10 Steps to an Organized Office

by Shelagh Donnelly


Like it or not, people tend to form (and hold) opinions about you based on whether your desk is tidy or a platform for clutter.

In the last article, I encouraged you to look at your work space through colleagues’ eyes—and to consider what the state of your desk says about you. I also promised some tips to help restore or maintain an organized work area, and here they are. Consider the strategies that work best for you, and treat yourself to an organized, efficient space that speaks positively of you.

1: Schedule time to purge the piles.

Don’t wait until the next VIP visit, office event or the day before your next holiday. Instead, right after reading this article, go to your online calendar and schedule some time for a cleanup. If this is too big a task to accomplish in a couple of hours, schedule two or three blocks of time within the next month. Don’t think of this as losing time; you’ll gain efficiencies in the process.

While you’re in your calendar, also schedule a series of brief, recurring appointments (15-minute blocks can do wonders) to maintain a tidy environment.

2: Monitor your practices, and adopt a minimalist’s approach.

As a starting point, spend this week consciously monitoring which items you actually need to access over the course of a day. Apart from the clear necessity for hardware, ask yourself what else you really need. Do you need a dozen pens? Do you still use a ruler? Could you make do with a notebook or iPad, pen, pencil, highlighter and adhesive flags/ “sign here” stickers?

If your desk contains a number of objects that remain untouched after a week, consider recycling or discarding them, or assigning them to a different locale from which you can still access them as needed.

3: Shred on a regular basis.

Some offices run with scheduled collections of materials to be shredded. If you have access to a shredder within your office, though, you’ll have a tidier and more secure environment if you take care of shredding on a daily or as-needed basis. It’s also a good reason to get away from your desk and stretch your legs.

4: Impose discipline with hard copy documents.

The fact that many of us are progressing toward paperless operations doesn’t preclude others from sending us hard copy documents. Try, where possible, to apply the same rule of thumb to both electronic and hard copy correspondence: Handle it as few times as possible.

That means assessing priorities and efficiencies when opening correspondence. Some documents require immediate attention and action. For others, consider having a trio of file holders in your desk drawer for short-term holding spots for materials yet to be filed, read, or requiring action. Book a recurring task into your e-calendar, so that you dedicate a set amount of time each day to review and act on incoming materials in a timely manner.

5: A sticky-free monitor.

You may love your stickies, but having them frame your monitor or wall doesn’t add to an aura of professionalism. Try to wean yourself from using them this way. It may require an adjustment, but invest a bit of time exploring how to use a combination of Outlook and OneNote to create electronic notes or reminders. You can also turn to a “tickler” file or a multi-tabbed sorter that you then check each day so you don’t lose sight of time-sensitive matters.

6: A Place for every list.

Do you have lists or charts with key information tacked up to your wall, or under a transparent cover on your desk? A couple of decades ago, I did, but couldn’t stand the cluttered look of papers all over a bulletin board. Then I remembered my high school and college days, when I worked at GE. There, the sales reps had handy multi-sleeved organizers for their desks; they could readily flip through them for access to parts numbers, pricing and so on.

I ordered a 10-sleeve catalogue rack for my desk, inserted 20 key documents inside the plastic-protected sleeves, and my environment was immediately improved. As colleagues saw my new system, I became personally responsible for a run on orders of such goodies. I still have such a system in my current office. I don’t turn to it as frequently as I used to, since I’ve had dual monitors on my desk for ages and it’s efficient to pull up information electronically… but it’s smart to still maintain hard copies of some lists.

7: iPad versus notebook or steno pad.

Years ago, eschewing the traditional steno pad, I adopted the habit of maintaining a compact book with ruled pages for use in planning sessions and for recording salient notes arising from phone calls and visitors to my office. This approach eliminated the need for message pads, and I had the advantage of knowing any pertinent notes I needed were within two covers rather than on a piece of paper that could be anywhere.

These days, while I still maintain a book, I tend to rely on my iPad in meetings where I’m a participant rather than a recorder. This has reduced my use of notebooks and, since I rely on a passcode to access my iPad, there’s a slightly higher level of security. I can email pertinent info directly from my screen rather than recording info by hand and then repeating it at my computer, and delete notes once they’re no longer required.

8: Schedule routine sweeps of your “catch all” drawer or cabinet.

Use your e-calendar as a tool to remind you to periodically sort out whichever drawer contains an assortment of material. Dedicate 10 to 15 minutes once a month for such a task. You may just realize that much of the drawer’s contents go unused, and can return unneeded stationery products to the supply room.

9: Delegate or Recycle.

Malcolm Forbes said, “If you don’t know what to do with many of the papers on your desk, stick a dozen colleagues’ initials on them and pass them along. When in doubt, route.” After removing tongue from cheek, you may want to consider why you’re holding on to certain documents. Are they still relevant? Or, should they be archived, re-routed, shredded or recycled?

10: Personal photos and mementos.

Preferences will vary from one person to another. Some maintain framed photos of family members and pets, while others upload them as screen savers; a couple of assistants I know are artists who have enlivened their offices with their paintings. Assess what the personal touches in your office say about you, and the messages you’re conveying.

The author:
Living in beautiful Vancouver, Canada, Shelagh is the founder and publisher of Exceptional EA. She writes from a position of extensive experience and engages with a high performing, international audience of administrative professionals.


A compelling international speaker and trainer, Shelagh walks the walk. In addition to working with a board of directors and its committees, she’s the founder and publisher of Exceptional EA. Through her website, Shelagh engages with a high performing audience of administrative professionals from more than 100 countries. Her Real Careers interviews with EAs and PAs around the globe are hugely popular, as are her Weekend Polls.


Shelagh is the Past Chair of the CICan:GPOP Board of Directors, has served as a mentor and launched internal networks. Passionate about inspiring individuals and teams to perform at high levels in careers they enjoy, Shelagh speaks pragmatically about the admin career. She draws on her extensive experience in both the private and public sectors, and brings insight, empathy and humor to her presentations.


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