Clean Up That Mess

by Steve Pavlina, founder of Dexterity Software. Reproduced with permission. Part of a series.

In mid-November my family and I moved from a cramped two-bedroom apartment into a spacious three-bedroom house. Instead of having to share my home office with the baby’s room, I now have a nice 10′ x 12′ room all to myself. Since I was accustomed to working in less than half this area, I knew I’d have plenty of room to work with, so I wanted to intelligently organize it in a way that would allow me to work efficiently on a variety of projects without creating a cluttered mess. While browsing a local bookstore before the move, on a whim I bought a book called Organizing From the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern. It contained many great organizing tips and adroitly explained where people normally go wrong when trying to get organized. I’d like to share with you what I learned from reading this book and organizing my new home office from scratch.

Julie’s book starts off with a strong statement that at first I didn’t believe. She says that if you’re one of those people who are surrounded by clutter and just can’t seem to get organized, then you simply never learned how to get organized. If you maintain a messy environment, it just means you lack the skills of organizing, which anyone can learn. By the time I finished the book, I could see that Julie was right. Organizing can be broken down into a step-by-step process that anyone can follow.

Julie points out several technical flaws that can prevent one from becoming organized, but my perception is that at a basic level, there is really just one flaw: a failure to systematize common decisions. Whenever I leave things lying out, it’s because I’m not ready to decide what to do with them yet. So the process of organizing really comes down to having a system for automating decisions about where everything goes. Disorganized people have few or no systems, so they must make every decision on a case by case basis. Eventually this becomes overwhelming, and clutter begins to pile up. Organized people will make far fewer decisions in the long run. It takes far more time to be disorganized than it does to be organized because disorganized people lose so much time to inefficiency.

Now let’s outline a step-by-step process for organizing your home office from start to finish. The first step is analysis. How do you spend your time in your office? Make a list of the different types of tasks you perform there, and create a list of functional zones that your office will need. If you are a programmer, this should be an easy task if you think of it in terms of designing a computer program. If you had to program a robot to perform all the different tasks you did in your office, how would you organize those tasks into separate modules? For instance, I came up with a list of six categories for myself: general paperwork, computer work, creative work, financial work, business reading, and manual order processing and shipping. Ideally you want to create a list of clearly defined categories that overlap as little as possible.

Next, determine what physical equipment and materials you need for each category. For instance, for creative work such as game design, I need access to writing instruments, design notebooks, a marker board, and a corkboard for posting storyboarded art. For shipping orders I need access to boxes, recordable CDs, CD labels, postage, a postal scale, and so on. At this step I realized I also needed a storage and reference zone for my programming books and extra supplies.

Now that you have your office materials functionally divided into different zones, the next step is to assign physical areas of your office to each zone. Ideally you want these zones to overlap as little as possible, but some overlap is usually necessary, especially if you use your computer for many different tasks. Take some time to determine an arrangement of furniture that will best suit your functional needs.

A key to this stage is to envision what your ideal office would look like. Forget about what furniture you already own, and don’t worry about cost or space constraints at this point. Just use your imagination, and be honest with yourself in admitting what you really want. Write this down on paper, and even sketch out your ideal office layout, noting which work zones you would assign to each area.

Now that you know what you want for your ideal furniture layout, brainstorm ways you can get as close to that ideal as possible, given budget and space constraints. Many people, myself included, have inherited old furniture that no longer serves them. Just because you happen to already own it doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for you today. Don’t be afraid to sell old furniture and replace it with something more functional. You can find a great deal of reasonably priced self-assembly office furniture at office superstores, and many offer free delivery. I bought my computer desk, hutch, rolling drawer cabinet, and printer stand for a total of $99 new, but I had to assemble it myself. I also bought three six-foot folding tables for about $35 each, and they can be moved around easily. A few weeks ago I picked up five stacking shelves (60″ tall, 36″ wide, 10″ deep) for only $20 new. Bookcases are also extremely cheap, about $40-60 for one with six shelves. Sure if you want that hand-carved mahogany desk, you’ll pay a premium for it, but if you go for the cheap, functional stuff as I do, you can fill your office with furniture for just a few hundred dollars, even if you buy everything new. Measure furniture and play with different configurations in an image editor. Or make paper cut-outs to scale and experiment with them. It’s much easier to do this than physically moving the furniture around.

