Clear Your Desk, Clear Your Mind

This is a guest post by Daniel Offer. He operates the Facebook chat software Chit Chat. Chit Chat is a Facebook login application that benefits Facebook chat users by allowing them to access Facebook with a desktop chat messenger. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

One of the great stressors in life is that feeling that we’ve forgotten something important. Each day we are bombarded with so many demands on our time that we are simply unable to act on them all, forcing us to tread carefully through a time management mine field for most of the day.


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Our inboxes contain requests for the trivial and the important, all watered down by endless junk mail that is specifically designed to grab our attention. Voicemails allow others to drop off assignments and due dates over which we have little or no control. Poorly led meetings eat up valuable time, and drop off the occasional action item as well.

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These are considered time management problems, but they are closer to being symptoms of the problem. The problem itself, according to Carnegie-Mellon lecturer Randy Pausch, is “The Time Famine.” Pausch uses the term “Time Famine” because it points out that the problem is systemic, and it will require systemic solutions.

We all have the same amount of time. Each day gives us exactly twenty-four hours to spend; we cannot save time to use later, and we cannot borrow against the future. Time is the great equalizer, and its management one of the most important skills for the 21st century.

When reviewing the fundamentals of effective time management, the first, and perhaps most important, area to examine is your workspace itself. An organized work area is critical if we are going to be successful in attacking the larger problem of how to spend our time.

There is something about having a clean work area that makes us more productive and frees our mind to concentrate on the task at hand. How many times have you been working diligently on a project only to find yourself glancing at a file on your desk, mentally reviewing what has to be done to get the file off your desk on onto someone else’s?

Cluttering up your work area with files, pencil holders, In/Out Baskets, note pads, etc. all fight for space in your consciousness whether you recognize it or not. A clean, organized work area is going to be a necessity if we are to deal with time successfully. “Clutter is death, it leads to thrashing,” reminds Pausch.

A great organizational tool was created by Toyota as a way to make their factories more productive. It’s called the 5S system, and while it was originally designed as a tool to help design and layout manufacturing facilities, some truly great 5S work has been done in the office environment as well.

The term 5S originated from the five Japanese words used to describe the model:

  1. Seiri or Sort. The first term, Seiri, means “sort.” The first step in 5S’ing your office space is to go through each and every item in your office and decide if you really need it. This is not a perfunctory effort at looking at only your desk top or the tops of your filing cabinets.

    Sorting is about touching each and every item and making the hard choices. Do you really need a box of staples? Twenty different kinds of pens? A year’s supply of paper or legal pads? (Remember the great organizational mantra: “When in doubt, throw it out!”) Keep only the essential.

  2. Seiton or Set In Order. The second term, Seiton, roughly translates to “Set in Order.” During your Sort you eliminated everything that you did not need. During your effort to Set in Order you will determine where everything you are keeping goes.

    This is the time to organize your work area, but remember that minimizing clutter is still a primary goal. Your desktop and the tops of filing cabinets are not storage areas. On your desk itself a phone, computer monitor, and keyboard are probably necessary. Everything else is suspect. Staplers, paper clips, hole-punches, etc. are best kept in a drawer, out of sight, but close when necessary.

  3. Seiso or Shine. The next word in the 5S system, Seiso, means to “Shine.” This is the time to clean your office from top to bottom. Every object in your work space gets a thorough cleaning. Clean everything from the outsides of filing cabinets to the insides of your desk drawers. The phone and keyboard can be cleaned using forced air if necessary.

    Shine is also about restoring your work space. If you have a broken speaker or you need a new keyboard now is the time to act. Don’t allow anything in your office that isn’t completely functional.

  4. Seiketsu or Standardize. Seiketsu, or “Standardize,” is the fourth step in the 5S process. Standardize is also linked to Set In Order, and is about designing how everything in your office flows. Once you’ve established the optimum layout of your new lean, clean, and organized workspace, now take time to address how you will deal with the work that comes your way.

    Voicemails, emails, and priority projects all need a process and a system. Haphazardly responding to whichever one interrupts you is a poor way to live.

  5. Shitsuke or Sustain. The last step in the 5S process is represented by the Japanese word Shitsuke, or “Sustain.” Sustain is about committing to being aware of what is going on in your work area and about being willing to take action to insure that your work area remains your own design.

