Spring-Cleaning for Your Office: Eliminate Piles with a Simple 6-Step System

Spring! It’s time again for—Spring-Cleaning! Being cooped up all winter has given you an excuse to hibernate with your junk. Are you drowning in a sea of paper? Do you have a “someday” pile, a “decide later” pile, an “action” pile, and a “just for a while” pile? Do you manage with a “stack” system or keep all your “to-do’s” in your in-basket? If these questions ring true, you can realize a significant increase in productivity by organizing the mounds of paper on your desk.

We should actually call it “Spring Organizing” rather than “Spring Cleaning.” Why? Are organization and cleanliness the same thing? Absolutely not! Case in point—you could get a box, sweep everything on your desk into it, and shove the box in your credenza or supply cabinet. You’d brush your hands together and say, “There, I cleaned off my desk.” Well, that’s true—the desk is now clean—but it certainly isn’t organized. Being organized means that you can find what you want when you want it.

Why is organization so important? Here are some startling statistics from the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO):

• between 1969 and 1987, Americans added 163 hours, or an extra month to the working year
• there are 150,000 books and 10,000 periodicals published in the U.S. each year
• stress-related illness costs the nation $300 billion per year
• 89% of women and 79% of men admit to buying more than they need
• we wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time
• 80% of papers that are filed are never referenced again

So no more excuses! A little advance planning this spring will allow you to emerge from your office this summer clutter-free. Once you’ve gotten your environment under control, you’ll have more time for yourself to play.

Indecision, by its very nature, causes clutter. Many of the piles on your desk represent postponed decisions. The keys to successful paper management are: (1) have a “home” for each category of paper, and (2) decide immediately where each paper belongs (don’t shuffle papers). To help put these principles in action, I teach my workshop participants a system I’ve developed called the “6 D” method. When you pick up a piece of paper for the first time from your in-box, you decide which of the 6 actions is appropriate and put it in its proper place. 

The 6-D’s are:
1. Ditch—Put the paper in a trashcan, recycling bin, and/or shredder. Many people have “the fear of dumping.” Ask yourself the tough questions—do you really have the time to read it? What’s the worst that could happen if you throw it away? Can you get another copy if necessary? You must be ruthless in this stage! Remember we only look for 20% of all the paper we insisted on saving.
2. Delegate—Refer the item to someone else. Immediately put it in an envelope or attach a routing label. Get it going out the door to that person right away. We cannot “manage by doing” in the Information Age, so give away as much as possible.
3. Do—If you have the time, complete, review, sign, or reply to the item immediately. Then get it going back out the door to the requester. This step is generally for action items that will only require two to five minutes to complete. Investing the time now will save time in the long run because you won’t have to shuffle the paper around.
4. Decide—For papers you can’t work on immediately, determine when you need to see the item again and file in your Tickler (pop-up, calendar, bring-up) file for paper. Or designate an action file for each item, such as a “to be read” file, “to be copied” file, “to be faxed” file, “computer” file, or appropriate Project file.
5. Dungeon—File items you can’t toss, delegate, and that don’t require any action. Temporarily put these papers in a “to be filed” bin or folder or a “to create a file for” folder. File at least once a week.
6. Delete—Halt the paper; keep it from coming across your desk again. Make a quick phone call to get off the routing list for reports, memos, letters, minutes, catalogues, magazines, and junk mail that you don’t need or have time to read.

So get your organizing equipment ready! Surround yourself with the trashcan, recycling bin, envelopes, routing labels, tickler file, “to be filed” folder, phone, and pen. Then attack your piles. Put one stack of paper before you, square it up, pick up each piece of paper, and apply the 6-D system. (Hint: take out the big pieces first, and throw away piles older than 6 months.) Do not put a paper down until you have made a decision about where it goes. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do it, just put it away. Work through all your piles in this manner.

The key to maintaining your organized office is to have an empty in-box and a clear desk before you leave each day. The old adage “a place for everything and everything in its proper place” is indeed true. You usually can’t drop everything and work on the item, but if you put it on your desk, you will create piles. The 6-D System determines where the paper should go and makes maintenance a breeze. Spring is the perfect reason to commit to clearing the decks and getting a jump on the summer!

© 1999 Laura Stack. Laura Stack is a personal productivity expert, author, and professional speaker who helps busy workers Leave the Office Earlier® with Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. She is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., a time management training firm specializing in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations. Since 1992, Laura has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces. She is the bestselling author of three works published by Broadway Books: The Exhaustion Cure (2008), Find More Time (2006) and Leave the Office Earlier (2004). Laura is a spokesperson for Microsoft, 3M, and Day-Timers®, Inc and has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, and the New York Times. Her clients include Cisco Systems, Sunoco, KPMG, Nationwide, and 3M. To have Laura speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401. Visit to sign up for her free monthly productivity newsletter.