A Clean Office in 120 Minutes (or Fewer!)
When your desk is so messy it’s distracting and impeding you, it’s time to make a change. Use this plan, created by a professional organizer for adults with ADHD, to declutter in two hours.
Reader organization problem: “My desk was crazy messy, and my wife and I couldn’t work there. It got so bad that we had to keep our toddler daughter out of the room, because office supplies would spill from the desktop onto the floor. Are there ADHD-friendly ways to declutter your office?”
M, a successful web designer with ADHD, struggled to control clutter atop his desk in his home office. He did freelance work at home when not working at his full-time job. M saw the desktop as an all-in-one inbox, piling items — files, CDs, computer cables, T-shirts — on top of each other.
The Organizing Challenge
M shares the workspace with his organized wife, J, who needed to work at home. M’s clutter left her no space, and this created friction between the couple. J asked her husband to clean up the mess a year ago, and, although they didn’t fight about the clutter, J was upset over M’s lack of progress.
When asked how he felt about the desk, M said, “It’s an embarrassment, and I know I should do something about it. I just don’t know where to start.”
J reached out to a professional organizer to help M. She wanted to open up the room by reducing the clutter — and to minimize the friction between her and her husband with ADHD.
In less than two hours, M, J, and I transformed the desk — and the room. The couple was shocked at how little time it took. M half-jokingly said, “You saved our marriage.” J said, “You changed our work life.”
Step 1: Quickly sort clutter into four categories: Keep, Trash/Recycle, Shred, and Belongs Elsewhere.
We used three cardboard bankers boxes (Keep, Shred, Belongs Elsewhere) and two trash bags (Trash and Recycle). Trash/Recycle and Shred should be your biggest piles. I call this a “quick sort” because everything, except trash, will be re-sorted, so you can make decisions quickly. (30 minutes)
This step enables adults with ADHD to break through the obstacle of not knowing where to start and the fear of throwing away valuable items. You can always decide later if you want to transfer them to a different category (from Belongs Elsewhere, for example, to Keep). If you can’t maintain your focus for 30 minutes, set a timer for 10-minute work periods. Take a short break after each period.
Step 2: Do a detailed sort of the items in the Keep box.
We ended up with papers, CDs, books, electronic equipment (computer accessories and cables), and general office supplies (pens and paperclips). (10 minutes)
Step 3: Start with an easy task, to avoid getting overwhelmed.
M and I found a home for some items from the Keep box. We placed books on the bookshelf and office supplies in desk drawers. On a bookshelf, items are visible but not cluttered: You see a shelf of books, not other objects, when scanning it.
Desk drawers are tricky for adults with ADHD, who have “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome. The key is to store a staple of supplies, of the same general type, in a single drawer. I had M store often-used office supplies in the top two drawers, and less frequently used computer accessories in the bottom drawer.
To build M and J’s confidence, I had them do another easy task: placing CDs (or CD-ROM software) in a CD wallet. The wallet fits nicely on the bookshelf, minimizing the space a CD collection takes up. It also groups similar items together, so M and J could find them quickly. (7 minutes)
Step 4: Put infrequently used electronic equipment in an old inbox.
M’s Elfa Drawer File, which he used as an inbox, wasn’t helping him stay organized. He piled on more stuff — and found less of it. We stored items (an extra mouse, cables, USB hub, and battery charger) in it and placed it in a nearby office closet. We purchased a letter holder to use as an inbox (see Step 10). M remarked, “The room is less cluttered already.” (5 minutes)
Step 5: File papers in a file organization kit like the FreedomFiler system.
This all-in-one filing system eliminates the need to go through piles of paper to decide what to keep and what to throw away. The color-coded FreedomFiler lets you know when you can get rid of a document or when to move it to another category. You set up the files once — no need to relabel them each year. [Initial set-up of the FreedomFiler system may take up to an hour, although the company offers a simpler, pre-assembled kit as well.] (20 minutes)
Step 6: Shred items in the Shred box.
Do it now — don’t procrastinate and wait until tomorrow! (20 minutes)
Step 7: Address the Trash/Recycle mess.
If adults with ADHD don’t discard the trash and recycle items now, they’ll be sitting there for weeks! (2 minutes)
Step 8: Relocate items from the Belongs Elsewhere box to other rooms.
You might find yourself throwing away more things as you try to find a home for everything that has accumulated on your desk. (15 minutes)
Step 9: Set up a new inbox.
We used a stepped desktop organizer with slots for incoming mail, receipts for freelance work, and graduate school information. The small storage spaces prevent papers from piling up. The vertical spacing kept them in sight. (5 minutes)
Step 10: Develop new routines.
M opens his mail daily and files it in either his “inbox” file (if it requires action) or in the file organization kit. Before leaving the office at night, M clears off his desktop and puts things away. He empties his inbox weekly. We hung a glass message board above the desk, where important notes and a copy of his daily routines are in view.
“As we found a home for all of the clutter, my wife and I started to breathe easier and get along again,” said M. “It’s funny how clutter can affect your mood.”
Cardboard bankers boxes ($22 for 4; staples.com) for sorting. They are sturdy — stacked atop each other, they can withstand 550 pounds — and are easily broken down and reassembled.
Staples 15-Sheet Micro-Cut Shredder ($250; staples.com) helps you deal with piles that accumulate; use a weekly schedule for shredding.
FreedomFiler ($32; freedomfiler.com) for foolproof paper filing. The product comes with color-coded labels and how-to instructions. You supply the hanging folders, as well as the drawer or box to store the files. As an alternative, the Ready-Made System ($140) comes complete with folders, labels, and a crate in which files are stored. You can expand the system, if necessary.
Silver Mesh Letter Holder ($5; containerstore.com) substitutes for an inbox. It has separate slots for bills, paperwork, and
lists — the see-through mesh lets you find items quickly.
Case Logic 92 Capacity CD Wallet ($23; caselogic.com) Toss jewel cases and put the CD wallet on a bookshelf, like a book.
Glass Message Board ($20; organizedliving.com) keeps to-do lists and important information in sight.
Portofino Office Storage Box ($35; containerstore.com) is the perfect size for keeping personal letters and other special items.
Elfa Drawer File ($10; containerstore.com) Use it to hold extra electronics and cords.