Now that you’ve settled on an office furniture layout, place the equipment, materials, and supplies for each zone into that zone. As you determine how to zone your office, you might want to have redundant supplies for convenience. For instance, I need writing instruments for most tasks, so I have containers for them on both sides of the room. Don’t store things just where they seem to fit. Store materials as close as possible to the point where they will actually be used. Inconvenient storage can easily lead to clutter. If you are always losing pens, for instance, perhaps it’s because you don’t have pen containers located where you actually need them. Let your functional needs dictate your office layout.

At this point you have a nice design for your office layout, and you’ve planned out zones for all your activities. But how do you deal with the existing clutter and ensure that it doesn’t return? The solution is to find out what patterns there are to your clutter and create simple systems to deal with it. Piles of clutter often accumulate simply because you don’t know what to do with all those pieces of paper, or you haven’t yet found the time to make all the necessary decisions those piles represent.

Sort all the items in those piles of clutter. For this task you can place several boxes on the floor and begin placing items into the boxes. The key is to sort items in a way that makes sense from a functional standpoint. Ask yourself under what conditions each item would be needed, and sort items by similar conditions. For instance, I had one box for stuff that needed to be filed, another box for design materials, another box for trash, and so on. Even though it may seem like a good idea, don’t start putting things away just yet. When clutter accumulates, there’s usually a good reason for it, and you want to learn why such items turned into clutter, even if you know where those items should go.

Now that you’ve sorted the clutter, grab one of the boxes and take a look at the contents. Ask yourself why these items ended up as clutter. It’s most likely because you didn’t have a good system for dealing with these items. Maybe theses items don’t have an assigned home, or maybe the storage location you’ve assigned them is too inconvenient, so it’s easier just to leave them out. For instance, maybe you have items that need to be filed, but you don’t yet have a file for them, and your blank file folders are inconveniently stowed away deep in your closet. Ask yourself under what conditions each item might not have ended up as clutter. This will give you a clue as to how to prevent the clutter from returning.

As you go through the boxes one by one, assign a home to each item. Where will you put those old bank statements? Where should all those design notes go? If you had a box for trash, go through those items and note what should have been thrown away. If you assign a convenient home to every item, you will be much more inclined to put them away. Once I did this I found that my office was self-maintaining. I always put things away because the storage for items is right next to where they’re used.

Assign appropriate containers for items. Take a trip to the local office supply store to get an idea of all the different types of containers that are available, or browse a web site such as Don’t be afraid to buy new storage such as drawers and shelves once you identify a need for them. Where clutter has accumulated, most likely items either have no home, or the storage isn’t convenient. Acknowledge your true needs — don’t fight them. If you have a short bookcase, would a taller one serve you better? If you have only one overflowing in-basket, maybe you need individual in-baskets in each zone. If your trash container seems to be constantly overflowing, replace it with a larger one, or place multiple trash containers in different areas of your office. I found two trash containers to work much better for me than just one, so I always have one within reach when I need it, and I don’t have to empty them as often.

I use something called a project box (also known as a literature sorter) to organize materials. It is a wooden box about three feet across, one foot high, and one foot deep with four small cardboard drawers, four shelves, and a book/binder storage area. I like this because it provides very versatile storage. I use the shelves to store current paperwork I need to handle, and I use the drawers for various odds and ends. For instance, I have one drawer that holds my notes and ideas for new articles. The project boxes I use cost $25 new. The drawers are fully removable, so I can take them out when I need them and put them back when I’m done. For instance, I use one of the drawers to hold the CDs and manual for whatever computer games I’m currently playing, so whenever I want to play, I just take out the drawer and put it back when I’m done. Before having a drawer for this I’d have game CDs and quick reference cards piling up on my desk. Any office store will also carry a variety of plastic drawer cabinets, ranging from small desktop units to larger floor cabinets on wheels. The drawers are usually made of clear plastic, so you can always see the contents inside. Small drawers are great for storing things like postage, rubber stamps, and other odds and ends that may clutter up your work area.

