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HELP - My Desk Is Buried Under a Mountain of Paper

Updated on April 23, 2015
Virginia Allain profile image

Minimalism is catching on, and I'm excited about streamlining. I'm sharing what I've learned about decluttering and simplifying our lives.


I'm the Poster Child for CLEAN OFF YOUR DESK DAY

When I was a library director, my desk contained stacks and stacks of papers. Now that I'm retired, I thought there would be time to maintain a tidy desk. After all, I no longer had to deal with staff schedules, grant applications, monthly statistics, public relations, book ordering and the other paper-generating tasks that go with running a library.

After five years of retirement, I must face the fact that it wasn't my job that created that avalanche of papers and all that office clutter. There's no escaping the fact that I'm a paper junkie. My desk at home is awash with papers. The paper clutter accumulates faster than I can read, file, toss, or act on them.

The graphic is from The Mess On My Desk by Kasey_and_Company. It is available from Zazzle.

I've tried many systems for getting my accumulation of papers under control. This time, I'm going to tackle the problem from a variety of angles. Each day, I'll use a different organizing technique or trick to bring my home office clutter under control. Check back to see what I accomplish each day as I try to get my messy desk under control.

Heck, follow along and apply the techniques to your own cluttered desk. Maybe we can all organize our papers together. Maybe we can start a movement..... The Clean Desk Initiative.

Books with Advice for Office Clutter - available from Amazon

Beyond Office Clutter
Beyond Office Clutter

A very helpful book with plenty of checklists and worksheets to motivate you to de-clutter that office space. *


Don't Put It Down, Put It Away

Taming the Paper Tiger at Work
Taming the Paper Tiger at Work

It took a long time for your office to get buried in paper. Realize that you won't set it right in one day. This book gives a clear process for getting all that paper under control.*


One rule that has helped with paper is that anything I can find on the internet, I don't need to keep.

— Joan Haines
Taming the Paper Tiger at Home
Taming the Paper Tiger at Home

I'd read Barbara Hemphill's earlier book and was glad to see she's expanded it into two books now with the focus on work and home. Being a chronic paper hoarder means rereading this book occasionally before the paper overwhelms me.

She really understands what needs organizing and streamlined, from messages to catalogs, recipes, photos, bills, tax records and the endless stream of paper that flows through our lives. Setting up the systems to handle our troublesome paper clutter brings relief. Some of it you know already, and just need a reminder, but other tips give new ways to handle the growing piles of paper.

Very practical. (review by Virginia Allain)


Admit That I Don't Really Have a System for Keeping a Clean Desk - First Day Initiative - Acknowledge the problem

My current paper flow is all "in" with very little "out." New layers drift across the top of earlier layers of papers. Occasionally I'll sift down through the layers to see if anything important is lurking there.

OK, here I go, "My name is Virginia and I have a problem with papers." Now all of you can say, "Welcome, Virginia." I'm assuming that you have a messy desk too and that's why you are here.

Now that we've admitted that we have a problem with this, we can get started fixing it.

Week-By-Week Strategies to Organize Your Desk

One Year to an Organized Work Life: From Your Desk to Your Deadlines, the Week-by-Week Guide to Eliminating Office Stress for Good
One Year to an Organized Work Life: From Your Desk to Your Deadlines, the Week-by-Week Guide to Eliminating Office Stress for Good

Weekly goals start you on the right path. The book shows you how to develop the work habits that keep your work and work space organized. *


File... don't Pile! Especially for Writers

File... Don't Pile!: For People Who Write : Handling the Paper Flow in the Workplace or Home Office
File... Don't Pile!: For People Who Write : Handling the Paper Flow in the Workplace or Home Office

Five steps... you can do that. This book makes it all clear and gives monthly processes to reinforce and keep you on track. *


The paper that always seems to stack up on my desk is scrap bits that I scribble on. Solution: I make notepads out of the scrap paper by stapling them together. Sounds like such a small thing, but instead of having piles of paper, I just have one notepad or two that can easily be swept into a drawer.

