Think about what you use the desk for.
It sounds obvious, but if you never read books at your desk, don’t use it to store that stack of novels. If you’re always on a landline phone while working, don’t install the base of the phone on the wall across the room.
2. Get rid of what you don’t use.
This goes for objects you’ll never need at your desk (see stack of novels, above) as well as things that are old or broken, like inkless pens or staplers that always spit out crooked staples.
3. Get the “fun” things off your desk.
Photographs, Rubik’s cubes, and those little critters that shake when an earthquake is approaching can be near your desk if you like to look at them, but the desktop itself should be functional. Of course, everything on it can be fun if it’s functional as well: photo screensavers and pencil boxes shaped like bananas are fine, as long as you use the pencils and the computer for other purposes. But if you tend to be easily distracted or prone to clutter (and if you’re searching online for “How to Organize a Desk” this might be you, right?) then put the decorations on a nearby wall or shelf.
4. Group like with like.
Put all your pens together in a cup, your paper clips in a drawer, you bills to be paid in one box or file. When you’re done with something, put it back in its place.
More in-depth: How to Sort and Group Similar Items
5. Be lazy.
The goal here is to put everything where you can reach it. If your desk is in a cubicle in a large office you might not have much say over this, but if you get to choose, put the scanner you always need and the highlighter you use every day in convenient spots. Unless you actively enjoy getting up and walking across the room every time you need a roll of tape.
6. Use the space under your desk.
If your desk comes with built-in drawers, put supplies you use most in the top drawer. If not, use the space under your desk for file folders or storage boxes. Unless your desk is tiny, you can store papers or tech equipment that you need often right by your feet.
7. Use your walls
I mentioned this in # 3, but so many things that traditionally used to go on a desk will be better on the wall. Calendars, photos, or inspirational quotes (on a bulletin board or whiteboard), can go flat against the wall leaving more space for your work.
More in-depth: Visual Organizing With Pinboards
8. Manage tasks.
If your work requires you to deal with physical papers and not just your computer screen, organize your desk to help prioritize. If you have lots of contracts to sign and mail to send, an old-school inbox and outbox might be the best way (TIP: I prefer vertical file trays and organizers to horizontal — things tend to be easier-to-ignore in a horizontal file). A small standing organizer can hold bills to pay, and if you keep papers for reference, a desktop file box might be the way to go. Also think about temporary homes for tasks you’ll deal with later.
Yes, it’s best to file everything right away, but if you only file every few months, designate a “to be filed” box and avoid a giant pile of undifferentiated papers atop your printer.
9. Figure out what gadgets you need.
If the room you work in is dark, you need a desk lamp. If not, a lamp is just a waste of space. Same with staplers, fax machines, and business card holders. If you use them, place them in easy reach. If you’re holding on to them because you needed them in 1994, set them free.
10. Some non-work objects belong at work.
If there are things you need all the time that are not exactly for work, like a box of tissues, put them on your desk too. If your desk is where you spend most of your time, some of your essentials are not going to be strictly work-related. It’s more efficient to keep a nail file and hand cream in your desk drawer than consign them to another area where they technically “belong.”