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Minimalist Lean – Are you living with workplace clutter?


Clutter is the cause of many unpleasant side effects whether it’s in our homes, our minds, our schedule or our work processes.

At home, clutter means less space, more cleaning, more time organising and leaves us with a whole lot of things we’re probably not using as well as we could or not at all. Anyone with an interest in minimalism or simple living will focus on these areas, hopefully with rewarding results.

What if we applied that same focus to our places of employment and start reducing clutter in our own work spaces and processes?

Like other types of clutter, workplace clutter creates the same space and time issues.

Have a look around your workplace. How many things can you see that are actually adding value to you on a daily, weekly, monthly basis? How many things are gathering dust on your desk or are in hibernation in your drawer?  Do you have an overflowing in-tray? Is the IT guy breathing down your neck at the size of your inbox? If that’s not enough, take a look at your to-do list. How many actions on that list keep getting transferred, or you’ve ignored for weeks…even months?

For some reason, office processes seem to attract clutter over time that if left alone will spawn more clutter, complete with layers of dust. On top of this, I’ve noticed that a fair amount of people that work in offices either do not see the clutter or pass it over as unimportant to the efficiency of their work process. Clutter is allowed to remain untouched as long as it is disguised as ‘something we might need sometime”.

The reality is that a lot of the clutter in office spaces is ‘just in case’ clutter. It’s documents we’re hanging onto a hard copy of, it’s information we might need just in case or it’s a two year old magazine issue that had a cool article in it that we might need to go back to.

There are a couple of big issues that come with office clutter and the more people in the office, the more compounded this gets:

  • Clutter requires space. It needs big desks, lots of drawers, shelves and cupboards and when it gets really bad you’ll find it under desks, on top of cabinets and in every corner.
  • Important things can get lost or overlooked when clutter is present
  • You have to move your clutter around to do anything and anything cluttered is really hard to clean so in general cluttered offices can easily become dirty, dusty offices.

All of these issues use up time, money and space, things we always need more of in business. We would never consciously spend any more of these commodities than we need to so why spend them on something that doesn’t even add value, like clutter.

So how can we prevent office clutter in the first place? With the huge amount of paperwork and information that flows through most offices, its a pretty daunting task. If you don’t keep on top of it it builds up, even if you’re a clutter ninja.

In my personal, ongoing battle against workplace clutter, I recently eliminated the set of mobile drawers that was stored under my desk. While the top drawer was fairly useful, the second drawer and the filing cabinet were both a repository of things I felt I ‘should’ keep. In reality, when I addressed the clutter in the filing cabinet, I realised that I only needed to keep around 1% of it. I freed up around three packets of plastic folders and about ten manila folders. It was a pretty humbling experience as I recycled what was probably at least a ream of paper. I knew that I couldn’t keep creating this kind of waste going forwards.

So I donated the drawers back into the office furniture pool, downsized my stationary and put everything I actually needed in a  mobile office style laptop bag. It’s now about a month into this change and I have no desire to go back.

I also realised to sustain this change I needed to get a lot smarter about the information and paperwork that comes across my desk.

I’ve always been pretty lean when it comes to my own office processes. It all started as a result of being the person selected to champion the introduction of the 5S program into my workplace way back in the very early 2000s. I realised pretty smartly that I needed to walk the walk if I was going to talk the talk. So I cleaned out my office to the point that it started to echo and over the years have developed methods for dealing with the large amount of paperwork and information that comes across the desk of an operations manager in any given day. Some of these methods are as follows:

  • Don’t have an In-Tray. If it’s on your key-board or in your way you can’t easily ignore it.
  • Process anything that hits your desk straight away using the DRAFT method:

          Delegate It

          Respond to It/Process It

          Archive It

          File It for follow-up

          Throw it Out

  •   Avoid keeping hard copies if you can. Have a good electronic archiving system.
  •   Avoid procrastination. Have a to do list that includes your paperwork tasks so that  they don’t build up and make sure you schedule time to work on the list.

Despite generally sticking to these techniques, I still managed to collect a drawer full of things I didn’t really need over the space of about a year. To stop this coming back I decided to do a couple of things.

1. Suppress a “Just-in Case”, “Be Prepared” mentality.

I had a number of things like hard copies of training materials ready for students that might need them, or that had been overprinted from the last training course. These are the work of only a few minutes to reproduce as required.

2. Stop taking the ‘easy filing’ way out.

Sometimes it’s just feels easier to shove it in a drawer than deal with it. Especially when you’re not sure what to do with it. This is the birthplace of clutter. If you keep up with this there will come a time when the clutter in the first drawer spills over into the second drawer and starts making clutter babies. Go back to the DRAFT method to avoid this.

3. Seriously consider before filing something whether its really likely to be needed again. If yes, scan it. If not, let it go.

4. Reduce the size of my workspace to the point where there is nowhere to store anything, effectively forcing me to deal with things quickly.

Number four in particular is quite extreme and I’m not suggesting that this level of clutter prevention will work for everyone. As always, it’s about making sure that the things around you, at home or at work are adding value.  Making small regular changes can decrease the overall clutter level in your workplace significantly. It’s about starting to ask the question, “how will my work life be better with less?” and thinking about the things around you in a different light. A light where you admit that your in-tray doesn’t have an out and that you really don’t need that four year old back issue of your favourite interior design magazine.

Anyone can have a bit of a sort out and enjoy the benefits of working with less. You don’t have to start a personal war on clutter and become the clutter ninja right away. The challenge is to make fundamental changes to the way you process incoming documents and information to ensure that the clutter doesn’t return once its removed.  The next time a piece of paper hits your desk, consider where it came from, what it’s purpose is and where is it going to end up. Hopefully not in the ‘just in case’ drawer.



Photo courtesy of Escea Ltd © 2018



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