Defeat Desk Clutter

Albert Einstein believed a cluttered desk was a sign of genius. Yes, he was brilliant. However, he did not have to face citizens and community leaders with matters concerning crime waves, natural disasters, or gang shootings to name a few.


On a day-to-day workday, the police executive has more to worry about than Einstein did.

That a police chief or sheriff might be a genius in spite of a cluttered desk can lead to major problems. Cluttered desks lead to loss of a document that can equate to loss of equipment, loss of your position, or be a matter of life or death. That document may not be truly lost, merely in the mess on your desk.

Clutter is contagious. It encroaches on your desk, computer, shelves, tabletops and your mind. It is a cause of embarrassment when a citizen or a colleague visits you. It will bring to mind another cliché, “a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind.” Many chiefs admit they do not have room for their morning cup of coffee; that is, if they can find the mug buried under the mess on the desk. Perhaps we exaggerate, but clutter is a serious problem for any administrator, especially a police administrator.

Staples, the world’s largest office products company, offers advice from their office experts, “An uncluttered desk helps you to efficiently manage your time and create effective work space to get your work done.”


Many Benefits

Our interviews with efficiency experts make it clear, the following benefits result after de-cluttering a desk: 1) improved work environment, 2) increase efficiency and workplace appearance, 3) knowledge of where things are and where to find them, 4) boost in confidence, 5) improves work product, 6) reduce liability and best of all, 7) reduced stress.

In a well-staffed large police organization, record keepers maintain the general files; however, confidential files are under direct control of the chief’s office. In smaller organizations, the chief often is the keeper of all the records; therefore, it is imperative that police executives be aware of the records retention schedule of their state.

Based on federal mandates, each state has a set of similar rules. The schedules cover every conceivable report or document produced or used in law enforcement. A chief should have a copy of that schedule front and center on his bulletin board.


Record or Non-Record

Before de-cluttering, think of your paperwork in two categories: 1) a record and 2) a non-record. A “record” is defined as any document, book, paper, photograph, map, sound recording or other material, regardless of physical form or characteristic, made or received pursuant to law or in connection with the transaction of official business. This definition includes those records created, used and maintained in electronic form.

“Non-records” include extra copies of documents preserved only for convenience of reference, stacks of publications, identical copies of documents maintained in the same file, extra copies of printed or processed materials, superseded manuals and other directives, work papers and drafts of reports or correspondence.

Non-records also include blank forms, materials received from other activities that require no action (if unsure, place them in an official file of record), catalogs, trade journals, and other publications or papers received from government agencies, commercial firms or private institutions that require no action and not part of an action case record, and survey forms.


The De-Cluttering Process

Experts in office management we interviewed offered a variety of recommendations, but police chiefs, sheriffs and law enforcement managers/supervisors have specific needs.


Using all the recommendations, we have put together 10 steps of de-cluttering that best apply to a law enforcement executive.

Do this alone. Wait for a day off, a weekend, or holiday when no staff is present. This is your self-improvement. Do this unannounced. Gather the following equipment: hanging file folders; manila folders; trash bags; empty boxes; an extra small file cabinet if available; a desk calendar, and a shredder.

Remove everything from your desk except the computer and telephone; place the hard items (cups, photographs, pencil holders, etc.) into the empty boxes. Remove “stuff” from your desk drawers, including plaques, coffee mugs, pens, markers, old files, periodicals, copies of reports, and useless stuff to make room for files or necessary equipment. Place all paperwork in separate piles on the floor.

After a quick review of documents, shred all out-of-date or redundant non-records. Now start your own filing system in one of your empty desk drawers or a lockable filing cabinet. Each file will be in two parts: the hanging folder will be the main subject and manila folders for sub-topics, i.e., citizen communications, a main topic, and sub-topics citizen complaints and/or letters of appreciation.

Your key files should include: staffing/scheduling; mayor/city government communications; citizen communications, both complaints and letters of appreciation; budget; union issues; attorney’s general/directives, communications; Chiefs/Sheriffs Association; inventory; other law-enforcement agency communications; media contacts; disciplinary actions; and any other subjects you deem necessary for your files.

After a review of any original reports, return them to the department’s official file container. Place pencils, pens, and other office supplies in a supply drawer. What’s left in the boxes is now considered debris. Debris is anything not useful in your daily work. Exceptions may be photographs of loved ones, but not overdone.

Create a daily log for your personal notes, and include phone numbers and contacts. Choose a form that works for you and keep this handy in a drawer. Place all appointments on the desk calendar.

Take a pad and create a “to do” list for yourself for the next business day. Make it sensible. For instance, if it includes a review of a document, place that document in a “Do Now” folder (one of your file categories or a file just with “documents to be reviewed”). Note phone calls or contacts to be made, and problems that need addressing. Do not make this list an impossible feat. Create it on a daily basis. Projects not finished or addressed should be carried over to the next day list.


You will take the boxes of debris home for further sorting. (If you are like me, you will take them home and place them in the crawl space). To complete the job, place trash in the garbage bag for removal. Return the shredder and recycle the shredded paper. Find some furniture polish and shine up that old desk.

Finally, place your “to do” list on the desk with your phone, computer, and desk calendar and look forward to coming into work the next work day. Treat yourself and feel confident you can take on any problem or project. You have de-cluttered your desk and somehow it seems to have cleared your mind as well.

This process is cathartic and best done on a personal level. We do not advocate a chief issuing a department-wide order that all desks be de-cluttered (except for security reasons); however, we do advocate each chief lead by example.


Al Varga is a retired Deputy Chief of Police and is a consultant for Jersey Professional Management.

Marie Wagner specializes in office efficiency and training.

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2014

Rating : Not Yet Rated

Related Products



No Comments

Close ...