Organizing your workspace based on function zones

Whether you’re moving into a new office or simply uncluttering and organizing your current space, one of the easiest ways to get your desk in order is to focus on organizing zones according to purpose. When you deal with the items on your desk based on similar function, you can keep the most important items as the focus of your space and put the least important items out of the way. If you’re uncluttering your desk, take a day and work on just one zone — you’ll keep from feeling overwhelmed, and you’ll have a well organized office in less than two weeks.

The following zones are the eight most common areas people have in their offices. You may have more, but don’t skip over these areas when organizing your space —

  1. Equipment: This group likely includes your computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, scanner, telephone, pen cup, maybe a hard drive backup system, and any job-specific devices. These are the tools that you have on your desk that help you perform the functions of your work. You access these tools every day and you cannot successfully work if any of these devices is missing or malfunctioning. When setting up your desk (or rearranging it), these items are the first to be placed and should be in the most comfortable, convenient, and ergonomic location. When you’re sitting at your desk (or standing at it if you use a standing desk) you should be able to reach these items without having to move anything other than your arms. Nothing should interfere with your ability to access these items.
  2. Inbox: An inbox is not a place for you to dump stuff you don’t want to deal with right now. The point of an inbox is so people can come into your office, leave materials, and know exactly where to put those materials so you will find them and deal with them upon your return. You can put items in your inbox, but the items in this box should be processed every day. Each evening when you leave work, your inbox should be empty. Similar to the equipment you need to do your job, your inbox should be placed on your desk in an area that is comfortable and convenient to access for you and for anyone coming into your office to leave you things. It should also be clearly marked as an inbox so your coworkers know what it is.
  3. Current Projects: I store each of my current projects in a Flip-Top Document Storage Box. This allows me to have all the files and materials in one location that I can pull out when I need to work on the project, and then easily contain everything for storage when I’m ready to move on to the next project. Magazine files also work well for this. They’re easy to carry into meetings and to keep stacks of paper from overtaking your desk. I recommend storing these projects on a nearby shelf for easy access during your work day.
  4. Active Files: Files you’re accessing multiple times a week can either go in a file drawer of your desk that is convenient to reach, or in a file organizer on your desk. People who are extremely visual should use a file organizer that sits on your desk so you don’t forget the files exist. I suggest using a tiered organizer so you can see all of the file tabs to make retrieval simple. If you’re more of an audio processor, keeping your active files in your desk drawer is terrific because it frees up space on your work surface.
  5. Reference Materials: Most jobs come with notebooks and other materials that are required to be kept in your office. Only have the most current versions of these in close proximity to your desk, and keep them on a bookshelf or in a cupboard where you can access them without too much effort. Since most people don’t reference these items daily, it’s okay to put them further out of reach than those materials you need every day. Be sure to label these items well, however, since you want to be able to find them when you do need them.
  6. Supplies: It can be incredibly simple to hoard office supplies, but you should fight the urge, especially if your workplace has a supply closet. At most, have one extra of everything you use — ream of paper, box of staples, a few pens in various colors, a box of binder clips — but leave it at that. You don’t need five boxes of pens in your desk, but rather more like five pens in your desk drawer. Let the office supply closet store items like it is intended to. There are no awards to be won for having the most office supplies taking up space in your desk.
  7. Archived Files: Many workplaces require you to store files for three or five years before destroying them or shipping them off to a long-term storage facility. All the archived files you are expected to keep should be as far away from your immediate work area as possible in your office. Once a month, you should also sort through your Current Projects and your Active Files to ensure neither of these items are accidentally storing files you no longer reference.
  8. Personal Items: It’s important to have a few personal items in your workspace to signal to your coworkers and boss that you are committed to your job. A small plant, a photograph of your family, and the wallpaper on your computer’s desktop set to a favorite travel destination say that you are a well-rounded person who has a life outside of your job. More personal items than this and your workspace can start to look like a dorm room and unprofessional. Keep your personal items where you can see them but out of the way so as not to impede on your work surface.

