
𝥁 To be filed
𝥁 Current tasks

Put recyclables in a designated box or a bag. Shred sensitive and confidential documents. 

Go over your bills and receipts. Are there any that are overdue? Have you missed a deadline for submitting your receipts to your finance department? Make sure to attend to them right after you’ve finished decluttering, by the end of the day. 

Determine if you need to keep booklets from workshops and training you’ve attended. Are you actually going to read them again or are they just going to sit on your desk indefinitely? If latter, recycle them. 

Check the contents of each binder and decide if you need to keep them. See if you have digital copies. If you do, then recycle or shred the hard copy. 

See if you have digital copies of documents in the “To be filed” pile. If you do, then recycle or shred the hard copy.

Organize the “Current tasks” pile by urgency. The task with the earliest deadline should come on top or in the middle of your decluttered desk. 

Don’t forget to check the documents inside yellow file folders on the right side of your desk!

Moving forward, do you think you can switch to working with digital documents at least partially and reduce your paper consumption? Because the best way to organize paper clutter is by not having printouts in the first place. 

Stickies, memos and misc documents on the wall

Several stickies and a receipt are covering half of your monitor. Can you move them to the gray wall on your left-hand side? Or better yet, see if you can discard them. 

Are the documents pinned on the cubicle wall still relevant? Do you have a digital copy of any of them? 

Other items

Open and empty envelopes and packages and decide what to do with the contents.  

Do you need to keep those drumsticks on your desk?

I see a clear business card case on the right-hand side and also a stack of business cards just below your monitor. Can we put them together? You could also scan the cards and recycle the actual cards. 

I see some cords on the desk--let’s hang them next to the cords already hanging on the wall. 

You seem to have two pen holders, and one of them has only one pen in them. Let’s get rid of one of them. 

Estimated Time required to declutter: Approx. 2 hours (not including time to declutter drawers and anything not shown in the picture). You will need more time if you’re going to create filing system (hard copy and digital) from scratch.

Office 3: Paper strata

Oh hi, I didn’t see you sitting in front of your computer! It looks like the photo was taken through a window and the reflection certainly helps to blend you into that gray wall of your office.

I guess that you’re in the printing business? Your office reminds me of the thesis binding office at my alma mater. 

Photo credit:  onesevenone  via  Visual hunt  /  CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: onesevenone via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Garbage and recyclables

I’d imagine most of your items in your office are products waiting to be picked up, but I can still spot some items that look like garbage or recyclables. Let’s get rid of them. This may require you to open some envelopes and boxes and examine the contents. 

Old orders

It looks like there are some items that look like they’ve been sitting there for a long time. Were they ordered a long time ago and never picked up? Separate those deadbeat orders from the rest, and decide what to do with them. You may have to accept the loss and recycle/shred the documents. 

Current orders ready for pickup

Organize the current orders by date of order, item size, customer, or in any way that makes sense to you. Make sure to follow up with your customers to remind them to pick up their orders. 

Ask for a new shelf, so you can place your orders on them instead of your floor or chairs. 

Organize your documents

Now, let’s move away from your products and focus on your own work documents. Since you have a computer, why not stop printing out documents and transition to working in a digital environment? 

Read a report on your computer. Create a memo and notes on your word-processing program instead on your notepad. 

Estimated Time required to declutter: One whole day or more.  Again, you will need more time if you’re going to create filing system (paper and digital) from scratch.


As you can see, paper is the biggest source of clutter in many work environment. If you can reduce your paper clutter, you will reduce clutter around your desk considerably. 

From an organization’s point of view, having both digital and hardcopy of the same document is a waste of resources. Maintaining digital space costs money. Paper, paper-organizing supplies such as file folders and file cabinet, printer and maintenance, printer cartridge, shredder all cost money, too. 

It makes sense to eliminate the duplicate and select either paper documents/file cabinets or digital documents/servers as your main repository.

I understand that many of you prefer working with hardcopy documents. But if you use a computer to do your work, it makes sense to reduce your paper consumption and transition into a completely digital working environment. 

OK, I’ll stop preaching now. 

Stay tuned for part two: how to get rid of digital clutter in the workplace!