AN EXECUTIVE recently discovered the joys of an uncluttered desk - thanks to a rat or two scurrying through the office.

With these critters on the loose, the executive's messy cubicle was singled out as possible bait, forcing her to clear the clutter - and her name.

"I finally threw away all the things that I do not need but was reluctant to let go of previously," she said. "I had kept them under my desk, out of my sight, for a few years now."

A cluttered desk can sap your energy, mess with your concentration and clutter your mind, making you less productive at work.

So don't waste more time searching for the things that you need, and don't let others misjudge you for being a slob.

"Uncluttering your desk will improve efficiencies at work and enhance your professional image," said Robert Half Singapore's director Stella Tang.

An associate of Ms Tang's, who worked on political campaigns in Australia, had a unique filing system. "He only ever cleaned his desk after a successful election campaign.

"If his party lost the election, he would simply wheel a large garbage bin into his room and sweep everything on his desk into it. And then he'd start again."

That may just be what some people need to do, as they look under their desks for junk that has been there for years.

But for others, throwing everything away does not solve the problem. Accounting and finance professionals, for instance, are required to keep certain financial documents for a number of years.

Ms Tang's advice is to ask yourself these questions before you throw out things.

  • Am I legally required to keep it?
  • Do I have a more updated version of the information?
  • What can go wrong if I throw this out?

When you are left with a pile of documents, sort them into the "act", "pending" or "file" piles. Then, act on those that require immediate attention, like your bills.

Give yourself a reminder to act on something that requires your attention in the future. And file away documents such as contracts, invoices and warranties.

It's also advisable to keep your work digital as far as possible.

"Receipts, records, notes and old documents can be scanned and saved," said Ms Tang. Going digital, she added, saves you time on filing and makes retrieval much easier.

If this is all too much work, just remember that the most successful leaders tend not to have messy desks.

Most chief executives also have neat desks. "It helps them to focus, be organised and be in control," said Mr Daniel Soh, managing partner at executive search company Leadership Advisory.

He has known quite a number of chief executives who have a habit of leaving their desks "cleared" like a runway at the end of each day, he said.

They will bring out only the files and documents they need when they return to the office.

It's a practice he has adopted. "A clear desk does not solve yesterday's issues. But it helps the chief executives to start the day afresh and with a clear mind to manage the issues at hand," said Mr Soh.

A neat desk also exudes positive energy and creates a good impression on visitors.

Getting organised, however, does not come easily for messy people. In fact, some messy people will tell you they need the chaos of a messy desk to thrive.

After all, Albert Einstein had one, and he once said: "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?"

Some German researchers have also apparently found that messy desks may not be a bad thing. They say people think more clearly when surrounded by chaos, as they are forced to simplify their thoughts. But most people probably can't live happily with a desk that looks like a hurricane has gone through it.

The trick is to get started, and what better time than this Chinese New Year.

That is, unless you are one of those geniuses who thrive on the madness of a messy desk.

But keep in mind that you will still risk being judged.