Take care of your desktop – both physical and digital

Today, we focus on the starting point.

You sit at your desk to work in the morning, and you’re immediately confronted by a welcoming committee—the mess you left on your desk yesterday.

There could be papers strewn about, or last night’s cups or plates or takeout containers piled on top of your keyboard. The pen that you dug out from the drawer to sign one check and then just tossed to the side—it’s still there. Scattered remnants of yesterday’s chaos.

It’s normal for these items to pile up and linger around your space, especially during busy times. The problem is not that they arrived in the first place, but that they’ve overstayed their welcome. The issue is that they’re tone setters. Messy environments can make you feel physically heavier and more sluggish. You’re less likely to dive into your work with energy. Your day slows down before it even gets started.

This all happens before you even turn on your computer monitor and see a similar story on your screen.In our newly digital life, there are now two desktops: one, the actual top of your desk where you sit, and two, the home screen of your digital device, where basically everything happens. And as you likely know, it’s even easier to let the digital one get out of hand.

You gotta keep both of ’em clean to give yourself a leg up against that pile of work you’re doing today. Let’s see how we can take a stab at some spring cleaning.

The physical

laptop on desk

It didn’t use to be this hard.

In school, we got accustomed to being buried in paper, but it didn’t matter in the same way. And we always had those color-coded binders and folders where we could stuff everything when it got overwhelming.
Now, we’re on our own. There’s somehow less incentive to keep things in order, despite the stakes being infinitely higher on every bill and notarized letter that sneaks into the room.

I have a filing cabinet now. There was a pile of scary looking mail regarding health insurance and car registration  that—although I had dealt with—I couldn’t imagine throwing away. So I broke down and got a filing cabinet, and divided it into sections vaguely organized by “bills,” “notices,” and “Important Papers.” But sometimes I’ll put a piece of paper on top of the filing cabinet, hoping someone, maybe Future Me, will come along and file it one day. Eventually that became just throwing papers onto my desk, or next to my desk, or on the floor. The slippery slope is, well, slippery.

But if you have any type of filing system like me, or even if you don’t, you still have the capacity, at least temporarily, to gather up all of the clutter and put it somewhere away from your workspace. Even if it ends up in the “to be filed when I get a filing cabinet” area, it’s a start.

The digital

We were never taught how to manage our computers, despite them quickly taking over and influencing so much of our daily lives.

You could be forgiven for thinking, “who cares where you put a file?” When we first began using our computers, that was somewhat true. It didn’t really matter, especially if some files were single-use or ephemeral—simple schoolwork or goofy Microsoft Paint compositions. Gather it all up once a week and throw it in the trash if you wanted—who cares, right?

Things are different now. Now these documents are apparently so deathly important us that it’s recommended you back them up in different locations on different hard drives. You use the same programs and open the same files over and over again. And you sit at this machine for a minimum of eight hours a day. In many cases, especially if you’re a creative or a driven office worker, it can get closer to ten or twelve or sixteen hours out of every twenty-four.

So it stands to reason that this space being clean will help you out in a number of ways. And the beginning of that journey, the portal to your digital experience, is the first place you look as you start your work: the desktop. Like we said earlier: it’s a tone setter. If the first thing you see is clutter, you’re gonna feel dragged down and burdened. But if nothing in your environment bubbles up to impede you, it’ll almost take effort to not feel light and fresh as you set to work.

First things first—gather all the items on your desktop, and either delete them or sort them. If you’ve never used a file system on your computer, go hunting for your “Files” or “Documents” folder, and—for now—dump the files there. At least they’re off your desktop.

The system

I’d wager we arrived at this place of clutter because we got in a habit of clicking “Save” on a file and allowing the default “Save to Desktop” to take over, sending that file straight to the desktop over and over again. But now that the desktop has been cleaned, we should work to make sure it stays that way.
We can use a system to keep our desktops tidy. The great part about this particular system is that it is simple.

Poke around your computer to find an easily accessible file folder for storing everything. For me, on my Mac, it’s the “Documents” folder. Inside that folder, items can be split up into “Paperwork,” “Writing,” “Invoices,” “Photos,” whatever you need.

The next time you save a file, find the button and dropdown menu that says “save to Desktop.” Click it, and change the destination of your file to the correct folder. But don’t stress if you don’t magically have a place for everything like a digital Mary Poppins. My little secret is to leave one folder simply labeled “Inbox.” Dump things in there when you’re in a rush or in the groove or don’t know where it’s best to save a document.
Sure, this might mimic the “save to desktop” instinct that we just tried to overcome. And it’s important to avoid falling into a habit of mindlessly “saving to inbox.” But at least this alternative keeps files neatly away from your desktop, in a folder, and that folder’s sole purpose is to contain things that need sorting. The energy’s a little different.

