Whether you work alone in a home office or in an open office plan with hundreds of other people, keeping your workspace organized is key to optimal performance. An organized work environment nurtures morale for everyone who uses the space, and adds a sense of professionalism to the business. It also helps keep you efficient—which lets you leave that organized space sooner and go do the other things you feel like doing.
1. Start with a purge
In the context of workspace organization, purging is a beautiful thing. Begin your quest for an organized workspace by getting rid of everything that isn’t essential. Tackle one area at a time, and consider every item—including equipment, supplies, furniture, and even decorative items—in that area.
Fix, replace, or throw out anything that doesn’t work. If you haven’t used it in six months or more and you don’t know when you’ll actually need it, banish it. (This allows you to keep things you use infrequently but regularly, such as tax preparation items or “spring cleaning” supplies.)
- Shared space hack: If you share a workspace and equipment, this can be a tricky step. If there’s any way to include your co-inhabitants in the process, do it. If you believe something has to go but they insist that it stays, suggest that it moves into their solo space rather than shared space since it will only be them using it.
2. Reorganize into zones
Now that you’ve had a chance to take stock of things during your purge, it’s time to reorganize the space itself. Even if you have a small space to work with that encompasses only the space around you, you can organize it into zones based on what work happens in which space.
Typically there will be a main workspace (such as a desk), a supply area (with drawers, a closet, or shelves), and a records/reference area (with binders, books, a filing cabinet, or shelves). Keep things in their respective zones, and make sure that every item has a place so it can be put away.
- Home office hack: It’s too easy for a home office workspace to bleed out into the rest of your living space. Keep this from happening by defining the work “border” and guarding it.
- Shared space hack: Use labels and color coding to make it easier for everyone to put things back and sort things into their zones.
3. Create a paper flow—and then trim it
If your office is truly paperless, you are one of a lucky few. Most of us still need to manage paper, though, and to do this efficiently you should establish a flow for it to follow. Start with a single inbox, and from there depending on how much volume you handle you may also need a review queue. From there set up a place to put priority projects as well as things you’ll handle less immediately.
Finally, paper should land in filing—but not for long. When you need paper records, scan them first, and then file them. Once things are filed you can store them far away from your work space.
Do keep everything digital as much as you can. With a scanner, cloud storage, filing sharing tools, updated office software, and apps for tracking things like receipts, most day to day office “paperwork” can actually be “digitalwork.”
4. Wrangle your cables and cords
It’s a small but important step: take charge of the snarled underbrush of cords and cables that is currently lurking beneath your desk. Use zipties to keep them separate and wound where they need to be. Or, if you want to hide them altogether, use a specifically designed product like Cablox, or even a rain gutter or PVC pipe attached to the bottom of your desk.
- Shared space hack: Color code each user’s bundle so there’s no confusion or accidental unplugging.
5. Build up, not out
Here’s what we mean by that. A disorganized workspace has piles of paper and supplies all over it, and it spirals outward from its epicenter, which is usually you. Instead of that outward sprawl, organize your space vertically.
If you need many tools or supplies in your work, attach a pegboard to the wall next to your desk so you can attach tool holders, baskets, and jars to hold them. If you work in a cubicle, hook shelves or baskets over its top edge to give you a similar effect. You can also raise your keyboard and monitor off the work surface—which both opens up more room and improves your health.
6. Project manage yourself
Use a tool like Asana, Trello, or Basecamp to project manage yourself. You can use whatever is being used in your office, but you don’t have to. Use what works best for you.
All of these tools act as supercharged, smart versions of the classic checklist. Checklists keep you organized and focused, especially when you are experiencing a time crunch or are just overworked in general.
- Home office hack: Tools like Trello and Asana have free versions, and you can use them both on your computer and on your smartphone.
7. Tackle your inbox
Email allows us to do more than we ever could without it—but it can also be a time suck. Tackle your inbox and learn to manage it in new ways to improve your efficiency. Use a tool like Sanebox to ensure that you’re only interrupted by important messages during your work hours, and to organize which messages you see based on when they’ll be a priority. Set a specific time in the morning to respond to important messages, and then put your email aside until your next designated email time; don’t let random messages interrupt you repeatedly.
