30 Minutes to Dealing with the Paper Cluttering Your Desk

Got a stack of stuff on your desk that messes with your serenity? Here’s how to get back in control FAST.

Photo by Pexels via Pixabay.

Here’s the scenario. Your life is busy. Piles are building up because there are always more pressing tasks to do before you get to them.

Paper piles can seem to generate spontaneously. Paper is insidious because it’s small in size compared to other types of clutter, yet it requires more attention to sort through because you need to read it, not simply see it on a table. Going through a half inch stack of paper can take an hour.

I get it. I’ve seen many a pile in my 20-year career as a professional organizer and productivity consultant. My clients have different reasons for piling, but this solution I’m going to share with you will work for anyone. The big secret is that it gets you just to start. That’s often the toughest step. It also breaks down the task into simple, bite-sized pieces that will allow you to get control over that paper once and for all.

Why should you manage paper at all? Not just to make it look nice and neat. Being organized is NOT the same as being neat. You should manage it because paper clutter wastes time, it wastes money, and it stresses you out.

People waste a huge amount of time looking for paper. People waste money when they can’t find that important paper, by paying late fees on bills, missing deadlines, or losing gift certificates and gift cards. They even misplace checks! Then they miss opportunities: events, business follow-ups, or trouble-free travel — ever lose track of your passport before a flight?

Can you spare half an hour? What if it would make the following half an hour twice as productive? And the hour after that too? Spending time on decluttering your physical desk is a great investment.

The rest of this article will show you how to apply the principle of triage to your paper problem. You might finish the 30 minutes with a cleared desk and a sense of optimism that you are on top of what you need to do. Or you might find that you will need to take some more time to finish the job.

If you find that you need more time, you’ll at least be comfortable with the process. You’ll see that each section is timed; you’ll limit this triage and initial pass to just 30 minutes. At each stage, you’ll just set aside what isn’t done to come back to and do later. You’ll end the 30 minutes with a cleared desk or new confidence that you’ll be able to clear it in less time than you might have guessed.

What you’ll need:

  • 30 minutes
  • Your desk full ‘o stuff
  • Timer (the timer app on your phone is great)
  • Post-it notes
  • Pen
  • Bags or bin for recycling and trash; shredder (if you use one)
  • Optional: file folders

How to Start

Figuring out how to start is often the hardest part of decluttering.

The big secret is that it really doesn’t matter.

Just make a decision and do it. The method we’re working with here is called triage.

Triage is all about decision making. It provides a simple structure to guide you and it depends on quick, resolute judgments that you act on right away.

In the medical world, triage is used when there are many patients and limited resources. Triage sorts patients into three categories, according to our friends at Wikipedia:

  1. Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  2. Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  3. Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in the outcome.

In medical triage, urgent critical care is allocated first to those in the third category.

Triaging the stuff on your desk, of course, is a little different — but I can guarantee you that you don’t have enough resources to manage all the stuff that’s currently in your life — no one does. Becoming skilled at triage (aka ruthless decision making) means more of your time and energy goes to the important stuff.

What does that look like for the paper on your desk? We’ll be using these three categories:

  • Category 1. Stuff you like and need that you’ll file away. This includes insurance statements, medical statements, and tax and legal documents. They generally don’t need attention or require action, but you need to keep them.
  • Category 2. Stuff you don’t like or need that you can immediately ditch. Junk mail goes here. Flyers for events you aren’t going to, or sales you aren’t interested in, go here. It also includes reminders and notices that you’ve already taken care of, such as paid bill confirmations and receipts you no longer need.
  • Category 3. Stuff that you need to deal with right now. This refers to urgent items like bills, appointment cards, checks and anything that needs timely action. I include reading in this category, so that you’ll keep it handy and actually read it rather than piling it somewhere. If you don’t realistically expect to read it soon, it probably really belongs in category 1.

The Half Hour Plan

Remember, triage is speedy because lives are at stake. We’ll use that same mindset. The more quickly you make decisions and act on them, the clearer your desk will stay.

The average desk is triage-able in half an hour. It requires focus and commitment so you keep the papers moving. This is not the time for in-depth reading.

If you have a lot on your desk, you can shift the goal and choose a small area, just a section of your desk. Don’t try to tackle the whole thing.

Triage will get you through the purging and decision-making. It will not get you through the action items that will result. I’ve added some post-30-minute-clean-up suggestions if you want to keep going.

In a hospital, triage patients are sent to different areas depending on their category. On the battlefield, they are simply marked with colored tags. On your desk, use Post-its or other labels to mark your piles. Allow enough room for sorted piles. A card table is great, but the floor will work too.