— Traveling Rae

I've Got a Whole Lot of STUFF and I need to let it go - This is the 2nd day initiative

Here's my task for the 2nd day. Figure out some categories for all this stuff on my desk. I know a lot of it is idea generating STUFF with topics that I plan to spin off into Squidoo lenses. Being a writer means these ideas (bits of newspapers, things from the mail, notes on bits of paper) are important. I just need to figure out how to corral them and keep them convenient when I'm ready to work on that idea. Keeping these right at hand contributes to the avalanche of paper filling my desktop. I need to give up the idea that I'm going to get to all of these today, or even tomorrow. They don't need to be right on top of the desk.

Other STUFF on the desk needs responses or are intended to be sent by e-mail or regular mail to all the people I want to keep in touch with you. That would account for the stack of Christmas cards and Christmas newsletters on my desk on March 8, several months after the holiday.

The desk top also contains items needing action (my camera to upload photos, a medical bill to submit to insurance, items to list for sale on a local online bulletin board).

I think I'd better stop here and act on these three categories that I've identified. Don't want to let this illuminating moment get away from me. First I need to make a file called IDEAS - Squidoo, one for LETTERS - to send, and one for ACTION ITEMS. If I sort out the STUFF that goes into those four folders, it should make a significant reduction in the piles of paper on the desk.

How about your desk? Are you able to see categories of STUFF, so you can start separating it?

What if I file it and can't find it again? - Third Day's Initiative - Overcoming fear of filing

Quit worrying that filing papers out of sight means "out of mind." For those of us who are visually oriented, that may be the thinking behind keeping all our papers on the desk top. If you file something and want to remember to use it later, put it on your TO DO list. In the case of my idea papers, if I really get stuck for ideas, I just need to get out that folder and start browsing. Actually I never seem to run out of ideas and they keep coming faster than I can use them. That's why they pile up. Having them in a file is the only smart way to go. I must think vertical storage (a file drawer), not horizontal (the desk top).

If you don't have an honest-to-goodness file cabinet, they really aren't that expensive. It's possible to get one of those milk crate file boxes very inexpensively. Put the hanging folders in and then fill them with all the stuff on your desk. I'll round up some options for file storage in case you need some.

Smaller Portable Files - if you don't have space for a file cabinet

I have 4 of these on hand, even though we have seven drawers of file cabinets. The reason I like these is I can put a project in it and take it with me to the library or on trips. Very useful.

Portable File Box

Storex Portable File Box with Bottom Drawer, Letter Size, Black (61513U01C)
Storex Portable File Box with Bottom Drawer, Letter Size, Black (61513U01C)

Very sturdy and seals well to protect your papers. This one even has a small drawer at the bottom to keep some supplies.


I'm currently working at the dining table because I can't see my desk again

— Online Writer

As for papers that need to be filed, I have a 'to be filed' basket and I file when it gets full, about once very six months.

— Traveling Rae

Vote in the Clean Desk/Messy Desk Poll - Answer the poll, and be truthful

How Bad Is the Paper Pile-Up on Your Desk?

See results

Gosh, I get so overwhelmed with this "stuff" sometimes, I have no idea what to do with it.

— Nancy Hardin

Real File Cabinets - if you are going to get serious about your filing

I find it worthwhile to go with a pricier file as the drawers roll easier once they are full. A cheap file will bind and be difficult to pull open once it is full of papers.

Toss or Keep Family Letters?

I'm determined to do something about the boxes and folders filled with letters accumulated over the years. Actually I have about 40 years of correspondence stashed in various closets.

First I'm gathering all the letters and cards into one room to deal with it. Then I'm sorting by the person who sent them. I have an empty file drawer to sort them into folders.

After that, should I read them and then return them to the sender? They might get a kick out of what they wrote so many years ago. In some cases, I am no longer in touch with the person, so guess I should just toss those.

