Make a Clean Sweep

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Spring-cleaning. We should do it every year: Empty the closets. Buy some new sheets. Organize the garage. There are few things more motivating and refreshing than decluttering and putting everything in its right place. And that’s not just a notion—studies have shown that an uncluttered environment has several benefits, including lowering anxiety and raising productivity.

Why not bring those benefits to your work space? Higher productivity and reduced workplace stress can also result from an office spring-cleaning, whether it’s a small-scale project (giving your own cubicle the spit-and-polish routine) or a larger one (top-to-bottom office cleanup). According to, a 2011 study by researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that “When your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information.” Obviously, these effects could reduce your efficiency and ability to succeed in the workplace.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to get everything shipshape, freeing you to do the best job you can at work. According to Missy Gerber, founder of Organizers Northwest, a company based in Portland, OR, that specializes in organization for both individuals and corporations, the key is sticking to the 5S system.

1. Sort
Just a quick inventory of your desk will reveal unnecessary papers, office supplies, and other items that you don’t actually need to do your job. Cull the necessary from the unneeded and dump the latter. That printed email from six months ago? Put it in the recycling. The drawer full of office supplies? Pare it down to the few items you use every day. “How many pens and highlighters do you really need?” Gerber asks.

2. Set in Order
Gerber notes that the average executive spends a total of six weeks a year looking for things, time that could be spent more productively by having a simple system. It starts with an inbox. Think of your inbox as the distribution station for paper, not a final destination. “We’re never going to be paperless,” Gerber says, “but an empty inbox is our goal. Your inbox is not your to-do list.”

Once a paper hits your inbox, file it according to what you need to do with it. A “To Do” file is too broad, Gerber says. Instead, narrow the focus to more specific actions: “To Call,” “To Shred,” “To Mail,” etc. For instance, Gerber says, “Decide ‘What do I need to do with this? I need to call this guy,’ so you put it into the ‘To Call’ file.”

Make sure you file things vertically, as items at the bottom of stacked papers tend to be forgotten. “If it’s horizontal, it’s hidden,” Gerber says. “If it’s vertical, it’s viewable.”

3. Shine
This step begins with deep-cleaning, then continues as a sustained practice that involves “inspection, detection, and correction,” Gerber says. To start, empty your file drawers and wipe them down, remove desk items and clear all dust and dirt from surface areas. Use a can of condensed air to remove dust from all computer components—the tower, keyboard, power cords, everything. As you clean, check for wear or potential repair needs. If these are detected early, you can avoid the hassle and expense of a last-minute repair job.

While the initial deep-clean may take a bit of time, Gerber notes that continuing the practice of air-blowing your computer components is an easy, sustainable practice that should be continued every day.

4. Standardize
Standardizing your procedures will save time, effort, and money, Gerber says. For instance, maintaining a willy-nilly storage process isn’t just messy—it’s also costly and inefficient. Gerber gives the example of a supply cabinet filled with old keyboards and obsolete printer cartridges that obscure items that are actually needed. Setting up specific organizational standards for common storage areas ensures there won’t be last-minute runs to the office supply store for overpriced items. “When we’re down to three cyan ink cartridges, we know we need to order more,” Gerber says. “This is the only place they go, and everybody knows it.”

5. Sustain
In many ways, this final step to maintain cleanliness and order can be the hardest. Gerber says the easiest way is to fold it into your daily process. Before you go home, make cleaning off your desk, dusting and inspecting, and setting up your space for the next day part of your daily routine, as essential a task as opening your email in the morning. Set up a calendar reminder for a quarterly deep-clean, she says, and it can become as business-essential as any other meeting.

Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, OR, where she writes about sports, music, travel, and fitness.

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