Make sure you have a protocol for handling your email inbox moving forward. As you get new messages, set tasks for yourself with your project managing tool. Then, move those emails out of the way; you’ve already dealt with them.
If there are hundreds of messages in your inbox right now, take charge. If it’s not from an actual person that’s related to your work and you haven’t read it yet, you probably don’t need to. Delete! Unsubscribe from anything that really isn’t useful.
8. Schedule breaks
Get into the habit of scheduling breaks. Working time is more focused when it is punctuated by break times, and many of us simply forget to take the time to stretch and refocus.
9. Two-minute tasks
At the beginning of your workday, set a time to tick short, easy “two minute tasks” off your list. Not only does it feel great to cross things off your list, it warms you up and gets you ready for some deeper, more focused on task time. Fire off quick replies and file away unimportant, informational messages right away; they’re two-minute tasks.
10. Eliminate notifications from your (work) life
We live in the age of social media, and we’re all now trained to watch for those little red notifications. Unfortunately, this is a massive time waster, and especially if you’re dealing with tasks that are less pleasant or interesting to you, competing with notifications is going to kill your productivity.
It’s not our fault. Humans have a natural urge to see “what’s new” that’s sometimes called the novelty effect or bias. However, it leads to repeated task switching, and research proves that no matter how great you think you are at multi-tasking, it is slowing you down.
Check your social media during the workday only at specific times, or—gasp!—not at all. You can do this! And when you do, you’re going to get twice as much done.
11. Clean up each day
At the end of each day, clean up. Take five to ten minutes, and put everything back in the places you created. It may seem like a chore, especially on days you’re eager to leave, but it’s just a few minutes more that “resets” your workspace for the next day.
- Home office hack: This ten-minute ritual is a great way to leave your work behind, even if it’s just in the next room. For solos and telecommuters who always seem to be working this tactic can help you set a boundary through ritual.
- Shared space hack: Try this for two weeks. You are far more likely to influence the people in your shared space this way than by simply talking to them about it.
12. Use your commute
For too many of us, commute time is burned time—or, worse, time that ups our heart rate and stress level. Turn this pattern around by making the most of your commute time.
If you’re driving, find podcasts that will be useful to your career and continuing education. You may even find yourself looking forward to a longer ride.
If you’re a rider, make use of your time by getting ready for your day, studying up for a meeting, or reading up on industry news.
- Home office hack: No commute? Awesome! Try setting aside two hours (or more) per week for industry reading or podcasts to further your career in the same way.
13. Get face to face when needed
You can often avoid misunderstandings and seemingly endless email threads by simply walking down the hall or picking up the phone to talk to colleagues face to face. Try this the next time you’re sitting and thinking of how to explain something in an email; by the time you would have figured it out, you’ll already be done explaining out loud.
- Home office hack: Telecommuters can use chat or video conferencing tools like Skype to make this happen.
- Shared space hack: If you want to do this but don’t want to disturb others in your space, try scheduling opposing break and talk times, so you can call when your co-worker is out of the space, and vice versa.
14. Chop up your tasks
If huge tasks are staring you down, chop them up into manageable pieces. Ideally, you should be taking a quick break every hour anyway, so use this mental rule to break up larger projects into easier to handle chunks.
15. Ambiance matters
Do what you can to keep your workspace a “happy place” for yourself. This means using warm lighting where possible, or for some people who are sensitive to too much light, a simple desk lamp instead of overhead fluorescent lights. Hang a plant near where you work to improve the air quality and your mood. And while you need to avoid clutter, a few well-chosen photos on the wall go a long way toward improving your happiness quotient at work.
Keeping your workplace an organized, well-oiled machine is a huge step toward being more efficient, not to mention less stressed out. It takes some effort to purge your space and put systems in place, but that time is a very smart investment into your productivity and professional confidence.