Happiness with a Messy Desk

With everything going on at work, we often spend our time working in a physical state of ‘constant mess’, which affects our effectiveness and even our ability to think.

I’ve been trying this next tip for about 2 months to create a little “Island of Zen” to my work space.  It’s working…

The Challenge: It’s hard to think when your work space is messy.

The Solution: Mark off a “Clean Zone” on your desk that you’ll keep clean and empty at all times.

The Secret: Your desk may always be messy. That’s ok. If you can keep part of it 100% clean you’ll feel less overwhelmed at work, and it’ll be easier to handle everything else.

How It Works:

1. Mark off this area physically – it has to have edges you can see.

2. One Rule: No matter how messy your office gets, nothing goes here unless you’re actually working on it.

3. When you notice that your clean zone has disappeared from sight (it happens), simply clear away the mess until you can see the borders again.

Here’s a picture of my desk:

1. Inbox.  An easy way to get started or back on track – you can just throw everything in your inbox.

2. Printouts of shortcuts I commonly need to look up for software I use (Gmail, Adding events to iCal, RememberTheMilk)

3. Folders for major projects

4. Happiest day of my life!

5. 27′ iMac.

6. My office was the master bedroom of our house, this lets me work with headphones (so I can listen to music while ankle biters are sleeping) and still know if someone comes into the room. No sneaking up on me!

7. Top 3 priorities for the day (from “The 3-minute Plan“), clipped onto the monitor.

8. Sawhorses from — this is a standing desk, described on my personal blog here.

Ok, let’s have a little fun with this one!

Spend 5 minutes making your Clean Zone, take a picture and send it in here.  No need to clean up anything else, that’s the whole point.

I’ll add them to this post, and we’ll have examples of Clean Zones from around the world.

Have fun!

Clean Zones from Around the World:

Andrea in Missouri.

Ben in Washington, DC.

Shannon from Houston, TX: I suffer with a messy desk - I can find everything I need (most of the time). I am going to try keeping my "Clean Zone" to see if it works for me.

Scott’s DFZ (Distraction Free Zone) in Stow, MA

Evgenya in Washington DC: Thanks Aaron for the great tips!

Thanks for the pics guys!

Send us a picture of your Clean Zone!


  1. Lorraine Rees

    You are the greatest–my desk which is a dining room table is such a mess-I’m going to try to find a clean area as you have suggested. Wish me luck!!

  2. Di

    This is a great idea–however, I have a bigger problem — wonder if you could address this, with any ideas in an upcoming issue–I’m a packrat/hoarder–and my small house looks like a storage unit–I used to have a desk/office area but it got lost–right now I’m dealing with the loss of my mom and alot of stuff was hers that I have now, but no place to put it

  3. Scott Jangro

    OK Aaron, I’m gonna do it.
    (There, I said it out loud.)

  4. janet

    only one thing is wrong with the picture of your desk and it’s ‘so called clean spot.’

    YOUR desk it not messy! period.

  5. Aaron

    @Lorraine Good luck with it!

    @Di First of all, very sorry to hear about the loss of your mom. Be gentle with yourself about the hoarding thing at a time like this, there’s a lot going on emotionally and it could be part of the grieving process for you somehow.

    I’ll keep hoarding stuff in mind for future topics, thanks for the idea.

    @Scott … and you did it! Woo! We’ll add your pic to the post.

    @janet What can I say, you got me. I can assure you though that at times my desk does get pretty messy. Just not my Clean Zone… :)

  6. karen

    Thanks I feel better already!

  7. kate

    Thanks alot. Sometimes I do wonder whether you are a magician because you seem know to peoples’ secret even though you haven’t met them. Probably you had in one time or the other gone through the same problem. My desk is always very messy. I can’t send the picture. I will try your tips and hope it works.

    • Aaron

      Send in a picture anyways!

  8. Brad

    From the Mayan land of Guatemala I thank you for your tips!!!

  9. jul

    OK, I have a clean spot. In fact I have a relatively clean desk (if you discount the odd chocolate crumb). I also have A CAT. His hobby is nosing every portable item off the desk, watching its decent with great satisfaction before recommencing his task. He will do this until there is nothing moveable left on the now-clean desk, then install himself on the keyboard, graphics tablet or manual )the paperwork is by now all over the floor). So, the desk is clean and I can work around the cat (two keyboards see, no flies on ME!). Any ideas for the floor though?

  10. SuperFlyNinjaGuy

    I think it’s ironic that I think that the borders you use here makes the desk look messy.

  11. David

    just did it! my desk looks great.

  12. shanthi prabhu

    very interesting.thanks.

  13. roopa

    Hi aroan…
    Yesterday itself I cleaned my full desk. It was very dirty. I am very happy to see it now.

  14. hamimah

    is working..thanks Aaron..

  15. Guppydas

    Dang! I need to get a desk in the first place. This looks exciting. Seriously, won’t go in details now but I work most of the time from my notebook, laying on bed. :) Seems like I missing lot of fun of messy desk and cleaning it.

  16. Bruce

    Hi aroan…
    Yesterday itself I cleaned my full desk. It was very dirty. I am very happy to see it now.

  17. Susan Guinn

    Every time I clean up my desk, I get more calls and business. It’s like they (customers) know I’m ready for them. Love your ideas!

  18. Anthony Kelly

    Aaron, thanks so much for your tips they are really great.


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