7 Tips for Clearing Clutter in the Office.

One of my Secrets of Adulthood is: Outer order contributes to inner calm.  And that’s just as true at the office as it is at home.

True, in the context of a happy life, a messy desk or a box of files on the floor is a trivial problem—yet I’ve found, and other people tell me they feel the same way, that getting control of the stuff of life makes me feel more in control of my life generally. And if this is an illusion, it’s a helpful illusion.                               

When I’m surrounded by a mess, I felt restless and unsettled; when I clean up a mess, I’m always surprised by the disproportionate energy and cheer I gain—plus, I’m able to find my stapler.

Here are some ways to fight clutter at the office:

 1. Never label anything “Miscellaneous.”


2. Abandon a project.

One source of office clutter is stuff related to unfinished projects. You’ve always meant to learn that software program. You were going to switch to using a different kind of planner.  You were going to review that proposal. But that stuff has been sitting in your office for months, maybe years, and it hasn’t been used. Be honest with yourself. If you’re not going to complete that project, abandon it — and get the stuff off your shelves, and off your conscience.

3. Beware of freebies, swag, and give-aways.

Yes, you went to that conference, and they gave you a branded mug, t-shirt, metal water-bottle, journal, pen, and an eraser in the shape of a cow. But if you don’t have a clear plan to use these things, they’re clutter — and the best way to deal with that clutter? Don’t accept those freebies in the first place.

4. Don’t get organized.

When you’re facing a desk swamped in papers,  don’t say to yourself, “I need to get organized.” No! Your first instinct should be to get rid of stuff. If you don’t keep it, you don’t have to organize it. You can spend a lot of time filing papers that you don’t even need to keep—and one of the biggest wastes of time is to do a chore well that need not be done at all. (See also #7.)

5. Establish ownership. This is a particular problem at the office.

Often, clutter sticks around because it’s not clear who owns it– those aren’t your files, and no one seems to know why they’ve been in the hallway for two years, but how can you throw them away? If you encounter something that you think is clutter, take the time to ask around and find out if anyone wants it. It’s surprising how often things go unclaimed. Relatedly…

6. Beware the tragedy of the messy commons.

When several people use one area, and no one person is responsible for keeping order, people tend to become messy and careless. Establish some system—for instance, by taking turns, assigning people to oversee specific areas, or enforcing the expectation that people mind their own messes—for making it clear who’s responsible for any disorder. This is related to the painful truths about shared work.

7. Toss unnecessary papers.

Paperwork is one of the toughest forms of clutter to vanquish.  Ask yourself: Have I ever used this paper? Could I easily replace it, if it turns out I need it? Is this information on the internet (e.g., manuals)? What’s my reason for keeping it? Does it become dated quickly (travel materials)? What’s the consequence of not having it if I do need it? Could I scan it, so I can keep it as a reference but get rid of the physical paper?

NOTE: Outer order contributes to inner calm — for most people. But not for everyone.

Some people thrive on disarray; they find it stimulates their ideas and doesn’t slow them down. It’s probably related to being an abundance-lover instead of a simplicity-lover.

Some people are just clutter-blind. They simply don’t see the clutter. It doesn’t affect them for better or worse. They just don’t see it.

Different levels of clutter-acceptance can lead to conflict, because the people who love order tend to try to badger the disorder-tolerant people into cleaning up. I always remind myself, “There’s no right way or wrong way, just the way that works for a particular person.”

As part of my “Design my summer” project ( you can hear me talk about it on the Happier podcast), I wrote a little book called “Outer Order, Inner Calm.” I’m just finishing it up now. It was so fun to write that book! So if you have any great tips about clearing clutter — at the office or at home — I’d love to hear them, to see if there’s anything I’ve overlooked.

What are your great clutter-clearing tips?

  • guest1

    Electronic clutter can pile up as well.

    I use “expiration dates” in electronic file names for the random files I *probably* won’t need to reference again such as Xcel files with expense report figures or pdf receipts. What I do is name these file “Expenses Delete 2018.” It saves me time from having to open and check what it is every time I need to delete files. If it’s the year 2018, I don’t have to open it; I just delete the file. I’ve started doing this for paper files as well. If I put an expiration year on something, I know I can recycle the contents without sorting through it.

    • gretchenrubin

      So true!

      Great solution.

      • Brooke

        I love this idea! Relatedly, it drives me nuts when people save 8 versions of a document in the same folder. Unless there are different versions of the doc that really need to be saved (the only example I’ve come across is when we write a proposal, and the client requests changes to it; we keep the original for our records) I’m always trying to delete the drafts.

        • gretchenrubin

          Good point.

    • Arlene H

      I love this idea! I have been transitioning a position to another person and although I am pretty good about getting rid of paper clutter and physical mess, my digital clutter is something that needs more organization. Although there are many files, I really have not use for them, especially since I have not looked at them in a few years. I think a folder that is labeled delete or temporary could be helpful. I am going to implement this immediately! Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Anna in France

    Do you find clearing clutter has become more complicated over the years because of ‘recycling guilt’? Here’s the desk-standing calendar, for example, which I chucked into the bin without a moment’s thought many years ago – now it lingers on until I have time to take out the metal spiral spine and then place the metal and the paper in their respective waste containers…… and there are many more items like that. It gets done eventually, but not as swiftly as I would like.
    Sometimes I wish I could just get a skip and throw out a ton of stuff without sorting….but nowadays my eco-conscience prevails and it really slows me down.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! it’s a challenge.

    • LW

      This is totally true. Dead computer mouse is recycled through a work source, batteries go at one end of our floor. Paper printed on one side that isn’t confidential goes one place, paper that is confidential goes another, both sides printed goes in another. Software manuals should be checked and then recycled or donated. It’s endless. But I do get steps that way.
      It’s even worse at home.

  • Jennifer

    This is great! I love number one the most. So true. Nothing should be just Misc.

    I also like to set a time each day to organize. Having a consistent time each day helps things stay under control.

  • Gettin’ Sane

    Did you write this post to give me a kick in the butt? I am adding these goals to my Sanity Plan because I literally have so many papers on my desk that I can no longer sit there to work. And it’s driving my husband crazy (since it is his office).

  • Molly Taylor

    Good article 🙂 Very correct and full of good practices

  • Diane Lowy

    Such a great list! I’m particularly drawn to #2 and #4 because it’s surprisingly hard to be honest with ourselves about our stuff (both literally and figuratively).

  • I love the tip about Don’t Get Organized (#4). Purge and get rid off stuff first. Sometimes I forget this in my efforts to organize and clean.

  • The thing about swag is so true!! I went to a conference last week and I brought a bag with me for a wrap in case I got cold and my water bottle. At registration they gave me a nearly identical branded bag with materials in it, so at the break I took it back to the registration table and asked if they would like it back. Otherwise they sit around unused and get donated in 3-4 months. Royal blue must be the cheapest color of those bags too because they’re all the same color!

  • Marilyn McManus

    I worked with people that were blind to clutter, whether it’s in the office area or in the lounge/eating area. I found that I am much happier when I just assume responsibility for tidying up and purging rather than think that one of them would take a turn. Over the 3 years that I’ve done it, no one has complained about anything I’ve gotten rid of. I posted the quote, “Outer order creates inner calm” to inspire them, but I think the sign has just become explanatory for why I cleaned up after everyone.