Coffee Talk: My Desk is a Clutter Magnet

by Sandy L on September 27, 2011

Welcome to another addition of Coffee Talk.

The subject of this month’s writing challenge is as follows:

Use a Household item as a Metaphor to teach a life or personal finance lesson

In addition to an article of my own, at the bottom of this post, I will be linking to other great bloggers who have stories of their own. Come back in a day or two and I’ll have a complete list posted.  Also, see how many metaphors you can spot in everyone’s writing.

My Desk Is A Clutter Magnet

Desk Almost Clean

For as long as I can remember paper has been my nemesis.  Even when I think  back to the simpler days in high school when my financial life wasn’t as complex, I remember what my desk looked like.  It was still covered with random papers and clutter.  Why is my desk such a magnet for clutter?  Well, I suppose if I had a therapist and we were to talk about it, the desk is where “work” happens.  It could be school work or bills or job work.  It doesn’t really matter. It seems like other horizontal surfaces have more pleasant lives.  Tables are used for eating, counters are used for food prep, coffee tables are to put your feet up on.   The desk however has always had just one primary purpose.  WORK.

So what do I do when I’m cleaning the house and don’t want to deal with something until later?  It goes on the desk.  As a result, after a morning of cleaning, every part of my house will look neater and cleaner, except my desk, which looks worse.   Sometimes the magnetic force of my desk is so strong, that the paper clutter starts gravitating to adjacent horizontal surfaces, like the guest bed or the floor at my feet.  That is usually when I know things have gotten out of hand…again.

Luckily I’ve made great progress on the desk front in recent years.  As they say in those 12 step programs, the first step is admitting you have a problem.   I attacked the problem head on in 2008 with my war on junk mail.  I felt that if I greatly reduced the amount of incoming paper into the house, there would be less opportunity for clutter.  (You quality nuts may recognize this as DPMO -Defects Per Million Opportunities).  You may think you don’t have a junk mail problem, but have you ever been away for 2 weeks and come home to a 3 inch pile of mail?  That happened to me one too many times.  You may not notice the effect of it day to day, but coming back home from a vacation or a long trip, suddenly it’s apparent.

Can I Change My Behavior?

I realize that reducing the incoming paper is only half the battle.   The other half is actually putting things in their place more often so that the desk is not a holding area for countless things.  For example, as I was moving my bedroom around, I had a pile of dead watches that needed batteries.  Where on earth do I put those? The desk of course.   Today I actually put them in a baggie in my car so their presence reminds me to stop at a jeweler as I run errands this weekend.  I know that watches are for old people but I miss wearing them.  Despite being in sales, I’m not like your average teenager that has to have my cellphone permanently attached to my hand.

I’m going to digress for a minute.  Last weekend I took my cousin sailing on an America’s Cup Yacht in Newport as a 50th birthday present.  It was awesome but I couldn’t believe that this girl in her early 20’s just could not put her i-phone down. I mean, we were on the ocean chopping through waves, moving all around and I thought it was odd that she never  put her phone away.   I actually told her I’d be paranoid about dropping it in the water and she assured me that she learned her lesson and now has insurance on her phones.  Sometimes I feel old when I do things like leave my phone more than an arm’s reach away from me.

I’ve been picking away at my behavior changes over the last couple of years and here’s what I’ve implemented so far.  Note this is a work in progress, so if you have your own tips, I’m all ears.

