Clear desks and clear minds in the workplace

Clear desk is a clear mind. Empty desks don’t exist. Colleagues – in and out of my day job – often remark (poke fun?) about my paper-free desktop. One arm of my little L-workstation is lined with equipment: printer, pencil sharpener, scanner, phone, computer monitor, keyboard, mouse, accounting calculator. The rest of the desk is generally empty. I make it a point to leave the desk clear of paperwork at the end of each day. Inevitably, someone makes the joke about a cluttered desk being symptomatic of a cluttered mind, and an empty desk… Well, I’m not insulted because my mind is clear (not empty) most of the time.

Nonprofit accounting can be mentally strenuous work, so it’s important for me to organize and calm my mind throughout each day. At any given time, I could be working on two or three tasks of great urgency. I could also be waiting for information or paperwork in order to complete another task or two. We call this latter scenario “down time”, though nonprofit admin workers know that no such thing exists in our business. Maybe it’s our joking way of believing that it can exist in what we do. Wishful thinking, perhaps? Anyway, how can a nonprofit admin maintain a clear desk amid the many and varied tasks that cross our desks in a day? I borrow from a method I use in my home office: the Sort-later Factor.

I’ve written before about sort-later boxes. I’ve even joked that the sorting never actually happens and that the boxes pile up in the garage until they become a fire hazard. Or a really fun fort. I don’t accumulate a bunch of boxes at work. Instead, I have a very strict rule about paperwork and organization: Act on it, file it, or discard it. There is no “save it for later” or “sort this later” or “figure it out later” or ANYTHING “later”. It’s now or never. Either something needs to happen with a piece of paper now (process or file it), or I’ll never need do anything with it (discard it). It’s that simple for me. Not sure that everyone else’s workflow allows them that luxury. Take a look at my day in paperwork to see whether there’s some element of this rigidity that works for you.

At the start of each day, I have my notebook in which I record my daily activities and a stack of papers that represent tasks on which need to act. The stack may include, as it does today: a weekly task list developed with my supervisor; bills to be posted and paid; a pension plan notice to be distributed to plan participants; a payroll calendar; notes about a vendor from whom I have to request something; a graph illustrating the cost of special cases from month to month with year-to-year comparisons; a document I’m editing to modify a program budget; and a folder of information I have to read to help make a decision about brokerage accounts for the company.

Picture a four-column table in my head:

Act File Discard
Notebook Living document that follows me everywhere, gets filed when all the pages are full
Weekly task list Living document that follows me until we update the list again, then gets filed (we don’t discard these lists)
Bills to be posted Post the bills to the accounting system Stash posted bills in a folder in my desk drawer until time to pay them
Bills to be paid Pay bills in the accounting system File paid bills in the paid vendor bills filing cabinet after mailing signed checks
Pension plan notice Write and send the memo and notice to plan participants (some by e-mail, others by mail) File the memo and notice in a filing cabinet drawer designated for pension plan documents
Payroll calendar Follows me, though could also be stashed in the front of my filing cabinet drawer for reference
Notes about vendor Call vendor, stay on hold for 45 minutes, eventually make the request, get confirmation e-mail from vendor Staple confirmation e-mail to notes and store in filing cabinet drawer for vendor files
Costs graph Meet with supervisor about findings, determine whether information is useful Useless information can be discarded once we’ve met and discussed the findings
Budget modification Send modified budget narrative and detail worksheet to the boss, who will forward it to the funder’s program manager File the revision in the binder designated for the program materials We rarely discard paperwork with our notes that show how we reached conclusions regarding these kinds of work
Folder of info Read the info, make notes about it, share findings with supervisor If there are forms to complete and paperwork to file, a copy will be filed in a folder and stored in a filing cabinet and originals will be sent to the appropriate brokerage firm

You get the idea? So then what happens at the end of a day in which all those tasks in the Act column cannot be completed? The stack gets stored with my notebook (notebook is always on top) in my desk drawer until the next day. New tasks will come up via conversation and e-mail, so those tasks will be added to the stack in order of urgency. At no time do I put open projects or tasks in a spot on my desk, nor do I designate space on my desk or in my cubicle as an “in” area. (I removed some hanging paper trays that were once used as a multi-tiered in-bin.) Instead, people can just put papers (like bills, time sheets, lists, requests) on an empty space on my desk when I’m not there or hand them directly to me if I am there when they come around. I process papers as they’re handed to me or as I see them on my desk or (less preferably) chair.

How does this clear desk equate to a clear mind? Because I handle all paperwork intended for my follow-up action, I am keenly aware of what I have to do all the time. I’m guided by the weekly task list that stays with my notebook, and I have detailed notes in my notebook about what I’ve done, have yet to do, and have to do in addition to what’s on the printed task list. That means I don’t have to think about task management nearly as much as I have to think about how to get something done. My mind is free to focus on the task at hand, whichever task that happens to be from my stack. And because I work this way every day, the stack stays low during slower periods and may get a little thick in faster-paced periods… without becoming unmanageable.

As I mentioned before, my personality, work style, personal preferences, and types of work afford me this kind of method at work. To see whether this works for you or whether some elements of it can be incorporated into your day, take this test: Pick up a piece of paper (from your desk) representing work you have to do. Can you act on it right now? Is there an action associated with it that you haven’t done yet? How long will it take to perform that action? Are you waiting for more information or input? If you can act on it and then either file or discard the paper, do it. Pick up another piece of paper from your desk. Ask the same questions. Also ask whether you’re holding onto it for reference purposes only. If it’s just for reference, can it better serve you in a brightly colored folder that you keep in a desk drawer? Perhaps it can join other reference materials in a tabbed binder? Figure it out, make a choice about it, and then act on it. Pick up another piece of paper. Has it been on your desk for more than a week without any interaction from you? Make a choice about it, and act on it.

At the end of this process, how much paperwork is on your desk that needs to be on your desk at the end of the day when you leave? Also, ask yourself whether you sometimes dread coming to work because of the piles of paper you know await you on your desk. May I boast here that I never experience that feeling? I know I’m coming to work to a clean desk. I know what my tasks were the day before when I left. I’m prepared to adjust my planned workday to allow for new thing that will inevitably come up. And now I’m done bragging about it. I’m challenging you to take the test and to challenge yourself to make tougher choices about the way you treat papers on your desk. A cluttered desk is indeed an indicator of a cluttered mind, and an clean desk… well, you’ve read this far. Draw your own conclusion. Thanks for reading. Be sure to share your favorite office organization tips, hints, warnings and encouragement in comments below.