My mother's letters I'll save to use with the book we planned about her later years.

What do you do with letters? Toss right away? Save?

Periodically I go through the worst stack and end up tossing most of it. Of course some of the things I toss are my lists of what I need to do to clean up my desk

— jptanabe

Finding Time to Tackle the Paper Piles

Paper cascades across my desk. Ack! I need to get it under control before it takes over the house.

All of it needs some action taken, but first I need to check Facebook, Bubblews, my gmail, my Verizon mail, my Hubpages account. You see why the paper gets neglected.

Maybe if I shut off my computer, I'd tackle the neglected papers. Nope, won't work. It seems like quite a few of the items need researching online or an email sent or added to my calendar online.

Maybe I need to hire a secretary. Anyone looking for a job? Needs to be very focused and not easily distracted.

Missing Deadlines - 4th Day's Initiative - A system for tracking deadlines


Shirt available from Zazzle: Danger! T Shirt by AdeleCB

Darn, I missed the deadline to turn in my photos to the camera club for their scavenger hunt. I was looking forward to getting the photos reviewed and had taken most of them. It turns out that the deadline in my mind didn't match the actual deadline on the instructions. Whoops.

Starting now, I must, must, must put deadlines on the calendar in my computer and it wouldn't hurt to post a sticky note reminder on the hutch of my desk. That way, even if the paper with the deadline on it gets buried, I'll still have a reminder.

Winner of the Messy Office Award - A Video Remake of a Cluttered Office

I think his desk is even worse than mine.

Clean Sweep - 5th Day's Initiative - Empty off the desk

It's tempting to just toss everything in the trash, but I know there are still things I need in that heap of papers. My efforts of the past four days have lowered the stack a bit. Today I'm taking all the papers off the desk. Every piece!

I'm taking the heap to my dining room table to sort. There just isn't room on the desk to do this organizing step. Besides, when I'm at my desk, I get distracted by my computer. When I'm supposedly working on clearing papers, I sneak in e-mail checking and wander off on Facebook or Squidoo or Pinterest. I won't have that lure if I'm in the dining room.

As I sort, I'll put action notes on each piece in red ink. The action notes will tell me at a glance what needs to happen to this paper next. Here are samples: call for clarification, file in XYZ, mail to sister, make lens on this.

Once the desktop is clear, I can start bringing back the pieces of paper that I will work on today. I'll also have some things to file in my new file folders.

Just Do It - 6th Day's Initiative - No more procrastinating, tackle that paper

Quit Procrastinating! Today I will take 10 pieces of paper and complete the tasks associated with them.

Then those 10 pieces of paper are banished from my desktop.... GONE.

  1. Sent the party reminder to guests.
  2. Made a complaint to Rubbermaid for broken container.
  3. Made a complaint to Almaden for a bad box of wine.
  4. Ordered a new pair of bifocals.
  5. Removed my library books to a table by my reading chair. Boxed up some books that I'm waiting to swap on Swaptree. Put those in the garage.
  6. Threw out 6 clippings/business cards/notes.... no idea why I was saving them. Stack up all the rest of the papers for working on tomorrow. At least they are all in one stack now. You'll notice that I didn't make it to 10 things (unless you count the 6 items here). Probably that's why my desk keeps growing paper stacks instead of diminishing ones.

Be Decisive

7th Day's Initiative - Make decisions about the paper pile ups

It appears to me that the remaining papers on my desktop are there because I can't figure out what to do with them. I need to do something... anything, to get the paper to move onward. Do I need it? Will I ever do anything with it? Who will care if I toss it?

Set up Regular De-Cluttering Sessions

8th Day's Initiative - Schedule time to organize the papers

I figure once a week, I need to attack what has weaseled its way onto my desk. For me, a good day for this is Saturday after golf. I'll just put it on my calendar system so it will pop-up to remind me. If I take fifteen minutes once a week, then it should never get so bad again. Right?