The 5S process doesn’t end. Once is never enough. After you have completed the entire process once, consider scheduling a second effort not very far into the future. 5S is about learning by doing, it is not a learn by thinking about it type of endeavor.

Remember to focus on the fundamentals, but be on the look-out for tricks and tips than can help you automate how you respond to common time management problems.

Question: What do you believe are the fundamentals to successful time management, and how have you implemented them in your life? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • Jamey

    My desk is in an area where people walk by constantly and my fear is that a messy desk speaks to a messy lifestyle. So I keep it clean (even if stuff is put in a box under the desk :))

    • Michael Hyatt

      This is a test.

  • Uma Maheswaran S

    I feel greatly renewed after reading this post. I was really going through a period of serious stress due heavy bunch of work assignments for the past 6 months. I really had everything in dis-shape except my deliverables. My workspace is really dumped and cluttered with junk. I have decided to clear it off first. I have also learnt that I need to keep myself orgaized in every sphere of my life. Thank you for this encouraging message.

  • Lara

    My workspace is also in a heavy traffic flow area, often getting objects that do not belong to me. I have to have in/out flow or I will assume everything is an action item for me. I keep my calendar front and center for deadline awareness. The office “staples” go in a drawer, and the IN box is “needs action” and the OUT box is usually headed for the mail room the next time I get up to head in that general direction. I also do “efficiency trips” several tasks in one departure from my desk. The two near me who have separate office space are horribly messy; wish they employed the 5S system — or any system for that matter. Things are constantly getting lost when it gets to them.

  • Patricia

    Last sentence #3 — don’t you mean that “isn’t” functional??? :)

    • Michael Hyatt

      Oops! Good catch. I have now fixed it.

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  • Kathleen

    Each day before leaving work (teacher), I check my work calendar and make a list on an index card of the essential items to be completed the following day. I have a small clear plastic easel that holds my 3×5 or 4×6 card on my desk.

    At home in the evening I check my personal calendar and list items to be completed while away from home the next day. I place the card by my purse/satchel for an easy departure the next morning. That card is carried with me as a concise reminder that helps me keep my day “on track.” Items are added to each list as needed.

    These routines have been adapted from the “Morning and Bedtime Routines” suggested by Marla Cilley, “The FLYLADY.” Her routines have helped me add much peace to my life–personally and professionally. Her website is

    Thank you for posting the blog on the 5S System. I have already finished another quick sort after reading this blog. :)

    • patriciazell

      From one teacher to another, I greatly admire your ability to keep organized!

    • joan

      love the reference to “the FLYLADY”. Marla’s ideas and routines are awesome. I also have benefited from her website.

    • D. Offer

      I like your index card system idea – that said, with my industry I make use of “OneNote” since I have many different tasks on going on various subject matters at any one time.

  • Ron Smith

    I find all the information you post on your blog informative and educational. Thank you.

  • Laurinda

    I spend Sunday evening looking over what I need to do for the week. I look at undone action items from the week before and schedule to do them that week. I also schedule time to prep for any up coming meetings over the next 2 weeks.

    I say “no” to people adding anything to my schedule. I only let my boss and her boss (my VP) drop things in at the last minute. Otherwise, I ask for a weeks notice.

    I facilitate a lot of 5S workshops at work. It’s a great exercise to rid your space of clutter. I’m about to do this at home and get rid of items I haven’t used in a year. Key thing for success at work is making sure EVERYTHING has a place and it’s easy to see when it’s out of place. We paint outlines for trash cans, belt loaders, ramp equipment at all our major airports. At home you have to be creative unless you are willing to paint outlines on your desktops and through-out your home.

  • Rick Yuzzi

    Clutter definitely adds to stress, both at work and at home. I never thought about the effect on productivity and time management, but I can see your point. Since I’m at work today, and a lot of folks are not, I’m going take the opportunity to de-clutter a bit.

    • D. Offer

      It’s a short term time loss, for a longer term gain!

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  • patriciazell

    As a high school English teacher, I have paper work and e-mails flying at me from all different directions. Over last summer, I developed an organizational system around my desk that has helped some, and this semester, my class load has been fairly light which has also helped. However, next semester, I will probably double the paperwork because I will have four preps plus tutoring sophomores in reading for our state graduation tests. And, to add to it all, I use numerous sources which tend to accumulate around my small workspace. Maybe next summer, I can implement some of your suggestions–until then, I may just close my eyes and hope for the best!