Back in the real world, follow similar thinking, and steal a trick from corporate offices all over—or in my case, movies from the 80s and 90s where people wore suits and worked in offices: the physical inbox. It’s just a metal tray, or even a corner of your desk, where you pile incoming items in the order they arrived. You take an item off the top, deal with it, sort it, and move to the next one. It’s beautifully simple and makes you feel sophisticated, like you have a secretary (even if the closest thing you have to someone bringing you mail is your dog).

The helper

These are the kind of activities that it can be hard to generate motivation for. It’s a lot of cleaning and sorting and organizing and other tasks that bring “bored” energy.

But, you can use the RescueTime Assistant to your benefit here.All you need is a kickstart—something to jolt you into working, just at the outset. Once you’ve started, and maybe found your groove, you’ll be okay. Once you’ve moved one item from the clutter pile to an organized area, it’s a lot easier to move a second or third one. But as we all know, starting is the hardest part. So use the RescueTime Assistant to start a Focus Session—but make it short. Start with the minimum 15 minutes, and commit yourself fully to your desktop cleaning. The timer will tick down steadily. And though it might be frustratingly slow, odds are you’ll find yourself gaining momentum and energy as you work.

And by the end of those 15 minutes, you may even blow past the time limit and keep working. From there, you’ve seen that it’s possible and felt that it’s relatively painless. And the little section of desktop that you cleaned will make you feel good, and make you feel like doing more.

Little building blocks—that’s all we’re trying to make.

The benefits

Once both of your desktops are clear and clean, you’ll feel it. You really will.

There’s a feeling of lightness and crispness to these surfaces when they’re blank and their contents limited to the purely essential. They’re performing as they were designed to, now free of baggage.

When they were cluttered, sitting at your desk or your computer felt like a slog before you even got started. Maybe you had to fish out your mouse from under a pile of papers. Or the icon for the document you’re looking for was literally underneath another document icon—when you’ve let things go for a long enough time, these irritations pile up and slow you down.

Now, everything is in its place. It’s a “Spotlight” search or a reach into a desk drawer away.

Doesn’t that feel better? Now, you can focus on what matters: starting, and continuing.


Many thanks to RescueTime user Dan Coggins, whose comment on a previous article inspired this one! If you have an idea for a topic you’d like explored on the RescueTime blog, feel free to leave a comment or reply directly to the newsletter.

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Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

8 comments

  1. I love the P.A.R.A. method for organizing files on computer, Just follow this rule, be more organized and more productive.

    You start by creating 4 folders, and numbeing them:
    1. Projects and Pending – everything that you are working at and have a limited time to finish, create subfolders, one for each project and put files there
    2. Areas of Interest – for things that never ends, like Photos, hobbies, create your subfolders there
    3. Research Material – things that you think you are going to need someday, create folders for each topic and trhow files there
    4. Archives – for finished projects, abandoned hobbies, and things that you think you are not need anymore but you want to keep for some reason.

    Start by creating the folders, put everything in Archives, and start working, get the files and put in the right place when you need It, don’t be afraid of moving files between the folders, they are flexible.

    You can create the same organization in all your digital experience, or even simplified ones, in email for example, you can create Projects or Pending and Archives only, mostly email clients have the Archive function.

    Start, Learn, Adapt

    1. You are incredible! Thank you so much for sharing this brilliant system! It might have to make an appearance in a future article 😉

      And I’m going to go and implement it into my own workflow right now. Thank you and be well!

    2. That’s a good one. I’ll use it to sort out my desktop aka PARAdise. 🙂

    1. We’re glad you feel that way! It’s fascinating how things like environment can actually change how you feel inside your head! And your capacity to work!

  2. Hi Robin! How nice of you to credit me for the small contribution I made about desktop clutter. It’s a pleasure to be mentioned in such a fine article as this.

    One reason I think people keep putting files on their computer’s desktop is that they’re afraid of losing them.

    May I share a trick I use to not lose the file and keep a clean digital desktop at the same time?

    1. Put a number in the title of important files. It could be any number starting with say, 00001. So if you’re doing a spreadsheet for the Penske project, you could name it, say, “Penske Q1 Balance Sheet 22-00001”. (I use “22-” at the start because in this case it’s done in my financial year ending in 2022.)

    2. Then create a spreadsheet.
    • On the left hand side list the numbers starting with 22-00001.
    • In the next column, put the client’s name.
    • Then in the next column, put the name of the file without the number, e.g.: “Penske Q1 Balance Sheet”.
    • Then finally, put a description with salient points, such as, “A spreadsheet about first quarter profits created for Kevin Smith in Atlanta in May of 2022.” — basically anything that you might recall when searching for the file.

    Now, when it’s 2027 and you want to find that *spreadsheet* done for *Kevin* at *Penske* back around, what was it, *2022*? you search the spreadsheet for any one of these terms. You get the number “22-00001”. Search for the file with that number and you’re golden!

    This has saved me a TON of time.

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