Although academic leaders have looked to the promise of a “paperless office” for many years, that future vision never seems to materialize. While it’s true that many forms of communication that appeared in hard copy now reach us in electronic versions, we still seem to be inundated by a never-ending stream of paper documents¾policies, memoranda, petitions, appeals, and announcements¾that often seem too important to throw away but too numerous to occupy the limited real estate of our desks. As a result, even the neatest office of an academic leader can, in a depressingly short amount of time, end up filled with stacks of paper. A disorderly workplace is not only unsightly; it can actually make us less effective at our jobs, causing crucial information to become harder to find and making our thoughts as cluttered as our desktops.
Many people want to get organized but don’t know where to begin. Or, they make a major effort to reduce the clutter in their offices but can’t stay organized, and their desks soon become as messy as they were before their last attempt to purge the papers from their offices. So, how can academic leaders get organized, stay organized, and use this higher degree of organization to improve their work?
Step one: Choose a system
Academic leaders can choose from a number of organizational systems, each of which claims to be the best or possibly the only approach that actually works. As a matter of fact, no one system works for everyone, so you need to find a system that suits your personality and operating style and then commit to that approach (while avoiding the temptation to proselytize on the assumption that what worked for you will work for everyone).
The two most important organizational systems are diametrically opposed to one another, so you can’t try to blend them. Just pick the one that you can stick with.
Which system is right for you? Consider the approach you use when you move. If you can’t relax in your new home until you’ve unpacked every box and put everything away, you’ll probably be more successful with the KonMari Method. If you prefer to unpack one box a day even if it takes six months until you’re fully moved, you’d probably find the “Five-Minute Room Rescue” easier to sustain.
Step two: Purge ruthlessly
Regardless of whether you’re engaging in a week-long organizing marathon or stretching the process out over several months, the first thing you need to do is to get rid of the stuff you don’t need. The fact of the matter is you don’t need most things in your office. Certainly, institutional policies govern how long we have to maintain certain records, but there’s no reason why those records have to be taking up room in your office. Archive them or scan them into electronic versions, if your institution allows it. Practically everything exists somewhere in duplicate, triplicate, or quadruplicate. You’ll be able to find another copy if you ever need it again someday (you won’t). So, when in doubt, throw it out.
Start your purging with routine paperwork and other documents. Save sorting through mementos and personal items until everything else has been purged. If you start sorting through memorabilia too early in the process, you’ll find yourself reliving past events and getting distracted by the emotions these items invoke. If you sort through personal items later in the process, you’re likely to treat them more objectively and to save only what’s truly meaningful to you. For the same reason, always purge your office while standing up rather than sitting down. Sitting tends to put us into a nostalgic and reflective mood. Standing makes us focus on the task: eliminating unnecessary items from our office space.
Step three: Find a home for what you keep
After you’ve purged extraneous items from your office, what remains should be only the items that are most important to you and your work. Important items deserve a home, and the most important rule for office storage should be that each thing belongs in one and only one place. If everything has its place, it becomes easy to recognize when that item is out of place. It also becomes easy to recognize when other unnecessary items start to accumulate in your workplace because they begin to intrude on other items’ “homes.”
There’s no reason why you can’t add other important items to your office space in the future. It just means that they, too, need one and only one home. Sometimes inserting a new possession may mean discarding an old one. A book or memento that was important to you several years ago may not seem as significant as a new book or memento today. Or perhaps your office can indeed accommodate one additional item and still look well organized. As long as the newcomer can be given a suitable and permanent “home,” it can stay. Otherwise, you’ll be backtracking on your commitment to be organized.
Step four: Maintain your environment
Once you’ve established your new level of neatness and organization in your office, your next goal is to maintain it. Some of this maintenance will occur automatically; you’ll sense when one of your permanent possessions is out of place or when an interloper is infringing on another object’s space or an area that was intentionally left open. For the rest, a surprisingly short amount of time is needed to keep things organized once they’ve been assigned a proper home. Fifteen minutes at the end of each week is all that most people need. In the meantime, you’ll probably find that your thoughts are more organized when you work, your ideas are more innovative, and your mood is more relaxed. It’s a fallacy that creative people thrive in messy offices. Most academic leaders find that their thought processes are original in direct proportion to how well their desk and work areas are maintained.
Marla Cilley, Sink Reflections (New York: Bantam, 2002).
Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, trans. Cathy Hirano (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2014).
Jeffrey L. Buller is director of leadership and professional development at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner in ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, the second edition of The Essential Academic Dean or Provost: A Comprehensive Desk Reference, is available from Jossey-Bass.