Well, I'll give it a try anyway.

Great Organizing Tools

Great Organizing Stuff on eBay - This updates regularly with new auction items

You'll find unique items on eBay to organize your desk. Look for some bargains.

Control the In-Box - 9th Day's Initiative - Keep the paper from piling up again

Don't let some things get into the in-box from the very start. Do a rough sort of the mail and junk the ads right away that you know you don't want. Open everything and put sticky notes with the needed action onto the pieces requiring that. Put those with the action items.

Note Needed Action on Those Papers

Write on a sticky note what action is needed and stick it on the paper. It's easier then to move those papers along.

A quick glance tells you what needs to be done with it. Keep all the papers needing action in one spot.

The Psychology behind Our Clutter

Making Peace with the Things in Your Life: Why Your Papers, Books, Clothes, and Other Possessions Keep Overwhelming You and What to Do About It
Making Peace with the Things in Your Life: Why Your Papers, Books, Clothes, and Other Possessions Keep Overwhelming You and What to Do About It

I see myself and others struggling with management of their things. We buy storage boxes, thinking that is the solution. I know people who even rent space to handle their overflow of stuff.

This book helps the reader analyze what the source of the problem may be, so the behavior can be changed.

*Is it acquiring more than can be handled?

*Is it lack of time, energy, space to care for what you have?

*Is there a process for moving things onward when they are no longer useful?

The author shows that clutter comes from problems with these three areas (acquisitions, managment, and disposition). Many books on clutter work out structure to manage what you have, but doesn't change the influx that overwhelms even a good system. This book won't tell you how to organize your sock drawer, but will get you to change some behaviors that contribute to your clutter problem.

I really like the questions at the end of each chapter. They really make me think about my possessions and why I have them, how I use them, where I keep them, and why I haven't gotten rid of them. (my review on Amazon)


Down to One Pile of Paper on My Desk

What's in there?

Once again I'm letting the paper pile edge higher and higher. I get so focused on what I'm working on online or at my desk, that I keep shoving other things aside. I need to take 15 minutes to find out what's lurking in there. My goal is to toss out at least five things and to take action on at least two things. That should be easy enough.

Keep with it until that goal is accomplished. Just Do It !!! Then I'll have an answer if someone asks, "What did you do all day."

Share any tips that work for you. What contributes the most clutter to your messy desk?

© 2010 Virginia Allain

How Are You Doing on Your Own Desk Clean Up?

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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I'm trying to keep all clean,but always have some extra papers on my desk :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I'd be fine if people wouldn't give me new papers to deal with every day. What happened to the paperless society idea???

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I can't stand clutter and do my best to keep everything clutter-free. But since I spend so much time and do so much work at my desk, it's the one place where clutter piles up more quickly and more often, so keeping it clear is almost a daily thing.

    • tricomanagement profile image


      7 years ago

      I am a fanatic about every where in the house BUT my desk is my island of insanity - and I think I will probably stay with my island!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great article - I'm pretty good at organizing but my husband is a paper collector. He keeps me busy!

    • SharpLee profile image


      7 years ago

      I like what I have read so far! I'll keep coming back until I get through your article. Right now I am cleaning out my house and having a garage sale this Saturday!

    • Joan Haines profile image

      Joan Haines 

      7 years ago

      It's amazing how much paper multiplies on our desks in this paperless society. AAAaaaaack!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      National Memo Day brought me directly to your Desk Clutter! Memo Day and Clean Off Your Desk Day should go hand in hand with one another. At least fr me, as the pile on my desk is memo notes to myself, mostly.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      hahahahaha.. blessings.. I bet mine is worse.. I think I'm going to do a lens on it :) I can't even see over it :)

    • agoofyidea profile image


      7 years ago

      I would have a cluttered desk, but I have a cat who sits on my desk and knocks everything on the floor. So I have a lamp and a laptop on my desk and nothing else. He is a good organizer.

