5 Types of Office Clutter That Kill Your Productivity

Jan 22, 2020 | Organization, Productivity

Clutter: The collection of “stuff” lying around that creates disorganization in your workplace. It sabotages your productivity and can adversely affect your mental health day in and day out.

It’s time to get it under control!

Research has shown that cluttered spaces have negative effects on stress and anxiety levels, the ability to focus, eating choices, and even sleep. It also creates a poor first impression of your perceived skills and abilities at the office when someone stops by your desk.

This article, for instance, delves deeply into the neuroscience behind decluttering. In it, the author references several studies that prove just how detrimental clutter can be to your brain, as well as the positive effects decluttering can have on your performance. It’s a great read for those of us who are interested in the strange ways our brains work!

Clutter accumulates when we fail to make decisions about things or don’t have a good system in place for storing it. There are four basic steps to organizing anything, and they can be applied to any type of clutter.

Common Types of Clutter and How to Deal with Them

Now that we understand the effect of clutter, it’s time to look at specific problem areas and identify ways to resolve them. In the office, most clutter falls into one of these five categories:

1. Supplies clutter: Look around your desk. How many random pens, binder clips, sticky notes, highlighters, or other office supplies are lying around? Supplies clutter accumulates when:

  • You don’t have storage homes defined for the various supplies you use regularly.
  • You have a bad habit of not putting things back where they belong when you are done using them.
  • Other people drop things on your desk.

How to resolve supplies clutter:

  • Assess what supplies accumulate on your desk the most. Ask yourself why this happens so you can get to the root cause and create a solution that works.
  • Gather the supplies together, contain them, label the container, and create a specific home (storage location) for these items. If they are things you use regularly, make sure they are stored in a spot that is easy to access so you can easily get them or put them away when needed.
  • Designate a couple of times each day (e.g. right before or after lunch, right before you leave at the end of the day) to do a quick supplies sweep of your desk and remove clutter so your space stays clean and organized.

2. Paper clutter: Do you have a to-file pile that has become a to-file mountain? Do you have miscellaneous email printouts floating around your workspace? Do team members leave paperwork on your desk throughout the day? Paper clutter accumulates when:

  • You print things that don’t need to be printed.
  • You don’t have an “incoming” tray clearly identified on your desk for incoming paperwork.
  • You don’t contain, label, and create a home (file folder) for your paper as soon as it comes across your desk.
  • You don’t have blank file folders easily accessible for creating files.
  • You think file labels have to be perfectly printed or you can’t create the file at all.

How to resolve paper clutter:

  • Stop printing things that shouldn’t be printed.
  • Shred or recycle duplicates or outdated paper as soon as you realize it’s unnecessary.
  • Create a file-on-the-go station. Find a free-standing, vertical tray sorter with one or two sections. Place the sorter on your desk within arm’s reach of where you sit. Stock it with an assortment of file folders you use. Mine includes a combination of 1/3 cut manila folders, an assortment of 1/3 cut color folders, and a variety of poly folders that I use for organizing my projects. You may also want to include a good writing pen, marker, or pencil for labeling your folders. 
  • Make labeling easy. Use a pencil so it can be easily erased when you do have time to create a printed label. Use the removable file labels that make it easy to create a hand-written label and easy to remove it later when you finally get a printed one created. Or get a label maker and make the file labels on the spot.

One of the struggles admins have with paper filing is that they think labels need to be neatly typed before they can create the file. This is far from the truth! The purpose of a file folder is to contain and label similar items so you can then store everything in its rightful place. You can always add a printed label later, but at least get it written on there for now so that it’s labeled if you or someone else needs to locate it. A handwritten file folder label is just as effective as a beautifully printed label. If you absolutely must have a perfect file label, invest in a label maker that you can keep in your desk drawer or your file-on-the-go station.

3. Under the desk clutter: We’ve all been there. Your desk is a mess and you need to quickly clear it off, so you stash the clutter underneath your workspace with the intention of dealing with it later. But later never comes. You get distracted, other priorities build up, and before you know it, those extra supplies, old laptops, or promotional items from the annual awards banquet have seemingly grown roots beneath your desk. It’s out of sight and out of mind…until you stub your toe on it as you sit down at your computer, or catch a glimpse of it when you walk through the office door. And each time you remember that it’s there, it has a negative impact on you, both physically and mentally! 

