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A Clean Desk: It’s a Skill—That Needs Training!

Article February 20, 2018


Just about every set of company guidelines today has some kind of Clean Desk policy. And clean desks are also a necessity for workplace seat flexibility (hot-desking). The absolute last thing that should be cluttering your desk when you sit down to it for the day are the last person’s budgets or contracts that have no point for you. And when you come in and there are all kinds of papers at the spot where you want to sit, you have no idea whether that spot’s taken, or just untidy. And that can make you pretty mad.

It almost turned into a fight. Just before the end of the year, ACDC moved into their new offices, and they used this occasion to introduce what’s called “hot-desking.” Only the accountants, the HR officer, and the director still had a fixed working spot. The fifty other employees had only forty spots available each day. The idea was that some of them would always be out visiting clients.

Every morning the people who had come to work at the office sought a new place to sit. They often decided based on whether they needed to cooperate with workmates, or instead to think in solitude.

It was just a few days after the New Year, and one employee brought in a calendar with photos of her children that her family had put under the tree. But she then regularly forgot this calendar, and various papers too, on her desk. In other words, she forgot to clean them up into her locker every evening. And so she kept blocking the windowside spot with the best view. Soon the arguments on cleaning up your stuff arrived, and at each opportunity the company is awash in the battle between fans of a 100% clean desk and creatives who handle chaos fine.

Photo by Alice Achterhof on Unsplash.

A Desk Without a Trace of You

Our working environment hugely influences how we feel at work and how well we work. Within this environment—where we spend on average eight hours each day—we try to find our own place, and we often furnish it so that it reminds us of nice moments with our family or friends, on the road towards discoveries, etc. This is simply human nature, with its basis in psychology. 

But if we have to clean up this customization every day and put everything in a locker, and then rebuild our personal environment the next day somewhere else, that’s fairly unpleasant, and few can stick to it. After some time we stop creating that trace in our workspace, since we don’t want to lay those photos back out every single morning. So what should you do? Digitize everything possible. This goes hand in hand with hot-desking. You can store your private photos on your computer and revisit them at relaxed moments.

A transition to fully digitized data storage can sometimes be slow, because it’s hard to say goodbye to personal and professional papers, and deep down you say to yourself: what if I happen to need it someday? Marie Kondo, a leading global decluttering expert, has some useful tips to offer here. Her recent book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing has come out in dozens of languages including Czech, and many of her instructional videos are on the internet.

Just the Things That Spark Joy

Before the hot-desking era, work desks typically overflowed with various papers, office supplies, and minor personal items. If you’re switching to hot-desking, or you’ve made that switch officially but not inside, you’ll need to train the skill of discarding things, and a solid sort-through of your desk will really help you get started. You can’t always move everything on your desk into your locker overnight and back onto your desk each morning.

Kondo thus recommends that you move everything from your desk onto a single pile, so that there’s nothing but that pile. And then take each item one by one and consider whether or not you need it, and if not, to thank it and part with it. Only things that you love or that you really need should go back onto the desk.  

Papers—Throw Them Away!

“My basic rule is: throw them all away. There is nothing more annoying than papers. After all, they will never spark joy, no matter how carefully you keep them. For this reason, I recommend you dispose of anything that does not fall into one of three categories: currently in use, needed for a limited period of time, or must be kept indefinitely,” says Kondo.

Of course, you then need to process the papers you’ve kept. Kondo has recommendations here as well. Divide them into two categories: papers to save, and papers you need to handle. Find a fixed place for the papers you need to handle and ensure that they don’t start to spread. Vertical folders where you can store papers standing up are good for this, she says, as they take up relatively little space. Get rid of them once you’ve processed the information in them.

Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash.

Clean Up Your Past

Your desk, just like your home, shouldn’t be a place for storing commemorative items. It’s hard to abandon them—who wants to lose a nice memory?—but be honest: do dry roses from your former partner still make you happy? Live in the present and ask yourself whether a given item is still sparking joy. If not, then thank it for having done the best for you that it can and say goodbye to it. You’ll be surprised at what a load comes off of you! 

Kondo has this to add here: “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past. If you can just stow these things away in a drawer or cardboard box, before you realize it, your past will become a weight that holds you back and keeps you from living in the here and now.  To put your things in order means to put your past in order, too.  It’s like resetting your life and settling your accounts so that you can take the next step forward.” 

Daniel Puglisi, a designer and the founder of the website DeskHunt.com, where you can browse inspirational workspaces, describes his personal motivation for cleaning his desk like this: “You wouldn’t believe what a clean, clutter-free space can do for your concentration. I sometimes tend to leave unneeded papers on my desk, along with water bottles and little things that I’ve gathered up. All of these things are lying around me and quietly demanding my attention, and I can’t fully concentrate. And so I learned to sort through them and throw away everything I don’t need, and my focus is on a completely different level.”