5 tips to create and maintain a minimalist desk

Despite many aspects of university education becoming digitalised, students are still not completely free of paper. And it will probably be a long time before we are completely done with it, if ever. Paper – worksheets, assignments, data, sources, references, extracts, forms and letters obtained from professors, coursemates, friends and our own research – can be one of the main culprits when it comes to desk pile up.

Not to mention other things that can contribute to a cluttered desk, such as books, mugs, a computer or laptop, pens, a lamp, knick-knacks, folders and if you’re really messy even clothes or food(!).

why you need a clear surface

If you live in a single bedroom with limited space, desks can get very cluttered very quickly if you don’t consciously keep it clear. A desk packed full of stuff can:

  • Create a distracting environment
  • Encourage procrastination
  • Be off-putting to creativity
  • Make it difficult for you to find things you need
  • Encourage cluttered-ness in other parts of the room

By far the simplest and easiest way is to literally take everything off your desk and put it on the floor. Then one by one put things back only after you’ve carefully considered why you need it. You’ll find that you’ll have to relocate a lot of stuff, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find a home for it if you’ve kept your drawers and shelves pretty minimal.

how to maintain a minimalist desk

1. Dispose immediately. If you think you’ll probably never use a sheet of paper again, just chuck/recycle it. If you leave it to mix with the stuff that you do need, you’ll be put off organizing it because the pile looks bigger and scarier. The worst that can happen afterwards is that you look on your university portal for an electronic copy or borrow off a course-mate. A lot of sheets only have a one time use, keeping them will not benefit you so it’s best to clear it out as soon as you can.

2. Organise. Use fileboxes, trays or folders to store papers that land on your desk. Only you can work out a system that works for you, but for me I find a simple ‘Urgent’/'To Do’ /’To File’ method works perfectly.

Everyday, I deposit all of the sheets in my thin folder into the appropriate boxes/folders (after I’ve done step 1). Sheets that have to do with upcoming deadlines obviously go into the ‘Urgent’ box/folder. General things like homework sheets and long-term assignments go in ‘To Do’, and sheets I want to keep for revision but have no immediate use go in ‘To File’.

Instead of filing one sheet at a time, which can be time consuming, when the ‘To File’ pile gets to a certain level, I sort all of those sheets into labelled boxes. Once everything is sorted out, it’s much easier to identify what and how much you need to deal with at any particular moment.

3. Inbox Zero. Once you’ve deposited all of the things you need to deal with in once place, try to reduce everything in it to zero everyday or every other day. This will help you gauge your workload and do everything in an according pace. In other words, if you see that your work is beginning to pile up, you know that you it’s time to do block out some time to get it all done before you fall behind. If the ‘Urgent’ box is empty, celebrate!

4. Clean. If you must eat at your desk (I do sometimes when I’m watching TED), clean up as soon as you can after finishing and don’t leave it overnight. Clean dust away often and wipe off coffee mug rings. Be adaptable and try moving things around so that you have as little on your desk as possible. You can use bookshelves to store non-urgent folders or things you don’t use often such as reference books. Many people like to keep this stuff on their desk but actually they don’t use them very often anyway.

5. Get rid of knick-knacks. A lot of people keep photos or little figures on their desks which can be kinda cute, but also a little distracting. I used to find myself daydreaming whenever I looked up because I would see a picture of my old friends which got me thinking of home, and sometimes I would find myself on facebook a moment later to check up on them! Also, most of the time you don’t need an entire pot of pens, even if they look ‘professional’ sitting on your desk top. I moved all of my stationary to my top drawer, and since then I’ve stopped getting distracted by highlighters and the hole punch (like a six year old!).

common pitfalls

Once you’ve obtained a beautiful minimalist desk, you’ll have to be careful not to let things creep back on one by one. Also watch out for these other pitfalls:

Out of sight, out of mind. Don’t be tempted to hide stuff by putting it away in boxes. I used to be very guilty of hiding sheets in file boxes without organising them, and in the end they overfilled the box in no particular order and in the end it took hours and hours to sort out during exam revision time. If I had spent just a minute putting the sheets in the right place, I could have stopped myself from wasting time and getting stressed out.

Just clearing the middle. I’ve seen desks that only have enough clear space in the middle for a laptop, and surrounding it are piles of paper and various aforementioned junk. One may be able to survive, but they wouldn’t be working to their full potential because they are being limited by their environment. You should give yourself plenty of room so that you can spread out and work more comfortably.

Since my desk only has my laptop on it when I’m writing, or one book, piece of paper and pen when I’m working, I’ve seen a marked increase in my productivity. I realise that there is a certain amount of motivation required for one to actually get going on the work after they’ve sorted it, but just try it, even for a week, I promise you’ll have less of an excuse to put things off and you’ll be one step closer to being a productivity black belt ;)