How to resolve under the desk clutter:

  • Assess what accumulates under your desk the most. Are you the one putting things there or is it accumulating due to others dropping things in your space?
  • Create some designated drop-off bins near (but not on or under) your desk if the items truly require you do something with them before they can be handled. Be sure to label them so everyone knows what goes where.
  • Educate your team members on where the proper storage spaces are for the items they are dropping at your desk.
  • Designate a couple of times a week or at the end of each day to do a quick under-the-desk assessment and remove the clutter so you can walk in the next day with an open and refreshed workspace.

4. Desk or file drawer clutter: Ah, the infamous junk drawer! Who hasn’t had one of these? In an effort to quickly tidy up one space, we clear it off and dump it into the closed, contained space of a drawer or cupboard where we can hide things quickly. The problem is, we rarely go back and clean it up later. And the next time you need something out of that drawer, the rummaging begins.

How to resolve desk or file drawer clutter:

  • Contain and label the supplies in your drawers for quick and easy access. Use rubber bands, zip-top bags, or small bins and baskets. This helps you quickly put things away when you’re in a hurry.
  • If you absolutely must do a quick sweep of your desk, contain it in an oversized envelope or zip-top bag so it stays contained until you can come back and sort it appropriately later.
  • If you have a bunch of drawers that are out of control, pick one drawer per day and apply the four steps to organizing anything until you have everything gathered, contained, labeled, and in its permanent home.

5. Memory clutter: Of all the clutter we accumulate, “memory” clutter is the most difficult to deal with because unlike file folders and paperclips, we have an emotional attachment to it. Memory clutter comes in many forms: The “World’s Best Admin” gag gift that sits by your phone, the mementos from the conference you attended last spring, or the 86 cat drawings your child has gifted you. Professional organizer Peter Walsh describes memory clutter as “the stuff you’re worried if you let go of, you’ll lose the memory,” and it’s the one area that I get the most pushback on from people who participate in our 5-Day Organize Your Workspace Challenge. They don’t want to give up their family pictures or other personal items – after all, that’s what makes their desk uniquely “theirs.” When they do remove this clutter from their space, however, they can’t believe the calm that comes with it!

How to resolve memory clutter:

  • Remove all memory items from your space. Place them in a box and label it so it doesn’t get lost. Then give yourself at least 5-10 days of working in your space without all of your memory items before you decide what you should keep or add back into your work area.
  • Pay attention to how you feel working in your space without all of those memory items. Also, listen to the comments people make when they stop by your desk. What do you notice?
  • If you absolutely have to have some memory items in your workspace, limit yourself to the one or two most important ones.
  • If you just can’t let go of these items, consider rotating which ones you have on display instead of having everything visible all of the time.
  • Take pictures of the items. You can capture the item and the moment it represented and save it digitally. If it’s career related, add the images to your professional portfolio so you have the success or achievement documented for future sharing and reference.

It’s Time to Kick the Clutter to the Curb!

Clutter isn’t just irritating and unsightly. It has a very real impact on our physical, mental, and emotional health, and plays a big role in how our executive and colleagues perceive us. It makes us less productive and more anxious. But it doesn’t have to be this way! With some simple organization skills and a bit of determination, we can banish clutter from our office and bring calm to our workspace!


Want to use this article in your newsletter, ezine or website? You can — just as long as you include this complete blurb with it:

Julie Perrine, CAP-OM, is the founder and CEO of All Things Admin, providing training, mentoring and resources for administrative professionals worldwide. Julie applies her administrative expertise and passion for lifelong learning to serving as an enthusiastic mentor, speaker and author who educates admins around the world on how to be more effective every day. Learn more about Julie’s books — The Innovative Admin: Unleash the Power of Innovation in Your Administrative Career and The Organized Admin: Leverage Your Unique Organizing Style to Create Systems, Reduce Overwhelm, and Increase Productivity, and Become a Procedures Pro: The Admin’s Guide to Developing Effective Office Systems and Procedures. 

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