Get Organised: Creating Workspaces that Work

Students often tell me that they work in a state of “organised chaos”.

My desk in 2008 – Before discovering the joys of being organised
Whilst their desks are piled high with papers and stuff, they insist that this doesn’t affect their productivity. I beg to differ.

Let me explain it this way. Imagine that you need major surgery. You go to your local hospital, get wheeled into the operating theatre only to find bandages covered in blood, dirty sheets and used syringes lying around all over the place.

The surgeon says to you –

“The room may look messy but trust me, everything is fine. Just relax!”

Would you be able to relax in such a messy medical theatre? Would you feel confident in the surgeon’s ability to operate on you? Probably not.

Let’s face it, there are clear benefits to being neat and organised. Less clutter in your environment means less distractions, less stress and greater self control (all of which lead to greater productivity).

When you’re surrounded by clutter, your thinking is cluttered. You often don’t know where to start with your work. Your attention span is shorter. Things generally take longer to do.

In contrast, when things are relatively clean and organised, you may find that you get more done in less time. It’s easier for you to stay focused. You feel more in control of your work and life.

Recognising these benefits, I recently created the mind map “Get organised: Creating a workspace that works” with the help of organisation expert Dawn O’Connor from Work in Order.

Below I elaborate briefly on each of the major ideas covered in the mind map.

What to do with papers

Having papers scattered around your home and office in various locations is a recipe for stress and procrastination. A good filing system is critical in the age of information overload.

So what constitutes a good filing system?

David Allen (author of the best seller “How to get things done”) says –

“You need to feel comfortable storing even a single piece of paper that you might want to refer to later, and your system must be informal and accessible enough that it’s a snap to file it away in your alphabetized general reference system, right at hand where you work”.

Here is a straight forward filing system that you can easily implement (based on David Allen’s work). There are 3 essential parts to this system: 1) Bins, 2) General reference files and Project files and 3) A someday maybe file.

1) The recycling bin and rubbish bin: If you don’t need it (i.e. it provides no reference value), toss it out. If you can recycle it then that’s even better!

2) Specific project files: These are files that contain information on current projects that you’re working on. For example, I have a project file for my next book and another file for my tax.

General reference file: A general reference filing system contains anything you find interesting and want to keep and that doesn’t go into your specific project folders. I have a general reference file for information on various study skills/learning techniques and several files of interesting articles that relate to my PhD project.

3) Someday maybe file: A someday maybe file is for projects that you may want to do some day but not right now. For instance, you could have a list of books you might want to read, projects you may want to start working on in the near future and courses you might want to register into at some point.

For more information on good filing systems, check out David Allen’s book “How to get things done”.

Sufficient storage spaces

Sufficient storage space allows you to reduce visual clutter in your environment so you can stay focused on the task at hand.

Shelves that store your reference materials should be ideally within arms reach from your desk. Organisation consultant Julie Morgenstern states-

“The most common mistake I see in most offices is locating the file cabinet too far away from the desk. That’s why papers pile up on the desktop. If it’s inconvenient to file, you won’t”.

Your desk

This is where you’re going to be doing most (if not all) of your work, so it’s important to set it up right. David Allen says –

“If your space is properly set up and streamlined, it can reduce your unconscious resistance to dealing with your stuff and even make it attractive for you to sit down and crank through your input and your work”.

You need to develop a zero tolerance policy for clutter on your desk. The only things you really need on your desk are an in-tray, your phone and computer. A pad of paper and pen is OK too. Everything else should be stored away for when you need it.

Visuals to inform and inspire

You want to be psychologically drawn to your workspace, so this is where one or two inspiring visuals such some art work or a meaningful image can help to beautify your space. Other things you may want to include are –

A white board: For brainstorming ideas and doing a “brain dump” before you launch into the day.

Pin up boards and yearly wall planners: These help to remind you about important upcoming events and deadlines. They also can create a sense of urgency and give you a big picture overview of what is going on for the week, month, and year.

Minimise distractions

Distractions and stress are your worst enemies when you work. Headphones can be used to block out unwanted noise to help you stay focused.

Similarly, making sure the room is not too hot or cold and is well lit will help you to work more effectively.

Any clutter on your desk will distract you as well, so get rid of it.

Assign a home for everything

Do you waste time looking for things?
Label boxes and files so there are no mysteries as to what their contents are. To keep things looking nice and neat, I recommend investing in a labelling machine.


Many of us are overwhelmed and weighed down by stuff. One way to regain a sense of control is to work in 10 minute decluttering power boosts. Grab a timer, set it for 10 minutes and start de-cluttering an area of your office (tossing and filing away your things). 10 minutes may not seem like much, but it all adds up.

You can use your 10 minutes to review your files and folders and toss out papers that you no longer need. Not only does this mean that your system stays current, but it creates space for new ideas and projects.

It’s also a good idea every 3 months or so to set aside 1-2 days to devote to a massive decluttering session. Put on some music and grab yourself 3 cardboard boxes (one for things you will donate/give away, one for papers to recycle and one for rubbish) and let the fun begin! For more tips on how to declutter (and actually make it a fun experience), visit

After reading all of this, you may be thinking –

“This is all great but where do I start?”

My advice is this – just get started. Anywhere. Doesn’t matter where. You may first choose to tackle your stationary draw, your pin up board or a file you haven’t touched in several years.

If you’re really stuck, Dawn O’Connor from Work in Order advises people to start with their desks. She says –

“Toss what you don’t need. Be diligent. If you are not ready to let it go, note the date on it and make a task to check it again in 3 weeks (or a suitable date). If you have not looked at it again or not needed it, let it go”.

By taking on the advice and techniques presented here, I hope that you will find greater clarity, focus and peace of mind. If you have any other organisation/decluttering tips, feel free to post them below.

5 thoughts on “Get Organised: Creating Workspaces that Work

  1. Hi Jane, I love the new mind map. Really well organized, and provides enough information without overwhelming the page. Great job. Would love to see it on Mind Map Art.

    1. Thanks for the nice feedback Adam. I have just sent you an email. Feel free to put it up on Mind Map art 🙂 We are about to start working on a new (super exciting) range of mind maps. Stay tuned!

  2. I love the mind map! I wish it could be ordered in the form of a poster! I’d love to hang it for my kids at school!

  3. I wish I found your website earlier, the stuff here is sensational 🙂 I can’t seem to register my email for updates so if you can be so kind to do so, I’d greatly appreciate it! Thank you

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