    • D. Offer

      My mother is a teacher, so I understand your paper work dilemma. That said, much can be stored electronically and papers recycled when they don’t need to be used for a long period of time.

  • Peter Horn

    Michael, I continue to find value in your posts, and this one is another winner for me. This is a big problem for me, which I have often excused by using the phrase, “I’m a visual person.” ;-) However, I have to admit that my desktop can be one of the greatest productivity/creativity drains I have. Thanks for another great post to help me move forward.

  • Jeff Jones

    I sure like the idea but our work areas and how we process workflow differs from one person to another, from one personality to another. I have worked with people who were “stackers” and I have worked with people who are “filers” and I have known “stackers” who could find things they needed faster than the “filers” could going through their drawers/cabinets. And vice versa.
    I have gone through periods where I worked with a clean desk and periods where I had piles of documents and found that the biggest opportunity to working efficiently came down to getting good rest, choosing to start the day with a positive mindset and minimizing outside distractions. A file on my desk is much less of a distraction as the person walking in the door to ask a question (valid or not), talk about the weekend, talk about an upcoming promotion or what kind of pizza is their favorite.
    We choose what we allow to distract us, whether it’s the intense dislike of a closed office door that I have or a desk full of papers that might bother someone else.

    • Curtis Marshall

      I think this is a very good observation Jeff. I too know quite a few people that work better under “cluttered” circumstances because it actually relaxes them. Any reference that they could need can be reached without getting up from their chair.

      I personally prefer a clean workspace, but I can see why some would prefer to be “stackers” and can work very well under those conditions.

  • lance cashion

    Funny that you should post this today. I’m at my office, all is quiet and I’m cleaning and organizing… I found a bunch of rare baseball cards that went missing a few years ago!!! I’m also backing up my computer files and cleaning up my hard drive.

    Break over… back to work!

    • D. Offer

      Backing up…that’s a whole new issue! Incredibly important, however. The value of our computers is small in comparison to the value of the work on it!

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  • Jeremy

    We recently rolled out 5S where I work, starting with the office space as the pilot area. We brought everybody in on a Saturday and spent the day painting the walls, replacing light bulbs with more energy efficient bulbs, and organizing our desks. We ran clean up utilities on our computers, and helped individuals set up e-mail filing processes and folders. Everybody was skeptical in the beginning, but everybody was extremely proud of their improved work space on Monday morning. Now the hard part…sustain. Great post!

  • Olga Griffin

    If you could see my desk, you would know that I needed this!

  • Francis R “Butch” Howard

    One of the best things I have leaned is to use the system taught many years ago by Stephen Covey in his classic book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. He uses a priority system and divides things into four quadrants along two axis. First axis: is it Important or Not Important? Second: is it Urgent or Not Urgent?

    As you can see, putting a priority on what I do based on these criteria makes all the difference in the quality of what I actually get done. The key to growth in life is to spend some time every day doing the Not Urgent, but Important. Example: Bible Study.

    Avoid the Not Important! Example: Soap Operas.

  • ThatGuyKC

    I think you might cry if you saw how messy my work area is. Thank you for the advice. I especially liked referring to time as “the great equalizer”. I’ll try to implement the 5S system on Monday. Right now it’s time to start the weekend.

  • PJ Lincoln

    Recently, I was off from work for six weeks on a medical leave. When I returned, I spent the bulk of my first two days organizing and clearing old junk off of my desk. That time investment has paid me back ten-fold and reduced my stress level tremendously.

    • Brandon

      It’s a great feeling when you are on top of things…!

      • Michael Hyatt

        I agree. I cleared mine right before the Thanksgiving holiday. It was a great feeling.

  • Brandon

    Great points! I love the outline of the 5S process…

  • Roger

    I think every people must have their own file cabinet. you need to clean your desk from any paper. all you have on your desk should be notes and reminder. that 5s are good tips to make my work more organized. thank you

  • Bojan

    Mate, why didn’t you post up your own desk, instead of some of iStock unrealistic photos? Get in with some human touch, everyone can copy paste links of pics on the web. Put yourself a bit more in this article.