  • Shameless Use of Folders –  I try to keep manila folders of my frequent categories handy.  I have one called bills, one called Junk Mail to Be called, Travel Receipts (which I try to carry in my briefcase now), and my favorite of all  is called “To Be Filed.”   The “To Be Filed” folder is great because it keeps me from having to sort through the same pile of paper I want to keep multiple times. In the past I’d try to file it as things came up and that just wasn’t working for me. I hate filing and so I wait til it builds up a bit and then file once a quarter.
  • Productive Procrastination -Sometimes it’s hard to get going on an unpleasant work task.  For some of us Monday mornings may be a drag.  If you’re going to procrastinate anyway, instead of surfing the internet, tackle a small pile of papers on your desk.  You’ll feel less guilty and the pile will be all that much smaller the next day.   I feel less guilt if I’m procrastinating in a productive way.  In college, my desk was always cleanest during finals time.
  • Start with a Clean Slate – For me, I find it hard to shuffle papers around on a cluttered desk.  When I decide it’s desk cleaning time, I take everything off my desk, put it on the floor, clean my desk thoroughly with pledge and then slowly start adding stuff back onto it.  I allow myself to be inefficient in my organizing.  For example, it’s okay to take 100 trips in and out of my office so that I can put things back where they belong.  It’s especially satisfying when it’s easy, like looking at an empty coffee cup and saying “I know where that goes.”  If you just do it, you’re that much closer to being done.
  • Save The Hard Stuff For Another Day – At the end of your organizing, you’ll have a much smaller pile of stuff that requires action.  Forms that need filling out, phone calls that need to be made or other reconciliation activities.  These are best left to be done in moderation.  The last time I had a real deep clean, it took well over a week to get through my smaller pile.  If you tackle a couple of items a day, it’ll eventually go down to just a few things again.
  • Tackle the Pile More Frequently – I think this has been the biggest help.  A few years ago, my desk had to have a Mt. Everest sized pile on it before I tackled  the task of cleaning it off. It sometimes took days.  It was always a job and a half to get it sorted.  Now, if I have an inch stack of papers on my desk, it drives me nuts.  Hopefully over time I’ll get to that point where I can have a clear desk at the end of every day. That would be my nirvana.

I’d love to share some tips from Babci but her filing method is to just save everything in one big leather zipper file and have me sort through it once a year come tax time.  It is far from ideal and unfortunately these are the filing skills I started with on my journey to a paper free world. By the way, Suba has a great article on going paperless.  She is my idol when it comes to a paper free office.

Please share your tips on paper clutter. It’s still an area I struggle with on a daily basis and I would love to hear what works for others.

Other Coffee Talkers Across the Web

Here are some other great articles from your friendly neighborhood blogging community.  Enjoy!

Mike and Molly’s House Shares How Molly’s Sewing Machine is a Wormhole to Another Dimension

Baking the Budget tells us how her Electric Kettle creates a rift in the Space/Time Continuum.



{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

growingmygirls September 27, 2011 at 8:31 AM

Thank you Sandy! This is such a problem for me and my whole family! And your suggestions are wonderful. But I find they all revolve, in the end, around actually DOING something! That’s the part I get stuck on. But your post is still inspirational.
And, I hope to be organized and decluttered enough to participate in the next coffee talk.


Sandy L September 27, 2011 at 5:25 PM

Growing My Girls – Well, doing vs obsessing is definitely a big part of it. I kind of compare it to doing laundry. With a pile of kids it takes constant vigilance because if you wait too long, suddenly it’s the weekend and you have a half dozen loads to do.


The Biz of Life September 27, 2011 at 9:06 AM

Your clutter doesn’t look like much clutter the me. I’ll be old school for a minute…. but I once read a blurb about how Eisenhower managed the paper that crossed his desk. He only touched things one time. He made a quick decision on what should be done with the piece of correspondence and either filed it, trashed it, or responded to it, but didn’t let it clutter up his work space.


Sandy L September 27, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Biz – yes, a few of our execs at work use that tactic too. I haven’t been able to implement it. I travel a fair amount, so if I get a document on the road that I want to keep, I can’t file it til I get home. I’m getting better at doing that with incoming mail though. Work stuff is more difficult for me.


Jacq September 27, 2011 at 10:11 AM

I think a lot too about how to do these kinds of things in the most efficient (darn you INTJ-ness!) manner – which sometimes leads to me not doing them at all. 🙂 I have a cleaning schedule that works for me now after years of trying and failing at Flylady-esque methods. There’s a book called “The house that cleans itself” that basically talks about using how your natural life/house flow is for you rather than against.

