Tearing Down the Heap: Organising my Desk for Productivity

paperpile.jpgI started the day with a bit of a backlog of work in the office. The most obvious manifestation of this was ‘the heap’: a large disorganised mass of paper on my desk.

Unfortunately, this mountain of paper reflected badly upon my productivity:

  • I was disorganised, and therefore inefficient.
  • I did not know the extent of the problem, so I could not prioritise effectively.
  • Things were out of control. I was, therefore, being irresponsible in my approach to my job.
  • The heap itself just didn’t look good. Although I was unaware of the fact, it had a negative impact on my self-esteem and upon my colleagues perception of me.

Considering the problem, I recognised that there were actually two distinct problems:

  1. The visible chaos. Everything in ‘the heap’ and my in tray.
  2. The invisible chaos. Everything in my head, in various other lists, lost in the heap etc.

I needed to address the problem before I receive complaints from my customers. The good news is that I had identified a problem, and that I had the opportunity to be proactive in solving it.

I formed a strategy on two levels to solve the problem.

At the first level was a meta-strategy to PLAN, DO and REVIEW how I was going to tackle ‘the heap’. I needed to:

  • PLAN: Develop a strategy to bring the problem under control, and write it down.
  • DO: Execute the strategy.
  • REVIEW: Write about the results and (hopefully) learn something.


I sketched out a basic plan on a scrap of paper, and then worked out the finer points as I went along. Here is the plan that I came up with.

  1. Gather up all the paper into one big heap (in my in-tray, to save desk space).
  2. Work through the whole lot, dealing with every piece of paper.
  3. File everything, making a big list of to-dos.
    1. If I can deal with an item quicker than I can do anything else, act on it.
    2. If I can bin an item, bin it.
    3. If there is an action to perform, list it.
    4. File everything else.
  4. For items with actions, note the location of the paper on the list. Add to-dos from other sources, eg:
    1. The incident / work request system.
    2. Existing to-do lists.
    3. The mass of stuff in my head.
    4. Emails.
  5. Prioritise and categorise the to-do list.


The most important outcome was to reinforce my belief that:

  • I can develop strategies to manage my life more effectively. 

About the clutter on my desk, I discovered:

  • By filing everything, even things that need action, I am better able to keep clutter under control. I have never done this before, but have found that it really helps.
  • It is really pleasant to have a clear desk. I feel good about it.

I have several areas for development (I have to-dos for these on my list):

  • I have a big pile of reading matter, and I need to develop a strategy to manage this.
  • My drawers and filing system need a good sort out as well.

About my workload,  I discovered:

  • I actually had several to-do lists that I had forgotten about. Most (but not all) of the tasks have actually been done. Some of the work I need to do had been forgotten. At least I know about it now.
  • I have more work to do than I had realised, but at least I can prioritise it now.
  • The long list of to-dos that I have generated is actually a bit frightening.

About the time to perform the task, I discovered:

  • It took longer than anticipated to action the strategy, but not much longer.
  • It took considerably longer to write up the process than I had anticipated. I anticipate that this will become easier with experience.

About future management of my work I learned:

  • The corporate paper to-do list doesn’t really suit me. It used to work for me, but I have outgrown it now. 
  • I will need to maintain my new master to-do list.

About future mini-projects I observed:

  • During I needed to open several new files. I was pleased that I had already collected some empty files for just this eventuality. Next time I will need to anticipate the need for materials and make sure I have a good stock (or easy access).

Additional Jobs I need to Undertake

  • I have some personal paperwork (now in a ‘small heap’ on my desk) that I need to take home and file.
  • I need to set up a weekly task in my diary to manage my in tray and paperwork on my desk.



  1. PLAN-DO-REVIEW worked well in this situation.
  2. Productivity is enhanced through organisation.
  3. Self-esteem is enhanced through organisation.
  4. I have developed an effective strategy for dealing paperwork and work items.
  5. I will need to maintain the to-do list.

End Note

Of course, this was all very good, but now I have to go and do some real work. It is well past mid-day, and I have just received a call from a client chasing me for actual results…


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