If your space is tight, go vertical. There are many storage units that can be mounted on walls or stacked vertically. Also note the space beneath tables. Many containers can fit in those spaces to store infrequently accessed supplies.

Once you’ve sorted the clutter, chosen the right containers, and assigned convenient homes for everything, take the time to put everything where it should go. This shouldn’t take long at all if you’ve made all the decisions in advance. Don’t take any shortcuts, or they will come back to haunt you later. Disorganized people make life harder by forcing themselves to always make a new decision on where each item should go. Organized people establish systems so that the proper place for each item is obvious; thus, no new decisions have to be made each time. For instance, when I get mail, I automatically put the shareware orders in the shipping in-basket, the bills and financial statements into the financial cabinet, the junk mail into the trash, the magazines into the magazine rack, and so on.

The final trick, which I’ve found really holds the system together nicely, is to zone your time as well as your space. Determine when you will work in each of your zones. When will you do your product development, your mail order fulfillment, your computer work, your financial work, etc? Slice up your time each week into different zones. For instance, every morning I work on product development, which places me in my creative zone for design work and my computer zone for programming work. When each time zone ends, I put away the materials for that zone and switch to a different zone. Often this means I get up and move to a different part of my office. Associating a physical location with each type of work helps keep me focused, since each zone contains only the items needed for its own specific work. When someone who knows me walks into my office, s/he can tell what type of work I’m doing just by noting where I’m sitting.

This approach keeps me from becoming overwhelmed, even though my ongoing to-do list generally contains about two hundred individual items. I use my Palm IIIxe to maintain a separate to-do list for each of my zones. The nice thing is that the Palm can easily prioritize tasks and list them in order of priority. So whenever I begin working in a new zone, I access the to-do list for that zone and begin working on item number one. If I don’t finish it, I just set it aside and continue where I left off the next time that zone comes up. If I’m working in one zone, and I suddenly get an idea for something I should do in another zone, I quickly enter it into my Palm under the appropriate to-do list, and I deal with it when that zone comes up.

By deciding in advance how much time you will spend in each zone, you can keep your life fairly well balanced. I have zones for various parts of my work, physical exercise, family time, handling my finances, and so on. Under normal circumstances, items within a zone can only be crowded out by other items within that same zone. So if my financial work piles up, it affects only that one zone, and I’ll sacrifice lower-priority activities within that zone to make room for the higher priority ones. So no matter how busy I get in one area, the effect is contained and doesn’t spill over into the rest of my life. A problem with my work doesn’t prevent me from spending time with my family, and a heavy load of home-maintenance work doesn’t cause my business to suffer. There are always exceptional circumstances — I recently moved, for instance, which created a lot of turmoil in all areas of my life — but having this system in place allows me to quickly restore balance.

This method of zoning time solved a long-term problem I had suffered from for years, which was simply a lack of balance. When I had previously maintained one massive prioritized to-do list, I was constantly asking questions like, “Which is more important: finishing the design for my latest product, helping a friend resolve a problem, or planning a vacation with my wife?” All those things were important to me, but I was making decisions too inconsistently. At the end of each week, I kept feeling that something was slipping through the cracks, and there were certain items on my to-do list I realized I’d never get to, even though I really needed them to be done. All those problems were solved when I began zoning my time on a weekly basis.

I know I’ve covered a lot of ground in this article, and hopefully your head is now swimming with ideas about how you can become better organized. To me the greatest benefit has been the achievement of a persistent feeling of flow. Working in a self-maintaining, uncluttered environment will allow you to be extremely productive while enjoying the process each day. And zoning your time will hopefully create a feeling of balance without anything important falling through the cracks. If you don’t feel your current systems are serving you well, I encourage you to try something new.

Article by Steve Pavlina. Visit for more free personal development articles.

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