Productivity . . . and a Clean Desk

Take five seconds and inventory what’s on your desk. Ready?


What? You need more time?

If you can’t verbalize every item on your desk in five seconds, you’ve got desk clutter! Piles of files, pens and pencils tucked here and there, an overflowing inbox and empty outbox are all indicators of chaos. And if you find a half-eaten sandwich, well…

When there is clutter right in front of you, work seems overwhelming. It appears there is more to do and not enough time to finish it. Your mind has a hard time processing all the work, and so it becomes cluttered, too.

The feeling of overwhelm is more pronounced when you can’t find something. You know you just saw it—but poof!—it’s gone. While you frantically search, you waste time, and your overwhelm and frustration grow. You may still be able to get things done, but not as effectively as you could.

The good news is – you can avoid this scenario with one simple trick:

Only keep the case file or project you’re currently working on in front of you.

This is called the “clean desk work technique,” and it can be a successful way to clear out your clutter.

So how do you get to this point? Here is one method:

Keep your inbox off your desk. If you have a credenza behind you, it can go there. If not, it could go on top of a filing cabinet, an end table, or a movable file system. The idea is to get it out of your line of sight.

Organize your work by priority, and put the files in that order, again out of your line of sight. You can put them on the credenza behind you, in a low bookcase, or in a filing cabinet. Just remember, if there are other people in your office who may need the file, it should be accessible to them and they should know how to find it.

As your day goes by, only put the work you are currently doing on your desk. You’ll find it’s easier to focus your attention, and you’ll have a feeling of freedom. If you are interrupted by a phone call, you can push the file off to the side of your desk and put your legal pad directly in front of you for notes.

If the file is thick or in several accordion folders, you may want to remove only the portion you need. Or if you have to review the entire file, do it section-by-section. Think of it as a type of assembly line so it moves out of your view as you finish with it.

If you take a few moments every morning to organize your day in this manner, you may be surprised at how much you can get accomplished.

At first, it might feel strange seeing all this real estate – real estate called “your desk.” Don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to it and wonder how you functioned prior to your new, clutter-free habits!

And this system doesn’t just benefit you in terms of getting work or projects completed. Your clients or potential clients will appreciate it, too. When your clients see your clean, organized office, they will feel like they’re in good hands because your clean desk signals that you are in control and have the time and clarity to focus on their case.

Potential clients who come to your office for a meeting will be impressed by your organization and handle on your cases and clients. Imagine how you would feel walking into a chaotic office versus an office of obvious clarity. When your potential clients see that you have your office pulled together, they will also assume that you have your mind and cases pulled together as well.

For law students, the same rule applies. Keep only the material for your current subject or project in front of you. When you can focus on what you are reading, writing, or analyzing without the distraction of piles of other papers, books, and who-knows-what-else, your mind will better assimilate and retain what the subject of your focus.

This whole process may feel strange or foreign at first. When we have been used to functioning amidst piles and piles, we may feel a little lonely when we can actually see the bottom of our desks. Even better, when there is so little cluttering up your desk that you can even wipe it off from time to time, you know you have arrived!

When you regain control of your desk and office space, you’ll be amazed at your improved productivity, mental clarity, and decreasing sense of overwhelm – three rewards that are well-worth any the temporary discomfort of learning some new, positive habits.

While this is a good system and way to get yourself on the path to better organization and productivity, it isn’t the only system. If you have methods you have found to be useful, please share them below. What works for one doesn’t work for everyone, but find the system that works for you and start using it – today!


  1. I could not agree more that a clean desk increases productivity. Some of the attorneys in my office use the piles on the desk (and the floor) as their organization system and they tend to be the attorneys always putting out fires and searching for files.

    But there is a down side to the clean desk. These “pile it up” attorneys seem to see a clean desk as an indication that I do not have anything to work on. In truth, I am just as busy but I have lists of my projects and actions on my computer ala David Allen and GTD while my files reside in a filing cabinet by my desk rather than using the piles as reminders that I have work to complete.

  2. Avatar Teresa Jackson says:


    You really touched a nerve for me because I often feel guilty about my messy desk. I would like to say I can always put my hand on every piece of paper but I would be lying.

    Being a salesperson I have found the state of a person’s office tells a lot about their personality. A very clean desk means they do not want to spend time on chit chat (like what happened to the Penguins). They want to know quickly what I have to offer and what will it do for them. I try to be considerate of that kind of personality and find the sales meeting will go much better if I rein in my tendency to gab.

    Fat Daddy’s thought that people think a clean desk means no work is interesting.

    Thanks for a thought provoking article!

  3. Avatar Kendra Brodin says:

    Hey Fat Daddy,

    Thanks for the comment! You are right — more piles and less organization often correlates with more fires to put out and time wasted looking for things. I’d say those other attorneys could learn a thing or two from your organization — maybe saving yourself from the fires and lost files means you do have more time to focus on your clients and other things that really matter. Keep fighting the good fight!


  4. Avatar Kendra Brodin says:

    Hi Teresa,

    I appreciate your comment! Interesting thought about how salespeople interpret a clean desk. I am guessing that most attorneys with lots on their plates appreciate your willingness to cut to the chase, tell them what you offer, and tell them why they should be interested and what you/your service can do for them. It shows you respect them and their time and that your service would do the same. Thanks for your point of view.

    Take care,

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