If your home or work desk is overrun with piles of paper, it may be time to implement a formal system.

But to be sure, here’s a simple test: Do you need to shuffle papers aside in order to move your mouse?

Then, yes, you might consider making a change.

While you don’t need to be a total neatnik, preventing pileups can reduce the time you spend looking for stuff and the chances of forgetting or losing items. And isn’t that worth a little bit of effort up front?

Stop Piling Your Papers Randomly

One of the biggest sources of ongoing clutter that I’ve seen is not having a place to put papers.

So, I recommend you use a paper sorter or other desktop system to create at least three stacks:

  • An Inbox: This is your safety zone. When you’ve just received mail or reports or brochures and you don’t have time to sort them, this is where they go.
  • An “Action”  Box: Bills to be paid, reports to be reviewed, and other papers to be acted upon go here.
  • An “Reference” Box: This is one or more stacks of paper that you need to keep on hand to refer to ongoing projects.

Finally, all other paper work that you must hold onto can go into a filing system.

Consider your desk as prime real estate – your space available is in very limited quantity. Don’t keep any papers on it that you don’t need right now.

Make it a Habit to Scan and Shred

Scanning systems make it easier than ever to keep track of documents in digital form. Several document scanners available today will upload documents to the cloud.

Services like Evernote can search the text of scanned documents, so the documents are easier to find than they ever were in a filing cabinet.

Foresake the Post-Its & Notepads

This may be a tough habit to crack, but I recommend you at least give it a try. Breaking this pattern helped me quite a bit.

Adopt a digital notes service that syncs between your traditional PC and smartphone. Better yet, learn its keyboard shortcuts and you may find that hand-written notes are a pain in comparison.

Same goes for office memos and other messages; use a system like Skype or Yammer to reduce paperwork.

And for quick and dirty notes, consider reusable writing boards instead of those Post-It notes you’ve stuck all around your monitor.

Create a Setup that Works for You

There’s no shame in admitting you’re not a fan of organizing. Some folks feel that maintaining a maze of filing folders throughout their office drains their productivity. So maybe that specific approach does suit you and how your brain works.

What I’m saying is this: make it as easy as possible to stay organized.

Just a slight change, like ensuring a recycling bin is within reach, will increase the likelihood you’ll be diligent. Don’t maintain any more layers of organization than are actually useful for you.

And I don’t know what it is about labelers, but using them seems to make it easier for me to stick to organizational schemes. But other folks? They find them too restrictive and confining.

So find what works for you. And remember, there is no right or wrong way.

Make Organization a Recurring Task

Any system you set up is going to last a few days, and then be challenged by life. Kind of like your new gym routine.

So we must be realistic. Acknowledging ahead of time that maintenance is going to be required along the way will help you get the best ongoing results.

A new buildup of clutter doesn’t necessarily mean that your chosen system doesn’t work, it just means that the periodic processing of papers isn’t happening.

So, make it a daily, weekly or even monthly task to take care of any outstanding clutter or unsorted piles, and to get everything back in its place.

If you’re really feeling diligent, take time once a year to probe deep into your filing system and chuck everything that can go. If you’ve never done this, you might be surprised at how freeing this feels! A year’s worth of utility bill receipts? Shred them! Brochures for that cruise you’ve decided you’ll never take? Trash ’em!

Once you’ve developed good habits to tame your clutter (especially ones that involve the switch from paper to digital), you’ll find it’s easier to be productive and organized.

How do you control your desktop clutter? Did I overlook a great tip? Feel free to tell me in the comments below!

Ashlee McCullen is a staff writer for Apron Addicts, a website about kitchen fashion and home style. She also writes about mobile technology, productivity, and the business of blogging.

Image courtesy of John Lambert Pearson