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The Complete Guide to Transforming Your Desk Into a Productive Place to Work

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Some say a messy desk is a sign of creativity. Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg—all notorious champions of workplace disarray—might agree.

More often than not, however, a messy desk is just messy.

Unless you’re already a creative genius, having a helter-skelter work space is likely to hinder you from feeling productive, happy, or inspired. But working at a desk that’s too impersonally tidy can be just as fruitless. Luckily, Quartz is here to help get things in order and set you off on a path of organizational triumph.

Your desk is a cockpit. You are the pilot

Whether you work in an office or at home, treat your desk as the steering center for all your working needs: what you use most often should be within reach, with everything else farther away or stowed out of sight. So first, establish what you use on a regular basis.

Pen and paper? Fine to keep on the top of your desk. (Maybe a pencil, too.) That clunky tape dispenser that comes in handy once a month? Better to relocate to a nearby shelf, drawer, or supply closet.

Follow Japanese design principles

Japanese lifestyle chain Muji—whose name translates to “no brand”—is famous for its sparse, efficient designs. The company operates under the idea that there is “richness in the bare minimum.” Similarly, Japanese organization guru Marie Kondo (who’s changed many a life, including one at Quartz, with her bestselling how-to book) says: “You can clear your mind simply by discarding all unnecessary papers.”

Simply, simply, simplify, with the goal of keeping the surface of the desk as clear as possible.

“Whatever you don’t need, use, or love—whatever isn’t functional, let it go,” feng shui consultant Laura Cerrano suggests to Quartz. “Clutter goes beyond the aesthetic visual: it also relates to the mindset, the emotions.”

Drop $10 on a decent lamp

As the sun wanes in afternoon hours, the artificial overhead lighting of an office can be overly harsh—or sometimes too dim for comfort. A small lamp (however cheap or extravagant you want it to be) will do the trick.

Just make sure to fit the lamp with a yellow-toned bulb, rather than a bright white one. The glow will keep you focused, and the warmth will make your desk seem an inviting—and impressive—space to coworkers and bosses. Blue is also a possibility; it mimics sunlight.

Set up a horizontal flow

If your desk feels burdened or unbalanced, it helps to have a flow. Try laying out heavier things (computer monitor, books, mugs) on the left and keeping the right side light and airy (pens, sticky notes, open space). As eyes naturally moves from left to right for English speakers, it’ll follow the slope—leading to a pleasant, weightless feeling. Right-to-left readers, maybe try the other way.

Forbid yourself from ever making piles of anything

Do keep things strictly horizontal. When papers or folders are heaped on top of one another, they impede the flow of the desk; not to mention, it’s difficult to see what they are.

Use vertical file stands instead. If there’s not enough room on your immediate desk for all your documents, think beyond it: take advantage of nearby walls, bookshelves, drawers, or other storage options. To stay focused and tidy, never have files for more than two projects at a time on top of your desk, feng shui teacher R.D. Chin tells Quartz.

For compact desks, you might also consider installing an under-the-table keyboard tray to maximize surface space. “Keep the mind focused on a particular task,” Chin advises. “The rest of it? Get it away from your vantage point.”

Use nature to block out chaos and distraction

Offices, particular those with open design plans, come with all sorts of noise. While you can’t exactly banish loud/cluttered/intrusive neighbors from the building, you can take steps to greatly reduce their influence on your day.

“Working in offices is kind of artificial, so to speak, so you need to add some natural energy,” Chin explains. Use leafy, willowy plants—like orchids, peace lilies, and snake plants—as dividers between your desk and others’. Plants subtly establish your desk as your own space, but they’re warm enough to still invite the occasional drop-by from colleagues. Their serenity could also encourage messy neighbors to tidy up their own space.

Forget about those trendy standing desks

Yes, you’ve heard all about the standing desk, the latest in flashy office fads. But standing desks come with major downsides: joint pain, for one. Unless you have your own private office, they also tend to make smaller workspaces look clunky, lopsided, and stifling.

There’s a myriad of other ways to stay active at the office, such as taking frequent walking breaks or even just fidgeting often in your seat. If the idea of a standing desk is outside of your comfort zone, better to quit the (literally) stress-inducing trend and embrace the much more tranquil experience of sitting—provided your posture, chair, and eye alignment are all well-adjusted.

Use headphones—the right way

Pick the proper tunes for your mindset, and don’t keep the music on all the time.

Lunch time: Put food in its proper place

Food and work, experts say, ideally should not mix. Work requires focus and diligence; food should be a pleasant indulgence. If you must mingle the two, 1) try to do it as sparingly as possible, and 2) do it right.

Protect your work surface. Keep non-plastic utensils in your drawers to make eating a slightly less frenetic, on-the-go experience. Bring foods that are actually enjoyable—see Quartz’s previous complete guide to packing lunches.

Ditch all things dark and monochrome

The easiest, yet most valuable thing you can add to your desk? Color.

Pastel file folders. Nature-toned notebooks. A neon mouse pad. Whatever colors get you excited the most, use them to truly personalize your space. Colors make all the difference between a bland, sterile desk environment and a motivating one. You’ll also be much more enthusiastic about going into the office if you have a vibrant workspace to greet you—rather than a drab white slab.

Seek inspiration on the internet, by subscribing to the quirky Modern Desk newsletter, for example, for ways to bring inventive new gadgets and gizmos into your space if you’re stuck on how to liven it up.

Now, go off and get organized—with our best wishes for an energized, spirit-filled day.

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