A note on time

If you put off organizing paper because it seems like it’ll take forever, limiting the time you spend is your secret weapon. You really will make progress. And you have permission — even encouragement — to stop when the timer goes off. The timer allows you to stop, so you don’t feel that you’re endlessly doing administrivia. It also makes clear how much time these tasks actually take.

This can be great news if you get it done in fifteen minutes — or can seem like bad news if half an hour isn’t enough. The latter may inspire you to simplify a little or settle for good enough rather than perfection.

Finally, using a timer creates a container to work inside of. You’ve probably heard of Parkinson’s law: that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you give yourself the whole afternoon to clear off your desk, guess what? It’ll take you all afternoon. If you give yourself 20 minutes, it won’t get perfectly organized, but it’ll look pretty darned good.

If you’re the impatient type who tosses out user manuals, you can just get started now. More cautious types should read through all three phases to get a sense of how the process works and how the time is allocated.

Phase One

This is the gross sort. You’re deciding whether papers belong to category 1, 2 or 3. You’ll need a timer, 2 piling spots, and containers for recycling and shredding.

Categories 1 and 3 will be piled on the far right side of your desk, with everything else to the left. If that doesn’t work, use a chair or the floor. You’ll also have your bins ready for Category 2, the discardable items.

Set your timer for 15 minutes. Start with the pile on the left side of your desk and move across to the right without skipping over anything, and move it into the Category 1 or 3 pile, or into the rubbish or recycling bin.

Be a minesweeper. Don’t let your eyes wander. Each time your gaze passes over the desk, your mind is tempted to run in different directions and you get distracted.

Focus on one item at a time. If you can’t block out the other items on the desk to focus, take a sub-stack to another table or counter, with your back to your desk, so you can’t see the other piles.

Pick up the first item in the first pile. Is it category 1, 2 or 3? Don’t read or think too much about an item; you only need to identify it for now. Quickly define each:

Need it? Want it? Ditch it? Too late?

If you can’t decide, choose category 1. Repeat this process until the timer goes off or everything on the desk is sorted into three categories — whichever comes first.

Here are some examples:

  • You find an old bill. You know it’s been paid because it gets paid automatically. You don’t need it for tax purposes. That’s category 2: shred.
  • You find an old bill. It was paid, but there’s a dispute with the company. That’s category 3. Put a Post-it on it noting that you need to contact the company and put it in your current projects pile.
  • Example 3: You find an old bill. It details expenses that you want to declare on your taxes. That’s category 1: file it in your folder for that tax year.

Proceed to the next section. Don’t worry if you didn’t get through the whole pile.

Bonus tip

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and reluctant to dive in, try this tip to get some momentum.

Take the pile of paper you need to triage — it doesn’t matter what’s in it. Papers you need to sort, magazines, old mail — whatever. Take a few items or sheets from the BOTTOM of the pile.

Examine these items. In most cases, they’ll be old. They’ll be expired. You might not even remember why you have them. Basically, their time has passed. They no longer have a hold on you. They’re dried out and dead. That means you can easily get rid of them. Toss ’em right in the recycling bin.

Here’s what’s going on: the stuff at the TOP of your piles is new and full of energy, and sometimes anxiety. It’s stuff you really should be doing something about and it’s gnawing at you, whether you realize it or not.

The farther down you go in the pile, the older the paper is and the less urgent it is. It’s much easier to part with it. So, do that! This can be a good jump start to any paper-sorting session.

Desk clutter triaged into (left to right) category 1, category 2, and category 3 stacks. Photo by Better Humans editor Terrie Schweitzer, who tested this process out first hand!

Phase Two

Set the timer for ten minutes. Sort the paper in category 1 by topic. These are items you are filing, so the topic might correspond to files you are already keeping (if any).

If a topic does not come to mind, ask yourself why you are keeping the item. When you go look for it again, you’ll think, “where is that information about ______?” What if someone asked you, “do you know where the ______________ is?” Use that word.

Choose broad topics; it’s easier to look for a particular item in five possible folders rather than 50. Right now, you’ll just create separate piles for each topic. Label the piles with Post-its. If you run out of space, stack the piles alternating horizontal and vertical to keep them separated. Or go directly to existing or new manila folders. Label them temporarily with Post-its if you are just setting up your filing system.

After the sorting is completed, file! If your file cabinet is a disaster area, consider getting a temporary file box to use until you can revamp it. That way your newly sorted papers won’t get lost again. You can set up a to-do item to go through your existing file cabinet and resort later.

Proceed through each stack of sorted items. Don’t worry if you don’t get through the whole pile when the timer goes off. You can come back to this later.

Category 2 items sorted into existing file folders, ready to go into the file cabinet.

Phase Three

Set the timer for five minutes. Now we’ve come to category 3. You’re in the home stretch! These papers were out on the desk because you’re using them to remind you to do something. This is not an effective strategy.