    My desk is real, and you can see it here

    • Michael Hyatt

      It wasn’t my post. This was a guest post. Thanks.

    • Rober Anges

      I wish Toyota would focus on safety and quality and not take shortcuts and worry where 5S tells them to shove their pencils.

    • D. Offer

      I’ll keep this in mind for future articles. I appreciate your feedback.

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  • Chris Foster

    I posted on twitter this week that a clear desk is the sure sign of a cluttered drawer, and while that for the most part is true, I really appreciate all 5 steps he laid out, and will share them with my team.
    As a Pastor one of the greatest time management steps I have taken in recent years, is requiring an appointment. There are always people who feel it is ok to, “hang around” the church, As a young minister I saw how much time this ate up, it may sound harsh, but God has not called us to be your buddy. He has called us to lead the church. I now block off Thursday afternoons for appointments and to insure access without robbing my week of useless hours. It is a rough transition when people are used to just being able to swing by and take 45 minutes of your time, however it is a must or you will be giving the squeaky wheel the oil, and you will not have any oil left for what is most important.
    I think it is also very important to ask.
    What I am doing that could be delegate?
    What is the main thing?
    Ask not only am I doing things right but am I doing the right things?

    • Michael Hyatt

      I like your strategy, Chris. People without an agenda can be a real productivity threat!

  • Hilary

    Mr. Hyatt,

    Thank you so much for posting this. I could really use your advice on how to help someone on my team clear the clutter from their desk. We work in the same office, and her desk is trashed with unnecessary items everywhere, as well as underneath and around the desk. I know it is “her” space, but I feel it leads to great inefficiency for our team, and I am a new manager so I don’t know how to best address it. Any advice would be much appreciated!

    • Hilary

      Just realized this was a guest post, but I will take advice from whoever is offering it. :)

    • Michael Hyatt

      I would do two things: (a) clearly communicate your expectations, including the rationale, and (b) get her some help to tidy things up the first time. Thanks.

      • Hilary

        Thanks! I will give it a shot!

  • Hilary

    Just realized this was a guest post, but I will take advice from anyone who is willing to help. :)

  • John Gallagher

    As far as time management goes, I believe to be effective, you must be good at priority management. If you don’t plan/prioritize your time, someone else will. As a consulatnt in Lean, the 5S tool at it’s highest level says that “there is a place for everything and everything in it’s place.” It is a discipline not easily adhered to.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I like the phrase “priority management” better than “time management.” It really speaks to what we have control of. Thanks.

  • Kingsly

    I like this post. I have to clear my desk today!! A much needed write-up. Thanks

  • Christopher Scott

    I have found that my system for time management always includes a running to-do list organized by context, and a daily calendar.

    It’s pretty simple. Anything I need to do, I put on the to do list. Anything that I need to do that is time sensitive gets put on my calendar.

  • Cooking Book Clubs

    I’ve heard of the 5S system before, and I think it’s fantastic. A clean workspace makes for productive thoughts, in my opinion.

  • Anonymous

    Friday, before I left my work-office, I cleaned up my desk and realized the drawers need to be cleaned if I’m going to really get everything (i.e. stapler, pens, paperclips) off of my desk. Then I spent the weekend “spring cleaning” my bedroom & home-office (I don’t care that it’s December!). I’m not quite as clutter-free as the ideal painted here, but I am in a much better state than I was. Now to apply the discipline to keep it that way.

  • Anonymous

    I simply work better with a clean desk. When my desk is cluttered, I feel like my mind is cluttered. And when it gets cluttered it’s usually because I hve let things pile up that I need to get done. I’ve jus started thinkin about and usng the 5s system, it’s a grea approach for me. Between it and GTD, I’m actually makingsome good pregress in my organizational life!

  • Gail

    If you’re a Messy, sustaining a tidy desk can take discipline and practise until it becomes habit but as mentioned, a decluttered desks helps declutter your mind. Every now and then I look at my tidy desk and thank my primary school teachers who instilled the habit of a tidy workspace into me at a young age.

    Also be aware that if you have an untidy desk it can cause stress or a feeling of clutteredness to those who sit nearby or regularly visit your desk.

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  • Dee Maze

    Thanks for these reminders….

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