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Thinking beyond productivity

3 Rungs of Personal Organization: Neat, Organized and Uncluttered

by Andre · 6 Comments

uncluttered What is the opposite of a messy environment? The answer isn’t as simple as is seems, especially since there isn’t one answer. I have three in mind, which could be thought of as levels of personal organizing, in ascending order of importance: neat, organized and uncluttered. Let’s look at some subtle but crucial distinctions between these overlapping categories.


Neatness is the absence of visual disarray. It’s the first standard people strive for when trying to avoid some anticipated consequence of conspicuous mess — like a reprimand from a boss, parent or spouse. Some workplaces mandate clean-desk policies, where employees aren’t allowed to leave the office with paperwork on their desks. So at 4:55 p.m., they scoop up everything on their desk and shove it into any available drawer space, only to resurface at 8:05 a.m. This doesn’t eliminate mess; it hides it.

Some neatness is neater than others. Many desks are free of piles, above or below the surface, but the placement of materials is arbitrary. It might be more aesthetic for someone to have a not-in-use document tucked out of view. But when it comes time to retrieve it, if it takes serious mental effort to remember where to find it, there’s definitely an improvement opportunity on the horizon.

Some people take neatness a step further and consider it synonymous with minimalism. Minimal isn’t always optimal. Frequently used items tucked away for sight’s sake can create unwarranted overhead. For instance, I used to keep all of my project folders in my filing cabinet, except the one for that supported the one task I happened to be working on in that moment. That’s generally a good practice, but there are usually a few projects whose support material needs to be retrieved several times throughout the day.

It’s far less hassle to keep those frequently retrieved project folders above the desk in a separate tray, rather than pulling them out of the file cabinet, then return them to the file cabinet when their frequent use has died down. So I added a project support tray stacked directly under my intray. To make project folders in trays neater (in a good way), apply the project labels to the bottom edge of the folders as well as the tabs; then store the folders with the labeled bottom edge facing outward.


An organized environment is neat by definition, but goes a step further. Paperwork is meaningfully ordered for efficient storage and retrieval, minimizing the need to waste brainpower on the clerical work of collating and remembering. Documents that are currently not in use are filed, not piled, out of view to minimize distractions from irrelevant content. Paperwork on the go kept in the appropriate folder or personal organizer.

Piles in themselves are innocent. When all of the paperwork on someone’s desk is related to the same project, it can still be scattered all over without being distracting. It may look like a mess visually, but if it’s all related thematically, it’s still coherent in purpose. If an interruption comes in that forces the person to switch to a different project, it’s easy to scoop up all of the papers belonging to the interrupted project and put them in either a project folder or, lacking a ready-made folder, back in his in-basket — then lay out that paperwork again once the interruption has been dealt with.

A frequent problem with managing paperwork, not addressed by most personal organization tips, is dealing with papers that fall into a mental gray area: they clearly aren’t trash, but it’s equally clear that they shouldn’t be permanently archived — they’re not “records.” They might need to be accessed in a few minutes, hours, days, or . . . never. The usual coping strategy for this short-term paperwork is to shove it to the side of the desk, where it blends with other paperwork that’s either actionable or reference, creating an amorphous sense of “so much work to do.”

As long a filing is reserved for permanent storage items, the surface of the desk will become the default holding area for randomly assorted paperwork. Usually, owners of these piles are using them as reminders of what projects need to be worked on. This is nowhere near as scalable as a well-updated calendar and task list. Only so many papers are visible at any one time.

The alternative is to create an A-to-Z general reference filing system, which becomes the temporary-to-permanent holding area for every piece of paper that’s either not trash or not supporting a project being worked being handled at the moment. When all paperwork is out of view, the user has to look at his or her task list and calendar in order to know what to do next. Avoid using randomly assorted paperwork as your To Do list, and you’ll find that prioritizing work becomes much less stressful.


An uncluttered environment is neat and organized, but free of physical and emotional deadwood. There’re more to eliminating clutter than personal organizing. Clutter can be deceptively well organized: obsolete files, unnecessary routines on one’s calendar, unused gadgets, oversized furniture, time-filling habits like excessive beverage drinking. It’s not uncommon for people who review their actual usage patterns to find that they only regularly use a small fraction of what’s available to them.

I just got rid of a scanner that I’ve only used half a dozen times in as many months, but took up space and attention. In the future I’ll just go to a copy store when needed. Once the need to prop up the scanner was removed, I began thinking about how much I dislike my computer desk, and desks with shelves in general. So now I’m looking for a desk that’s less cumbersome. Pruning one unneeded possession usually increases sensitivity other more unneeded ones. Instead of creating a sterile environment, decluttering creates a more lively space by leaving only the things you genuinely use and care about.

Trash is obviously clutter, but clutter goes beyond trash. Most types of clutter are much harder to get rid of than trash, because they usually have an emotional connection to the owner. A book whose’s information was useful at one point in life but no longer is becomes hard to categorize as clutter, even if the owner knows deep down that she now has no conscious intention of reading it again — it has some intrinsic value, so it’s kept around “just in case,” neatly placed on a bookshelf where it remains harmlessly inert. The more “stuff” like this that’s kept around just in case, the more anchored to our past we become.

The first step to eliminating clutter is defining it in terms of what you want to accomplish at this point in your life, clarifying it as one or more goals or themes. Then survey your possessions to ask yourself if each one helps to support that new theme rather than an older one. If the answer is yes, keep it; otherwise it’s clutter. It may have value, but not relevance in light of your current life. Make it a habit to reduce the things in your life to the vital, and you’ll increase your vitality.

(Photo credit: mizocrazy)

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  • DavidNo Gravatar // Jan 12, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Nice distinctions that you make here. I built my own maple block desks, which are so lovely to look at that I make sure the surfaces are free of papers and files by the end of each work session. See:

  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Jan 13, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I am very proud to announce that my environment, which is my home, is neat, organized and uncluttered. :) Those are interesting distinctions indeed. I can think of a friend who is none of the above (very messy), and one whose home is neat and organized but definitely cluttered. As you say it’s an emotional attachment that makes people cling to stuff rather than get rid of it.

    Sometimes I think I am not attached enough to stuff though – I get rid of things quickly and once in a while I find myself regretting it.

  • DuffNo Gravatar // Jan 15, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Great distinctions. Uncluttering definitely leads to an increase in vitality and dynamism. I think uncluttering is especially needed in the info-space of the internet and computer technology. As Mark Hurst says “bits are heavy–let the bits go.”

    However, I’ve been noticing some older men lately who seem to thrive on hoarding and fixing old junk. One lived on a sailboat in the Virgin Islands for nearly 30 years, the other finds great deals at yard sales and resells things on eBay and Amazon. Both are intellectuals who enjoy fixing things and working with their hands, as well as a “great deal.” This may be an old value, but there may still be something to it in terms of frugality with physical objects.

  • CarlaNo Gravatar // Jan 26, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    I hate to say it, but my study at home is only “neat” some of the time. I haven’t found a good way to organize and declutter yet, but my time is coming.

  • Toby ChampionNo Gravatar // Jan 28, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Rather than sweeping up paperwork for your current project into your in-basket, you’d probably be better off quickly creating a new project folder. Of course you’re more likely to do that if you have a stock of fresh folders to hand.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jan 31, 2009 at 11:13 am

    @Toby: Generally, you would want to create new project folder if you didn’t already have one. Putting paperwork in your in-basket is strictly for handling interruptions. The in-basket just acts as a “temp file” while you handle the new input. It would be awkward to label a new folder during an interruption.