Can decluttering and delete retreats make you more efficient?

I’m sure you are familiar with the age old saying of “messy house, messy mind” and that the same goes for your space at work. Like many people as much as I aspire to have a clean and tidy desk at work, with everything in it’s place, finding the time to keep it that way always seemed like a luxury I cant afford. That was until a recent office move has given me the nudge to finally take the time to get all my stuff and myself in order.

I knew that this was just the excuse I needed to finally attempt to move to as paper free working as possible. I finally threw away years of old documents and the few things I did feel I needed to keep were organised into folders, which now all have matching labels with the title of the project/worksteam.

My new desk finally is neat and tidy and I now I can tell you instantly where every hard copy of a document I own is stored. Impressive?…well it is for me I can assure you! The challenge I have made myself now is to keep it this way. It might be very early days of this style of working, but I’m dedicated to ensuring that every day before I leave my desk, I ensure I leave it the way I found it. Gone are the days of random pieces of paper and post it notes floating around my desk.

So the first thing I’d encourage you to do is to take the time to have this big clear out because now I find myself feeling much calmer by sitting down to a space to work like this.

But that’s not the half of it……

The decluttering of physical items is all well and good but actually in this modern age we can often forget that the digital aspect to our lives is just as important (if not more so) to organise. With the ability to store electronic files in so many places, University networked filestore and departmental shared drives, google drive, email, hard drives, removable storage and memory sticks and external services like drop box or other cloud storage, the list of places a document I’ve created could exist is mind blowing.

desktopHow many people would admit to their desktops looking like the one in the picture? How easy is it for you to find the files you need, when you need them? It can sometimes seem like a quick solution to quickly save something on your desktop with the intention of filing it properly later. But does later ever arrive?

When recently challenged about my digital footprint, I was the first to admit there was definitely some improvement to be made in how I was managing my files but the task of sorting it out (on top of the looming office move) was overwhelming.

However, I’m here to try to convince anyone who is in a similar situation that actually taking the time to declutter both your physical office space but also your digital life will massively help with your productivity moving forward. No more time wasted looking for a journal article you printed out under piles of things on your desk or hunting your folders for a document you created where the only thing you remember was you saved it with the word ‘final’ in its title.

Here are some of the things I’ve recently tried to help my digital decluttering that you might find useful:

  1. Set up some delete retreats

The first stage to digital decluttering was to make some dedicated time for it and I knew that just putting time in my diary was all too easy to ignore. So I booked a computer room and invited the rest of the team so that we could hold each other accountable for spending some dedicated time to the cause. Guess what….it worked!

  1. Declutter Gmail

The one place that causes me distress is seeing hundreds of emails in my inbox. So I took some time to have a good sort out of my Gmail folders for emails, set up some filters to reduce what went into my inbox and deleted as much as I could (including all the sent out of office emails which I hadn’t realised I’d been accidently storing up. There is an easy way to delete masses of emails in Gmail, reading this linked article gives advice on how to tame Gmail taking you through how to set up filters to reduce what goes into your inbox and advice on saving space. It’s also useful to get to grips with the new version of Gmail as it includes a new snooze setting so you can temporarily hide emails in your inbox, setting up reminders for them to reappear later. There is also a right hand tool bar, which allows you to have apps open in the same window such as your google calendar or google keep (see below).

  1. Declutter and sort my google drive

With my plan to move all my digital files to google drive so they were in one place, I first decided to clear out what I currently had in google drive and make sure I had a good system of folders that would work for me going forward.

  1. Move all my other documents to google drive (and save them with a meaningful title)

So this has been the biggest task to complete and I have to admit I’ve not finished yet, but I’m systematically going through every memory stick I own, my laptop and PC and now my departmental drives to delete anything I don’t need and anything I do want to save copying to google drive (using a sensible, meaningful filename). I’m hoping that in the future maintaining this style of working will make my life much easier in the future when I’m looking for a particular file.

For those of you at the University of Sheffield there is further Information on saving and storing your work here.

  1. Use Google Keep as my ‘To Do List’

This is a combination of physical and electronic decluttering. In the past I’ve fallen into the trap of writing multiple to do lists which often can exist in numerous places at once including, but not exclusively;

  • post it notes stuck to my desk
  • actions written in note books in meetings
  • emails kept in my inbox as reminders
  • a time slot put in my google calendar
  • written as a ‘note’ on my phone
  • in my mind when someone’s asked me to do something!

keepMy solution? Google Keep. It’s a great Google app that allows to you write tickable to do lists that can be synced both on your computer but also on mobile devices. Now whatever I add to my list at my desk can also be seen and added to on the go with my phone. It also helps with the desire to be paper free!


I might not be 100% complete in my decluttering (maybe I never will be) but forcing myself to take time (when I really didn’t think I had the time) to work through all of this has been hugely beneficial so far. I’m already feeling so much calmer and more in control and I know that ultimately this will be worth the effort to become far more efficient in the long run.


Declutter image credit

Desktop Image credit

Google Keep image credit

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