Updated on 03.19.09

Review: Detox Your Desk

Trent Hamm

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or entrepreneurship book.

detox your deskMy desk is a mess.

It’s not so much a factor of having too much stuff – virtually everything on it has a purpose. The problem is that I collect too many little pieces of paper and various other items and I tend to not spend enough time organizing them and dealing with them in a constructive fashion. My desk usually winds up being a mess of notes jotted on pieces of paper, magazines, photocopied articles from the library, books, photographs, and various correspondence that I need to attend to or file away somewhere.

Most days, my focus is on getting creative work done: researching posts, writing them, and working on other directly related tasks. As a result, all of these little pieces of information detritus tend to build up over time into an overwhelming mass that dominates the left hand side of my desk. Once a month or so, I force myself to go through it – and then I’m glad I did, because I seem to always find tons of interesting and useful things in there.

This isn’t a particularly good situation, particularly since in most regards I do a great job of managing my information. I use a mix of the notebook in my pocket, Evernote, and Remember the Milk to manage the vast majority of the information I deal with every day.

Yet the stuff on the left side of my desk keeps piling up.

This is the exact problem that Theo Theobald and Gary Cooper’s Detox Your Desk deals with. If you are involved in a high-information job, how do you handle the accumulation of information on your desk? Let’s dig in and see what they have to say.

Section One – Analysis
Why is your desk cluttered? Theobald and Cooper argue that clutter occurs when a person is attempting to jam too many responsibilities and too much information into the timespace you’ve alloted in your life for the work. The clutter consists mostly of items that you’ve deemed less important than other, more pressing matters – and, over time, those items accumulate. You’ve committed to things that personally you do not view as a high priority.

The solution is you – what do you find important in your work? What things are you regularly viewing as a high priority – and what items are you regularly viewing as a low priority? What aspects of your job bring pleasure to you – and which ones leave you feeling empty?

Eventually, the clutter on your desk can lead you to some real revelations about your job as a whole. There may be whole pieces of your job that you’re simply not able to do well – and you can either accept that and make it a conscious part of your situation or you can attempt to change it (or have it changed) by meeting with your supervisor about it.

For example, I often find that I spend a lot of time researching articles that I have a difficult time humanizing. I’ll wind up tossing a pile of well-annotated photocopied pages onto my pile, sigh as I realize that I couldn’t find a workable article in there, then move on. Eventually, I’ll either use it as an offhand mention in a completely different article or I’ll eventually toss it. Much of my clutter is a call to focus more carefully on what’s actually worth writing about before diving too deep into the research and thought process.

Section Two – Method
Interestingly, one of the primary methods that Theobald and Cooper prescribe for detoxing your desk is to utilize some basic time management tactics. They run through some of the more effective tactics of time management – keeping a to-do list, maximizing your “focus” by staying with one task for a maximum of one hour then taking a break, delegate as much as possible, and so on.

Theobald and Cooper argue that utilizing good time management tactics will automatically help de-clutter your desk, since many of the items that make up the clutter will never reach your desk – or will only reach it for a short time. In the end, though, this isn’t so much a solution as it is an effective way to keep the problem from getting worse.

Another useful tactic: focus on the things you’ve done, not the things you’ve left undone. Even if you only make a little progress in reducing your clutter, view it as a positive, not as a failure (because you didn’t completely de-clutter).

Section Three – The Detox Program
The meat of the book (in terms of getting your desk clean) comes in the final section, which outlines a two week long program for eliminating the clutter on your desk. I found this program rather clever and tried it myself with quite a bit of success (though not perfection).

The main idea is pretty simple. Clear everything off of your desk, put it in a box, and start living out of that box. Eventually, you’ll find that you’re actually just using a small portion of the items in that box – the rest is largely not useful to you on a daily basis. The items that are useful to you stay on your desk – the rest should go elsewhere and should be dealt with in a rational pattern. The only actual work that should be on your desk should be works in progress – if it’s a pending task, that material should be somewhere else (in a folder, perhaps).

This system largely led me to start filing all that clutter into an office filing system that is currently in that same box I started with. A few folders for ideas, a folder for receipts – it’s actually much easier than tossing it into the pile and then stressing out over that pile all the time.

Is Detox Your Desk Worth Reading?
If you’ve got a desk filled with “stuff” and it makes you sick to your stomach when you think about it, Detox Your Desk will be a home run read for you. It certainly was for me – reading it and giving the ideas a shot helped me turn my desk from a chaotic mess into something clean and simple with plenty of room to take on a task.

If you don’t have that problem – or don’t understand why it is a problem – Detox Your Desk will likely be a waste of time for you to read. Of course, if you’re in that group, you’ve likely skipped this review anyway.

I found it valuable. If you’re in a “messy desk” situation like me, you might find it valuable, too.

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  1. Trevor - Strikingup says:

    Interesting. Might read if I can find it. My english teacher is preaching me to read more books.

  2. Hmmm… My working area is a royal mess, but I usually don’t do well with these type of books. I was only marginally effected by GTD and other types of books I’ve read. If I can find someone locally to swap with, I’d probably give it a whirl after reading the review here.

  3. Cathy says:

    Wow – put everything in a box and pull stuff out of the box when you need it. What a great idea – I’m going to do this.

  4. Adam @ Checkbook Diaries says:

    A messy desk is certainly toxic. I tend to at least keep the area that I can see while sitting at my monitor clean and clutter free. Even if there are stacks of papers behind me (I have a u shapes desk at the office), I find that not being able to see that clutter while working really helps me focus.

  5. I cannot function with a messy desk and dont know how some can. For instance, my dad has his office full of papers spanning the last decade in random piles, yet knows which pile to look through to find his documents…this would make me insane! For me, I have everything organized in folders either by month/year or project so there is very little clutter to distract me while I work.

  6. My desk is pretty empty. I even keep my stapler, tape, paper clips, etc. in a drawer. The only items on it are my computer, calculator, phone, inbox, and notebook. I’m sworn to paperlessness, and try to get that point across to my coworkers.

  7. William Gerald says:

    Many Thanks for sharing your tools and ideas with us . . . it is great to get new ideas and links that we can use.

    Keep up the good work!

  8. SpaceyCasey says:

    Huh. I use a box too. It’s my recycling bin, and I find that about once every six months I go back and fish something out of it. Otherwise, when it’s full, I grab about a 1-inch stack of papers off the top, and recycle the rest. Then I put that little stack back in the bottom “just in case.” I haven’t thrown out anything truly important yet, and I’ve reaped the positive aspects of having a mostly-clean desk at work. I wish I could say the same about my home desk!

  9. Vanessa says:


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