How to declutter workspace for increased productivity: digital & mental clutter

In the last post, I focused on the physical workplace clutter.

Today, we are going to tackle digital and mental clutter. 

how to declutter digital and mental clutter at work

Digital clutter

Step 1: Email inbox

It’s better to have no more than 50 messages, read and unread, in your inbox. More will make the inbox cluttered and overwhelming. 

To keep your inbox organized, you will need to implement a plan and a few new rules. 

First, let's empty the garbage and the spam folder. 

Next, go to the inbox and look for messages that you never or rarely read. If they're newsletters or notifications, let's unsubscribe. After you've done that, make sure to delete all of the messages from the sender you just unsubscribed from. 

(If you're in the process of decluttering your home and/or trying to save money, I suggest you unsubscribe from any "deals and savings" newsletters.)

Do you also have any messages that you keep getting but wish you haven't? Block the senders if you can or mark all of the messages from the same sender as spam.

Now you've finished decluttering your inbox, let's start organizing. 

Here are the rules that I adhere to:

  • When I read a message, I either delete or archive it in an appropriate folder. 

  • I use inbox as the temporary folder. Only messages that I have read and I need to do something about are kept in the inbox.

  • I never have more than 50 messages sitting in my inbox. 

  • I also use flags and tags to highlight important messages to remind myself that I need to take some actions. 

  • I'm the type of person who reads emails as soon as I receive them. If you find that distractive, you can set aside time, maybe twice a day, to check your inbox. 

It is advisable to open every message you receive that day by the end of that work day. You do not need to take actions right away, but it would be better if you can filter and sort the message. This will help you assess and plan your workload. 

Periodically check the spam folder to make sure important messages aren’t marked as spams. 

Clear out the draft folder at least once a week.

Now let's create rules of your own. Reassess them in a week and tweak if necessary. 

Step 2: Browser bookmarks

Delete bookmarks you no longer or rarely use.

Consider deleting bookmarks for time sensitive contents. You would not want to keep bookmarks for outdated information. 

Create or update folders to organize bookmarks by category.

Most frequently used website can be made into desktop icon or saved on the bookmarks bar for quick access. 

Step 3: Desktop

As with email inbox or the physical desktop, the computer desktop is a temporary space to store documents that you're currently working on. Do not create a permanent storage here. 

Delete documents you no longer need. 

Delete shortcuts for applications that you rarely use.

If there are some documents you regularly use, keep on your desktop an alias/a shortcut of a file stored on a drive that is regularly backed up. 

Create folders by project or task if you have lots of aliases/shortcuts.

Step 4: Hard drive/shared drive/cloud

Create a permanent storage on a regularly saved hard drive, shared drive or cloud drive. 

Some workplaces receive regular requests for data products and everyone in that department saves the files to a specific folder on a shared drive. If this describes your workplace, please follow whatever the convention your department uses to file documents. 

You probably also have your personal drive or folder to save own works. 

Create folders by category, project, task, date or any way that make sense to you the most. 

Make sure to save everything related to the project inside the folders, e.g., email correspondence, project flow chart, meeting agendas and minutes, research materials and so on. 

Make sure to give your documents descriptive names. If you have several versions of the same document, include the date of revision as part of the name. 

Mental clutter

Step 1: To-do list(s)

I use my to-do list to download all the information swarming around in my brain. I always find that tasks that seem overwhelmingly complicated are not too bad once they're spelled out. 

Once I dump all the information to a text file, I organize it by creating project specific to-do lists. I like using a simple to use, online accessible application. I recently switched from Google Keep to Simplenote. 

My priorities shift a lot, so I like digital lists better compared to using paper for the ease of updating. 

On each to-do list, I break down tasks into steps, so each action has its entry. I also insert any potential issues in completing the task, and any other useful notes. 

For some tasks and steps, I add deadlines and the dates when I need to start working on them. 

Since I look at my lists daily, there is no need for me to setup notifications. If you look at your lists less often, it would be a good idea to use an app with a notification function.

If you’re working with a team, and you rely on others to complete some of your tasks, make sure to schedule a regular communication with your team member and count it as part of your to-do. 

Step 2: Workflow management

Are you involved in projects? Does your team use a flowchart? It's good to have a document that spells out how tasks flow one stage to another and the timeline for each stage. 

Make sure that there is a clear communication guideline and everyone gets a prompt on time so that tasks progress smoothly between people working together. 

Have a short (15-30 min) weekly meeting to discuss the progress, issues and changes. 

Recurrent tasks
Do you have set tasks? How often do you do them and how long does it take? If you have a big reporting duty every month, make sure to block your schedule to attend to it. 

If you get lots of ad-hoc requests, can you guess the average number of requests you get per week? Per month? Are any of them predictable to a certain degree regarding who requests and when? 

Make sure you have enough time to complete all of your tasks. If you have too much responsibility, talk to your boss and negotiate a more reasonable workload or deadline. 

Step 3: Career goals

It's good to have career goals that will give you a general idea where you want to be in one, five and ten years. 

Having goals will also help you organize and shape your daily work. If you see yourself in a management position in a few years, you will look out for an opportunity where you can get into appropriate training.

If you are planning to start your own business, that will shape how you will spend after work hours and weekends. 

Don't just live day to day on an autopilot.

Even if you have a dream job, things are always changing. Be mindful and be ready for a change. 

Have an up-to-date resume on hand at any moment. Make a list of your strength and weaknesses--they're often the same thing, seen from different angles--as well as your accomplishments and special skills. 

In closing

I hope you find my suggestions helpful and your productivity go through the sky! Not only you will be more productive without clutter, but you will become more efficient. 

Increased efficiency means that you will be spending less time to complete a task. You will have more time to do your work which means you will be less overwhelmed and less stressed out.

Decluttering your work environment--physical, digital and mental--takes time. But you will get a lot more in return; I promise that it is a sound investment. 

Also, some of the changes that I've proposed in the previous blog post, e.g., digitizing your office, may feel cumbersome at first, but please be open-minded. Starting something new and different can be unsettling, but they're often worth the effort.