20 Comments for “Organizing your workspace based on function zones”

  1. posted by WilliamB on

    I gotta ask … does anyone use zir inbox as Erin describes? I’ve heard the theory many times and it sounds good, but probably never seen it in practice.

  2. posted by Kate on

    I do. I don’t have an actual inbox- intentionally. I use my Outlook inbox as my to-do list. I empty it completely before leaving for the day, unless there is a task or project that I’ll be working on first thing the next day, or that I need to monitor overnight. Everything else gets filed once it’s done.

    Having an empty inbox can be a band-aid though. It does you no good to file things into working project files if you don’t plan to do them! If you do that, you’re just replacnig a junky inbox for junky files. Everything in my box gets filed once it’s done and I have an empty inbox at the end of each day because I work very hard at compeleting each day’s tasks quickly and completely. I have a few working project files that correspond to regular, on-going projects and responsibilities, but I keep those pretty sparse.

  3. posted by Leslie on

    I pretty much do. I process all the invoices for my department at work and my inbox is where my co-workers place their invoices that are ready for processing. The only time I don’t empty it by the end of the day is when I still have half-processed invoices on my desk and don’t want to confuse the two.

  4. posted by Sue on

    WilliamB – I use my inbox as an inbox, and not as a dumping ground for stuff I don’t want to deal with or don’t know what to do with. I clean it out almost daily, log what needs to be done, file what needs to be filed, and recycle the junk and envelopes. If I can handle the item in a few minutes, I do it. If not, I log the action I need to take and put the item in the appropriate file.

    I wish more of my coworkers would follow this example. They have overflowing inboxes, and the bottoms are clogged with stuff that’s been sitting there for so long it’s obviously not useful or important. A few have no inboxes at all. And they all wonder why they can’t find things or can’t prioritize their work.

  5. posted by Francine on

    So where DO you put stuff you don’t want to deal with right now?

  6. posted by snosie on

    Pft – people just put things on one’s keyboard or chair in my company! Though some people have inboxes.

    Francine, I think the deal is no now stuff should be added to a to do list, or to a calendar for follow up. It’s certainly what I do with some things. But some things do stay ‘out’ to be front of mind!

  7. posted by shebolt on

    Francine, stuff you don’t want to deal with now should go into the appropriate project file, and should be noted on your next action or to-do list.

    No project file? I sometimes have a temporary staging area for items I want out of my inbox but I don’t want to file appropriately, for whatever reason. I use the staging area mostly when I want to get to the item asap but can’t handle it immediately.

    If you have a large number of items you don’t know what to do with, then you need to take a hard look at your filing/storage system. Everything should have a home. If it’s something you have no intention of ever doing, just admit it and recycle the item. Don’t let it linger in your inbox on on your desk.

  8. posted by anna on

    We’re not allowed to leave any paper on our desks at the end of the day, so no one has inboxes in case they get in trouble for papers left in them by someone visitng their desk after they’ve gone for the day. Instead we have little signs telling people to come back the next day with the papers.

    Francine – I put all papers I’m not actioning right now in a folder sorted by date for action. Any emails I keep in my email inbox flagged with action dates. I did try project files at one time for unactioned work, and found that I just put them aside and didn’t look at them until my boss asked where the work was. (The old ‘out of sight out of mind’ problem).

  9. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Francine — If I’m in the middle of something when stuff comes in, I let it sit until I have a break an hour or so later. Then, I process the new stuff by either taking immediate action on quick items (this is easy to do with memos that only require reading or a piece of paper that only needs to be filed) or noting the next action on my to-do list and then storing the item in its appropriate Project Case or Active Folder. If the next action has a specific deadline, I’ll also note the deadline on my calendar as an extra precaution that the item isn’t forgotten. I usually process all the papers out of my inbox after lunch and then at the end of the work day. When I worked in a more traditional office I processed right when I came into work, too, because my coworkers always left something in there after I left work.

  10. posted by Marjoryt on

    When my coworker inherited her current office, she found one drawer was simply full of unopened boxes of good pens. Another drawer was full of pencils. Another drawer was 1/2 full of chalk, with the remainder full of white out, still in the boxes. There were 10 boxes of staples, most of which were rusted solid.