You need a to-do list. A list allows you to see at a glance what all those to-dos are. When they are piled up or spread out or hidden in documents and notes, you can’t get the whole picture.

Your to-do list can be in a notebook, on a pad of paper, in your PDA, a whiteboard, on your phone; wherever you will be most likely to look at it. For each item in category 3, create a to-do. Don’t try to do the to-dos now; just record them to do later.

Reading material is also part of this category. It requires your action, which is to read it. Keep reading material together where you are likely to read and make time to read.

Examples of the to-dos noted to process items in category 3:

  • To do for a stack of marketing letters: address envelopes, stuff them (including business cards), stamp and take to the mailbox.
  • To do for event flyer: add the event to your calendar and make a note to RSVP (if necessary) on the calendar several days before.
  • To do for magazines: keep them together put them where you are likely to read. Add reading time to your routine. If you find yourself not reading, throw out the old magazines as new ones arrive.
  • To do for the pile of business cards: enter into computer contacts list or put into alphabetized card box. Make sure you’ve thrown out the cards for people you don’t remember or will never contact.
  • To do for information about you frequent flyer program: read it to see if there’s a time limited offer you want or throw it out, knowing you can get the information from their website.

Now, you may be thinking your to-do list will get unmanageably long. Yes, it will. But it’s not any longer than it was in your head, or spread out around the house. Reality check time.

Before all these things were on the list, you were by turns overwhelmed and in denial about how much you had to do. Now you can see it in black and white.

This is your current reality.

When it’s all in one place you can make informed decisions about what you will and will not do.

Post triage

You’re done with the half hour. Yay, you! Give yourself a pat on the back.

Make sure to keep up with current paper so it doesn’t become part of the backlog. That is, don’t stack new paper on top of old piles. Spend the first five minutes of triage taking care of the new stuff. This will go a long way to keeping you out of trouble.

An unexpected benefit to this method is that you may be inspired to keep less stuff once you realize how much work it is to keep it all organized! Remember: it’s your stuff, you’re in charge.

If you had trouble with keeping the paper moving, you need to hone your decision-making skills. Take another look at the paper that you kept, but don’t have a clear idea of what should happen next with it? Drill down to find out what’s holding up your decision making process. If you truly need more information or time for other events to occur before you can decide, that’s fine. You may need to set a to-do to check for that information or dependency at a later date.

If you hang onto papers because you are worried that you should be doing something with them or will need them someday, run them through the “what’s the worst that could happen?” test. Remember that we generally only refer again to 20% of what we file away.

Make looking at your to-do list a habit. Send yourself email reminders if necessary — where you keep your list is up to you. The important part is having one place to look for your to-do tasks.


Triage requires quick decision making. It’s life and death! Fortunately, it’s not that serious on your desk, but developing this skill will benefit your life in many ways, getting you through logjams of urgent but unimportant business so you have time and energy for what really matters.

Putting off decision making can feel like it leaves your options open, but often just leaves you in limbo. All those loose ends drain mental energy that would be better used elsewhere. Close loops whenever you can, because new ones are coming down the road tomorrow.

Keep current

You can certainly use this technique on that dusty box in the corner, but don’t fall behind in your current paperwork. Part of the point of this exercise is to keep you current enough that you’ll have time to tackle that box.

Here’s how to do that.

Open and sort your mail every day. Add to it any other paper you’ve acquired that needs some kind of decision made so it doesn’t end up in a pile, forgotten. Do a mini-triage on this pile.

Insurance statements, medical statements, and tax and legal documents fall into category 1, so file them. Flyers and offers are usually category 2. Toss them, but shred any from banks or credit card companies. Bills, appointment reminders and school letters are category 3.

If you can, set aside time in your schedule to handle those category 3 tasks at the same time you open the mail. That means write checks and mail them, call to set appointments and do whatever your kids’ school needs you to. Alternatively, reserve time weekly, after dinner on a weeknight, or Saturday morning, to take care of these regular tasks. If you do the filing then, too, bonus points!

Stay focused

People tend to want to attack everything at once. Then they quickly realize they can’t organize the entire desk in five minutes and they get discouraged. Remember to use the minesweeper technique to clear your desk from left to right. Let your attention focus on each item until you make a decision and act on it, or know what the action will be. If you don’t take the action now, write it on a Post-it so you don’t forget and have to redecide, a waste of mental energy.

Keep at it!

If you have years of backlog, the whittling down may go slowly. Use triage as often as you need it. Schedule another 30-minute block to do another round. Keep using the timer to help you stay focused and speedy and not find yourself deep in reading an hour later. A timer is also good to reassure you that you’ll be free of this tedium soon.