How to Radically Re-Organize Your Office

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by email? Tormented by stacks of paper? Paralyzed by the clutter in your office? Management professor Jackie Gilbert did, too – but she found a way to conquer it, and her lessons can help almost any executive enjoy a cleaner office and a clearer mind.

Gilbert’s collection of office detritus had been growing since graduate school. After she received a promotion to full professor at Middle Tennessee State University, she decided to take drastic action to reboot her environment. She spent three hours a day for an entire month going through every scrap of paper and deciding what to do with it. The process was nothing less than cathartic for Gilbert – but even if you don’t have 90 hours to purge your office, here are the steps you can follow to get a fresh start.

  1. Stop justifying the madness. Some people think that disorder fuels creativity – but Gilbert doesn’t buy it. “Messiness is an unorganized, pseudo filing system in which people have grown to feel comfortable,” she says. “I think that same creativity can happen in a more organized fashion.” So abandon the excuses and get to work.
  2. Visualize the big picture. How do you want your office to look when it’s complete? What’s the best case scenario? Imagining your ideal workspace can help motivate you to keep going when the cleaning process gets to be a slog, says Gilbert: “Whenever I thought of my office, I saw not what I had, but the end result that I wanted to experience. I kept that in my mind’s eye, and visualized what each particular area would look like post-organizing.”
  3. Sift your possessions and make a list. Go through your items, starting with one section of your office and progressively working your way around. What do you want to consolidate or purge? Can you save room by scanning it? Do you need to loan something to colleague? Can something be recycled or donated, rather than thrown away? “Just the sifting process took an extraordinary amount of time,” recalls Gilbert. But knowing exactly what’s in each file folder will make you much more efficient moving forward.
  4. Keep it up. Alas, you’ll never be completely “done” with organizing. Every day brings new mail, email, review copies, and worse that you’ll have to deal with. But after your initial burst, maintaining your organization shouldn’t be that hard. “When I experience a break in the action, I organize in little ways,” says Gilbert – cleaning out one desk drawer at a time. She doesn’t let stacks build up anymore, and instead tackles a bit each day. “I’m constantly streamlining, consolidating, and updating my workspace and processes,” she says, “because ultimately what I’m trying to do is raise my productivity. For me, that’s a never-ending process.”

What are your top secrets for streamlining your office? Does a clean office make you more productive?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.