    The previous occupant had accepted what he’d been given every semester, for many years.

    Most of the stuff was worthless – dried up, or fused together.

  11. posted by KT on

    If you are a primary teacher, your desk is the receptacle for everything the kids find!

    “Hey, why the all this stuff end up on my desk? What’s wrong with Fred’s desk or Maria’s?”

    Losing battle!!!

  12. posted by Steve on

    Wow! Paper, eh? I have an inbox, but this is where stuff goes just before it is scanned and then shredded. I’ve been working in a new job for a little over a year and I’m completely and utterly paper-free!

    There are some things (like Magazines, etc) that still need a home but the scan/shred system is working so well, I would hate to go back to the filing systems that you describe — although, I do have their electronic equivalents!

  13. posted by Sue on

    Steve, I wish! I have a gov’t job and we work with real estate, so my job is paper-intense. Lots of legal documents, large surveys, appraisals, and things that need to be stored permanently as part of the public record. Plus, for some reason, we require many multiples of these items. We order 15 copies of surveys when we usually only need 8. The others get archived. Tell me if that makes any sense, because every time I mention this I’m told that we need all 15 copies.

    Because we are a gov’t agency, we are slow to adopt new systems. I wish we could accept certain bulky items in electronic format, even if we would eventually have to print them for permanent storage.

    This is why I have 3 full 5-drawer filing cabinets in my cube, plus I’m using about 4 drawers in cabinets in the hallways.

  14. posted by JustGail on

    At work, I don’t have an inbox, most incoming is email, instant messages, or in person. The rare paper item is set on the chair or keyboard. I do try to keep my email inbox cleared of messages that are responded to, or for information only. Is it ever totally empty – no, it also serves as my need-to-do reminders.

  15. posted by Anita on

    I got rid of my inbox today. I set one up with the best of intentions, of having my co-workers use it to leave any documents I need to deal with, but everyone just leaves stuff on my chair or keyboard, regardless of how empty the inbox is, or how big its label. Over time, it became a collection of things to do “at some point”. So today I cleaned it out and got the tray out of my office.

  16. posted by VeritySa on

    I think I need more help with how to deal with “current projects.” In the past I’ve left them in my inbox because I’m still dealing with them -but that has not worked well.

    I’m really, really visual so I’m nervous about filing. I don’t want these projects to be ‘out of sight’ and ‘out of mind’ so they need to be where I can see them, but I need some suggestions on keeping track of papers that I’m waiting for a phone call back about and documents that I need for an upcoming event ect.

    Does anyone have ideas?

  17. posted by Erin Doland on

    @VeritySa — Have you tried using clear plastic project cases? I used them in my first job, and although they’re a little cumbersome compared to the project cases I linked to in the post, you can at least see the items inside the case:

    Or, if you don’t have 3D materials, you might just consider using a 3-ring notebook and having pages in project pockets or sleeves:

  18. posted by Adam McBurney on

    I cannot recommend an iOS app called HomeRoutines for this enough. It allows you to break up regular tasks into specific lists and zones and check them off as you do them. The lists can be set up to reset at a specific time each day. Check it out – well worth the download!

  19. posted by Katey on

    Sue: I too work in a govt job and have a similar ‘challenge’. So many of the regs require physical papers be kept. e.g. anyone who travels for work must keep the original hardcopy of their travel papers, including every boarding pass and taxi receipt, for 3 years from the day the travel finished. If an audit is done and any are missing it’s a cash fine and possible demotion or sacking.

    If I scanned my travel papers and shredded the originals, I’d have to print out the scanned copies and find a Justice of the Peace or local Judge to certify they were true copies.

    Paper, paper everywhere!

  20. posted by WilliamB on


    Same here. It has to be out until I’m done with that task. If I file it, I forget it. I don’t consider one method superior to another (although sometimes I think others do). It’s a question of what suits one best.

    My solution is piles or folders on my desk. One job I had was so paper intensive that I put a hanging file box on my desk, and tried to remember to look through it every day.

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