Minimalism in the Workplace

If you feel swamped by hard copies of documents, 21,000 unread emails, or just too much clutter in your office, know that you're not alone. Taking a minimalist approach in your workspace can help you reclaim your time, sanity, and satisfaction with work.

It has been a while since I wrote anything for this blog. I decided in May to quit the job I had and take on a new, similar but more challenging role elsewhere. The change has been, without a doubt, the best career move I could ever have made. Having just cleared out one office to move into a new one 30 miles away, I felt it was a good time to tackle the topic of minimalism in the office and workplace. I have always been fairly good about keeping my office and desk tidy and free of clutter, even before I was a minimalist. In this post I want to share my methods with any readers who need a little help achieving a tidy desk space and "Inbox Zero".

For starters, I have always treated my offices and cubicles as the designated place for work projects. The office is a place to focus specifically on what you get paid to do, whether you love your job or not. With those thoughts in mind, I keep a tidy office by:
  • Limiting the amount of random paper clutter - I do make to-do lists with some frequency. Anything that isn't a helpdesk ticket generally goes on a to-do list for me. Once the to-do list is complete, I throw away the list, or shred it if it contained any sensitive task details.
  • Keeping just a couple of notebooks or binders - I take notes at both formal and informal meetings. Sometimes, I have the luxury of taking notes in a proper notebook. Most of the time, however, I have to make do with a scratch pad or stack of sticky notes. After meetings where I only had informal notes jotted down, I copy the contents by writing them into a single, larger notebook dedicated to meeting notes if I expect I'll need to reference them later. This usually helps me remember information, and keeps everything in one place if I need to digitize it or type it for process documentation purposes later.
  • Scheduling monthly or quarterly note purges - I've always found that taking physical notes with pen and paper helps me remember them better. However, after a few months of meetings, a notebook can get weighed down and full with information that didn't need to be remembered for so long, or is now outdated. I set aside time every few months to go through my notebooks and discard or shred the meeting notes that have become irrelevant.
  • Discarding useless or broken supplies immediately - When I started my new job, I inherited my predecessor's office. The pen cup was overflowing with utensils. A small drawer unit was full of USB storage drives, half of which were not labeled. I threw out any pens that were dried up, tossed any USB drives that were dead, and sorted the rest of them into those with installer media that I could use, blank drives, and drives with data for my boss to review. 
  • Not keeping a lot of personal mementos at work - While it is important for our senses of joy and happiness to decorate offices to reflect our personalities, I have always kept my desk tidy by limiting the number of intimately personal items I keep at work. I still decorate my office, but I choose to use wall space for pet photos and posters that bring me joy instead of adding sentimental--but clutter-causing--trinkets to my desk.
  • Set aside time each day to tackle emails - As IT support, I do not have the luxury of setting aside blocks of the day to check my emails; instead, I have to keep my email open to watch for incoming tickets. I have organized my inbox with just four folders, and categorize all of my read emails into that system. I take just a couple of minutes toward the end of each day to sort my inbox, so when I come in the next morning it is clear and clean of yesterday's tickets and memos. It only takes a few minutes to do, and it helps me maintain "Inbox Zero".
  • Organize documents, but use few folders - It is very easy to get lost in a trap of "Now where did I save that?" when it comes to being responsible for a profusion of electronic documents. I find that using few folders, but giving them broader categories helps the most. In my case, I had folders for my typed notes, my PowerShell scripts, document design projects, my SQL scripts, and my daily data analysis tasks. I did not have many folders beyond that, and I always made sure to name the scripts and documents themselves descriptively so there would be no question as to what purpose each of them had.
Keeping a tidy office has a multitude of benefits. In addition to being able to focus more intently on work, I have found that reducing clutter has also: made my office easier to clean or disinfect; saved time because my notes are always in one place; and made it much easier to clean out my office before leaving one job for another. Reducing the digital clutter with just a few folders has benefits, too: it's easier to find important emails; it's easier to find important documents when I need to reference or share them; and it's easier to keep organized over time, which saves time. If you feel overwhelmed by your office because of clutter, adopting a minimalist approach will more than likely help you take back your sanity. Minimalism helps achieve a tidy office, and a tidy office is a more productive office.