    • lesliesinclair profile image


      7 years ago

      The video was really an encouragement, to see the initial mess and then to see it cleaned up. Organizing seems to be really a matter of tackling one paper at a time. thanks.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for the great tips! I happen to be working on cleaning up my desk so I can use this info.

    • TransplantedSoul profile image


      7 years ago

      I thrive in chaos. I find that if I clean things up too much, that I can't find anything. But I do need to be a bit more diligent about purging some junk I will never use.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Love your lens, the graphics are really cool and make the lens flow so well..

    • Linda Pogue profile image

      Linda Pogue 

      7 years ago from Missouri

      When I was teaching at university, I had a student helper. Her job was to file all my papers according to the sticky notes I put on them. Years later, when I left the job, I threw them all away, having never touched them again. It was easier to refind, redo, remake, or rewrite them than it was to find them in the filing cabinet. Now, I work at home. I think I need Paper Junkies Anonymous! Blessings!

    • Virginia Allain profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Allain 

      7 years ago from Central Florida

      @poutine: Poutine, I think you need to write a page about how to do that. Your methods would help us who are struggling with too much paper.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      My major professor in college had the worst office. Not only was his desk pilled high, but there were stacks of books and papers all over the floor too. He had a sign above his desk: "A clean desk is the sign of a sick mind." Great idea for a lens and lost of good advice. Blessed.

    • traveller27 profile image


      7 years ago

      I have to go through the stuff on my desk every once in a while and purge!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I am in control of my desk, not the other way around.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I do get carried away and get all disorganized, forget my to-do lists, make them longer by diverting away. Fortunately I am going to pay more attention this coming new year (hopefully) as a first step I have been using my new iphone to help me manage those to-do lists, shopping lists and reminders better..Now to cataloguing my laptop and physical papers outside... GOod luck and happy new year

    • Zut Moon profile image

      Zut Moon 

      7 years ago

      Everything in my life is clutter ... my mind is cluttered!!!

      Come to think of it, your desk wouldn't be so cluttred if you cut down on making 1 lens per day ... LOL. Oh wait, don't do that ... you make some interesting lenses ... Stay Cluttered ...

    • NickyT LM profile image

      NickyT LM 

      7 years ago

      I am a stickler for a neat, clean, organized work space. Great lens :)

    • beckyf profile image


      7 years ago

      I easily keep the rest of my house neat and decluttered, but my desk tends to become a wasteland. I really enjoyed your lens, and picked up a couple of tips to deal with my paper piles.

    • Virginia Allain profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Allain 

      7 years ago from Central Florida

      @Kittycheer: Kitty - I keep trying to organize myself better. I'd love to have a desk with lots of cubbyholes.

    • JJNW profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      Bravo! *** Blessed by a SquidAngel *** for good writing, humor, and ideas! Thanks - I will be coming back here (over and over and over...).

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      My desk is definitely going to be in the running for the poster child of messy desks! And the worse part is that I work on it nonstop every day! It's going to fall on my one day and kill me! (My office desk is getting close to being the same! :)

    • chezchazz profile image


      8 years ago from New York

      Whenever I actually clear off the papers and stuff I can't find anything. Even though it looks like a cluttered mess, I know exactly where everything is. Problem is there are not enough hours in the day to do it all and have not yet been able to find the right person to help with the workload. So I am avoiding it by taking the day off and indulging my squidoo additction for a few hours....

    • profile image

      cherangelry lm 

      8 years ago

      I'm in the process of decreasing clutter throughout the whole house, but it's satisfying to see how small, consistent steps can make a huge dent! By the way, I use EverNote to keep track of all my article/lens ideas... that kinda limits the clutter of topic reminders for me!