How I deal with paper is to put all money oriented stuff into one file box (just like Babci!) and once a year I go through it over the xmas break. It’s “filed” (ie. dumped) in there chronologically so as long as I recall when something happened, I can find stuff easily. Then I scan everything into files that 1 time a year and email it to myself. Most of this is just tax papers so it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever need it again, but you never know.

I try to only open stuff or touch paper if I *can* actually do something with it right then and there. (ie. only pick up mail once a week when I’ve got a block of time to deal with it.) Still trying to figure out the modus operandi for the kids school papers since that’s the biggest source of paper by far. Seriously, there was never this level of paper with my oldest kid – imagine if people had 8 kids like they used to. My to-do notebook is 8.5 x 11 so I put everything in there and then take whatever action is required (usually involves filling out something or putting something on the calendar) when I’m waiting somewhere etc.

My bigger problem is that my son is constantly bringing things he finds home. Somehow these get on to my desk. He now has a pretty leather basket on the desk that gets dumped regularly. I think that’s a sign that I’ve given up. 🙂


Sandy L September 27, 2011 at 8:37 PM

Jacq – yes, just when the junk mail clutter was conquered my eldest started school and the school paper clutter quickly replaced it. I have found that if I delay doing things I dislike (like filing), then the other stuff gets done on a more regular basis, so filing as I go will never be a method that will work for my personality type, but I can get better at all the other things.

Before I had children it felt like I was much more organized. I’m trying to get back to that happy place despite having 2 more people to worry about. I’ve made a little progress, but I’ve got loads more areas to conquer. I could never implement Suba’s methods until I organized my online files a lot better first. I do a bit of the shoebox method with my online files and they need some major help.


Molly September 27, 2011 at 1:11 PM

Mike recently took over my desk as his ‘blogging’ work station. It’s as if he wants to use the desk for what it was made for- as if! I was a little resentful because there was no place for all my piles of papers to go. I have found that since there is no place for them to land I tend to deal with them right away. I’m still resentful (he can’t get off that easily)!
Thanks for hosting another great writers challenge!


Sandy L September 27, 2011 at 8:39 PM

Molly, well, there’s always the kitchen counter..That’s my holding area #1 before things gravitate to holding area #2, the desk.


shanendoah@Baking the Budget September 28, 2011 at 10:06 PM

Our dining room table gets most of the piles of paper. That’s not to say my desk isn’t covered in clutter, but the clutter is disks, books, tums, etc…


Jason@LiveRealNow September 29, 2011 at 9:33 AM

That desk isn’t so bad. I use a trackball so I can use it even if it’s buried under paper.


Kay Lynn @ Bucksome Boomer September 30, 2011 at 7:53 AM

I am constantly struggling to improve my organization with papers/mail. My desk is very cluttered but once a month I clear it.

You have great tips on how to deal with the chaos!


Jackie September 30, 2011 at 9:00 AM

My desk is a lot like yours. My solution though is to just go with regular “ok I really have to find my desk now” type cleanings whenever it gets too annoying. Probably not the best solution, but since I have a low annoyance level for clutter it does work reasonably well.


beauty college October 3, 2011 at 11:05 AM

thank you Sandy…My desk is a lot like yours.I am constantly struggling to improve my organization with papers office.. I read your article is very great tips on how to deal with it.. thanks..


Everyday Tips October 3, 2011 at 10:38 PM

We are in the same exact boat Sandy. When I used to print off computer programs at work, it was like I was living in a little fort, they would be everywhere, piled up high. I would then get out the windex and clean everything off and be happy. A week later, things were back to ‘normal’. Things are now the same in my home office too. I really don’t know if I will ever conquer this little quirk of mine.


101 Centavos October 4, 2011 at 12:53 AM

Your desk sounds about like my desk(s). I have a bad habit of making piles. They’re very neatly stacked, but piles nonetheless.


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