By Julie Stauffer ([email protected])

How quickly can you lay your hands on tomorrow’s meeting agenda, the latest batch of clinical data, or the draft report you’ve been asked to review? Although de-cluttering your desk may fall low on your low priority list, disorganisation carries a hefty price tag.

A Gartner Group study revealed that the average company loses one out of every 20 documents and spends US$120 in labour to track down each one that goes missing in action. Nor are the costs strictly financial. Untidy offices are a source of stress for 43% of American workers, according to a survey by office supplies manufacturer Esselte.

Need an added incentive to get organised? Esselte also found that 52% of UK managers consider the state of your desk during employee appraisals.

If you’re ready to regain control of your desktop, here’s a six-step plan:

1. Clear the decks

Block off a couple of hours, haul out the recycling bin and get ready to pitch the unnecessary documents cluttering your desktop and crammed into your cabinets. To decide what stays and what goes, Barbara Hemphill, author of Taming the Paper Tiger , suggests a few key questions:

  • Does this piece of paper require action?
  • Is it recent enough to be useful?
  • Would it be difficult to find this information somewhere else?
  • Are there tax or legal implications to throwing it out?
  • Can you identify a specific use for it?

If the answers are “no,” you can toss out the document with a clear conscience.

2. Organise your files

Every piece of paper in your office should have a home. Group like with like: put financial files in one place, for example, and scientific papers in another. For maximum efficiency, keep the files you’re currently working on close at hand. Compiling a master list of all your files will help you locate information quickly.

3. Develop a dating habit

You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches by dating every piece of paper and marking documents as either “draft” or “final.” When a project is complete, ditch all the drafts and keep just one copy of the final version.

4. Triage incoming paperwork

When a document hits your desk, decide whether to toss it, file it for future reference, or act on it. If you can’t act until you’ve received approval or input from someone else, put the document in your “pending” file and make a note on your calendar to follow up if you haven’t heard back within the allotted time.

5. Create a to-do list

While it may be tempting to leave a folder on your desk as a reminder to take action on it, file it away and add a note to your to-do list instead. If there’s a specific deadline, make a note on your calendar as well.

6. Make a daily commitment

Once you have a system in place, investing just a few minutes a day will keep it running smoothly – and avoid hours of frustration hunting down misplaced documents.