    • SciTechEditorDave profile image

      David Gardner 

      8 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

      It's not that you can't see my desk because of the papers and books on it, it's that you can't FIND the desk because it's "in there somewhere" in my den/office. My wife suggests a match and then a bulldozer. I've bought a lot of books on "decluttering" and "organization"... but, geeze, I can't find them. They're in there *somewhere* ... :-) Good lens! I've thumbs-upped, liked, favorited, and lensrolled your masterpiece! Congrats on a great job!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I think my husband needs help to organize his desktop. Thanks for all these ideas.

    • WildFacesGallery profile image


      8 years ago from Iowa

      So many clever ideas. ;)

    • steveffeo lm profile image

      steveffeo lm 

      8 years ago

      It is like you walked into my home office lol, :) The cool thing is every time I organize again I find something I lost.

      It is time to store everything.

      Blessed ,

    • Tagsforkids profile image


      9 years ago

      At first glance of the title, I thought you had sneaked into my office! However, inspirational for the day and the project will be wading through the pile and getting caught up! Thanks for the push. :-)

    • NanLT profile image


      9 years ago from London, UK

      Before I can have a cluttered desk, I need to have a desk. Right now, my working space is spread out in 3 rooms.


    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image


      9 years ago

      My desk is covered with so much stuff that I finally moved my laptop to the table. It's time to do something about it.

      Thanks for sharing.


    • SciTechEditorDave profile image

      David Gardner 

      9 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

      You are describing *My* desk and my office here! Definite 5* and favorited and lensrolled. (My parents were English teachers and librarians, I was an English teacher and my wife and I homeschooled our two kids, and I've been a writer for the past 30 years. So I really *KNOW* paper accumulation!) Thanks for such a cool lens!

    • ElizabethSheppard profile image

      Elizabeth Sheppard 

      9 years ago from Bowling Green, Kentucky

      I love the way this lens is organized. Tomorrow will be my Day One and I plan to start clearing my paper clutter away too. I definitely love to collect and save my papers, even when I don't need to! Thanks for posting this lens. I know it will be very useful for me.

    • LoKackl profile image


      9 years ago

      Fascinating lens. When I get around to taking seriously the clutter - yes, I'm one of those with rented space to accommodate overflow - I'll buy some of these books! (smiles) and in recognition of your excellent organization (!) and design to this lens, SquidAngel Blessed!

    • purplelady profile image


      9 years ago

      Welcome Virginia. My name is Carol Ann. Oh My, I resemble that remark about your desk. It seems that Clutter followed me home one day and I kept her. But, was it not Albert Einstein who said âIf a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?â

      5 Clean Desk Days,1 Fave, lens roll to my DeClutter lens. Very creative lens.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Actually I must be a "weird" bird as I have a pretty neat desk.

      But I love the way you laid out this lens and all the beautiful pictures.

      Great job!


    • profile image


      9 years ago

      You are absolutely right :My desk is buried under a mountain of paper, and then some. Thanks for the lens.

    • LaraineRoses profile image

      Laraine Sims 

      9 years ago from Lake Country, B.C.

      I think that I need a 'Sheila' to come help me. I always clean house on Thursday to get ready for the weekend company but I never seem to get to my office. I have the mess all in one pile but that pile keeps getting bigger. Last spring was the last time I sorted through it. Well, it's springtime again and your lens has helped give me the budge I needed to reorganize. Thank you. 5*s and lensroll to my cleaning lens.

    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image


      9 years ago

      I gave up on my desk years ago. I use a kitchen table now. It's cluttered, but I can find what I'm looking for...usually. I take a few hours every month to clean it off. The piles rarely get so high that I can't see over them and I only lose a bill every few months.

      Great lens

      Thanks for sharing.


    • eclecticeducati1 profile image


      9 years ago

      lol!!! This is so me! I clean my desk off, then it gets cluttered again and I start all over. Great lens. Blessed by an Angel.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      9 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      I am sorting my desk (finding tax papers) today and my living room floor is awash in papers. Next is the actually file most things and make it look good! Great tips, Virginia!

    • aidenw profile image


      9 years ago from USA

      My desk at home is very messy too. What a great idea for a lens.


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