Decluttering your professional life

Experts offer six tips for handling clutter and keeping it from causing stress and hurting your career.
Decluttering your professional life

Gill Hasson, a career coach and author of the book Declutter Your Life, recently made an unexpected discovery in her Brighton, UK, home. “How come we’ve got 12 rulers?” she asked her husband, a journalist, who has an office in their house. The rulers were scattered in various locations.

Hasson is an expert on clutter — or rather decluttering — but even she can’t escape the inevitable challenge faced by people everywhere: what to do with too much accumulated stuff. At home, people can shove things into closets, attics, garages, and basements. But at the office, even in a home office, professionals often reach a hazardous level of build-up, which can impact one’s mood, concentration, and productivity. “Quite simply you can’t think straight,” said Hasson of a disorderly space. “Having all of this clutter makes it difficult to focus.”

Clutter can also harm one’s career if clients or managers witness a workplace mess. “If I come into your office and see piles of things, I would be fearful that you would not give my account the attention that it needs,” said Deborah Cabral, a professional organiser, author of DeClutter Your Life NOW!, and president of Cabral Enterprises LLC in New Hartford, New York. “If you can’t keep yourself organised, how are you going to handle my money?” Cabral, known as “The DeClutter Coach”, said companies also lose money because of employee disorganisation and because of the time spent looking for things.

“A messy car, cluttered reception area, or even disorganised laptop tend to imply that we may not be as efficient or punctual or even trustworthy, respectful, or reliable in the eyes of the client or customer,” added Ireland-based declutter therapist Breda Stack, founder of The Declutter Academy professional certification and International Declutter Day. And all of these reasons make it imperative that professionals, finance managers included, get orderly and reduce the workplace chaos.

So why are present-day professionals often immersed in clutter? For several reasons: Clutter brings up uncomfortable emotions, particularly when one considers chucking things, and most people don’t know how to declutter or where to begin. “I define ‘decluttering’ as ‘the ability to let go’, and the vast majority of us find letting go difficult,” Stack said. In addition, noted Cabral, people often rely on material things for happiness, including in the office, where they maintain not only files but personal items. Guilt, sadness, and frustration may set in when attempting to declutter. Professionals also may have muddied technology devices or jam-packed, frenzied schedules. Then, of course, there’s the age-old issue of where to start: If your office or computer is such a mess, just looking at them can be overwhelming. It’s easier to walk way and grab a cup of coffee.

FM magazine tapped Hasson, Cabral, and Stack for tips on how to declutter one’s professional life. Here is their advice:

Don’t break the bank. Once you decide to get organised, avoid buying fancy containers and other pricey storage tools because, later, you may end up throwing many of these items out, Stack said. “The buying is usually a distraction” from the uncomfortable chore of decluttering, she said. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to declutter. Cabral likes old baskets, bins, and binders and said pound shops are great places to pick up inexpensive storage items.

Make it easy. The biggest hurdle when decluttering is simply starting. So reduce your stress by taking it one step at a time, just 10 to 20 minutes a day. “Clutter tends to gather over months, years, even decades and generations, and to really get the benefits we need to do it mindfully and honour the process,” Stack said. So first, kick-start the organising by figuring out the items you definitely want to keep and those that you don’t need anymore. “Don’t feel you have to agonise over everything,” Hasson said. “Create a momentum, but don’t make it difficult for yourself.”

Start with the desktop. Think of your desktop as “your prime real estate”, said Cabral. “If you have a beautiful desk, it’s very hard to focus with so much distraction around you. Flat surfaces are for working and not for piling.” After you clean and organise your desktop, go through each of your drawers and cabinets and make sure you have an effective filing system so you can find things quickly, she noted. In addition, remove items that don’t need to be on your workplace floor or desk, such as books or boxes. Consider putting in wall shelves to store things you don’t use very often. “The ‘flow’ of the room is vital” to creating a pleasant atmosphere and experience, Stack added.

Stay organised. Once you’ve decluttered your desk and office, you need to be consistent with your upkeep. “Build time into your calendar and schedule to maintain your office,” Cabral said. Don’t let things pile up so you have to declutter yet again.

Set boundaries. If your day planner is also too cluttered, and you’re receiving phone calls, texts, or emails both day and night, set parameters with clients so you can have a better work/life balance. Clients “will respect the boundaries”, Cabral said. “If people know they can access you 24/7, they will.”

Tidy up at day’s end. During the last five to 10 minutes of your workday, organise your desk so, when you return the next morning, you will start with a peaceful, clean slate. “It can be good to ‘put things to bed’ and close things off in the mind, and it also helps make a fresh and efficient start the following day,” Stack said.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at