The most important tool for keeping clutter off the desk is a good wastebasket,'' says Alice Shepherd, owner of Creative Organizing in Alexandria, Va. ``Little pieces of paper are the curse of the mid-level employee,'' adds Stephanie Winston, author of ``The Organized Executive'' (Warner, $7.95). ``If you're talking about getting your desk organized, you're really talking about learning to cope with paper.'' Tossing the ones you don't need is the first of Ms. Winston's four-part approach to handling paper. ``Most things that come in, we don't know what to do with exactly,'' she says, ``so we approach them with what I call the Scarlett O'Hara syndrome -- I won't think about this today; I'll think about it tomorrow.'' Instead, she recommends the TRAS system -- Toss, Refer, Act, File.
Each part of the system, in fact, has its own file -- including the classic circular file for the first category.
The Refer items may have several files -- one for each person you consult regularly. ``That way, when it's time to meet with one of them, you can just pick up his file and have an instant agenda,'' she says. Items to be dealt with in regular staff meetings can be handled the same way.
Ms. Winston has an Action File for those ``diddlyboo things that accumulate -- things to be Xeroxed, letters to be answered.'' Putting them into a file keeps you from interrupting your larger work, ``but make a regular appointment with yourself to do them -- say, from 9 to 9:30 each morning -- so they don't accumulate and become overwhelming,'' she recommends.
Mrs. Shepherd breaks Action items down further, stuffing them into files marked according to the action to be taken -- To Photocopy, Correspondence, To Read, To Phone. ``An office manager can just hand the Photocopy file to a secretary,'' she points out, ``instead of interrupting her every time he sees something that needs copying. Or a mother who winds up being a taxi service to her kids can just take along her To Read file to get through while she waits for soccer practice to end.''
Files such as these, which are used daily, can be stacked vertically on the desktop or put in the front of any handy file cabinet, the experts say. And if filing itself is the place where you fall down, try stashing things in a To File file. ``This is a halfway house,'' Mrs. Shepherd points out. ``Most of us don't have time to keep up to the minute with the systems we set up. This keeps the clutter off the desk.''
``If you have stacks of unfiled folders, though,'' Ms. Winston adds, ``you may need to make appointments with yourself over weeks or even months to get it done -- say, an hour per week. Ordinarily, filing should take about 15 minutes per week.''
Dumping items into files should clear away the paper piles -- essential to a working desk, says Mrs. Shepherd. ``A desk can be storage, or it can be work space; it cannot be both.''
Most desks contain certain essential items -- a telephone, current files, pencils, paper clips. ``Get these up vertically, to clear space,'' Mrs. Shepherd advises. ``Put the pens, pencils, staplers, and so on into a cup, and the clips into a little dish, and buy some of those dividers for your files.''
Others prefer to stash all these items in drawers. ``But make sure your chair is on wheels and can slide backward easily,'' says Mrs. Shepherd. ``If it's hard to get into your drawers, you won't do it.''
A calendar usually takes a central position, the experts say. Many people have two of these items, ``one on their desk, and one they carry,'' says Ms. Winston -- a system she finds inefficient. ``You put the appointment down in one calendar, and then forget to put it in the other. If you have to have two, always keep them open together when you're at your desk,'' she suggests.
A better system, according to Mrs. Shepherd, is to have an accordion-style Tickler File with slots for each month, plus slots numbered 1 to 31. ``If you have something coming up in March, say -- theater tickets, or an appointment -- put it in the March slot. Then, when March rolls around, take out all those slips of paper and file them according to the date,'' she says.
A simpler way to accomplish the same thing, says Ms. Winston, is to use your calendar as a tickler system. ``If you write to Mr. Smith on the 2nd and want to hear from him by the 17th, write `Smith' on your calendar for the 17th and stick a carbon of the letter into your Holding File,'' she suggests.
Deciding how to arrange these files, calendars, phones, clips, etc. on the desktop is a matter of experimentation, Ms. Winston says. ``If you're right-handed, you should probably put the telephone on your left, with a pad of paper nearby. That way, you can pick up the phone with your left hand and keep writing with your right,'' she says. ``But see what's comfortable for you.''
She advises people to sit at their desk and act out a phone call, deciding where they prefer to turn, how they hold the phone, what they need to have in front of them while taking the call. ``Some desks have an L-shape, or attaching credenza,'' she says, ``and people need to experiment to see if they'd rather put the phone, the computer terminal or typewriter, or the files over there.''
The presence of a pullout table top is a wonderful asset to any desk, says Mrs. Shepherd, ``because you can always clear your desktop onto it when you need to work. Or you can pull out a drawer and use the board from an old game over the top to do the same thing.''
Where a desk is located can make a big difference to some people, she adds. ``If a client tells me, `I have a wonderful desk but I never like to use it,' the first thing I do is turn it around. Some people can't stand to face the wall while they work.'' If turning the desk is difficult, she suggests putting up a poster in front of it with a ``picture of a country road or a mountain stream -- something outdoorsy.''
How neat that desk is, both experts agree, reflects little on how organized its owner is. For one thing, ``what is organized to one person is overorganized to another and underorganized to a third,'' says Mrs. Shepherd. ``As long as you can get your work done and, if someone else needs access to your office, as long as you have a system others can understand, then you're organized.''
``Some people think you have to be perfect to be orderly,'' says Ms. Winston. ``But it's not true -- you can be Attila the Hun. Order is a tool to use to make your work easier, not to make you a better person.''
And disorder, Mrs. Shepherd says, can be very instructive. ``As you sort through the piles, ask yourself, Why did this happen? Is this the only place in the house where there's a phone? Is it the place where everyone piles their junk? What sorts of things am I finding here -- what categories? Then, once you know why it's happening, you can set up systems to organize it,'' she concludes.