Cubicle creativity: Make over your office space for better workflow

Chris Ralston, one of several art directors at Callahan Creek, 805 Mass., keeps his workspace organized so it functions like a well-oiled efficiency machine.

Chris Ralston, one of several art directors at Callahan Creek, 805 Mass., keeps his workspace creative but neatly organized.

Ralston has Free State Brewing Co. beer bottles lining his desk; Callahan Creek recently worked on the bottle labels.

Cubicle makeover contest

If you know someone who could benefit from a cluttered cubicle makeover by a professional organizer — even if that person is you — send your name, e-mail address a photo of your messy cubicle to, or mail in that information to Cathy Hamilton, 645 N.H., Lawrence 66044. One lucky reader’s “before” and “after” photos will be published in a future edition of Go!

Organize your cubicle

Marilyn Roy of Simplify offers the following tips for turning your nightmare of a workspace into a office worker’s dream:

  1. Set aside a day to clean up your space.
  2. To work, bring five paper grocery bags, shopping bags, wine boxes or other suitable containers.
  3. Throw all trash away first.
  4. Consider recycling empty soda cans, outdated newspapers, magazines, plastic water bottles. Put it all in one container to take home and sort later. Don’t sort now.
  5. Sweep the floor.
  6. Sort what remains into three containers: Office supplies; Today’s mail; and Any memorabilia taking up space that you don’t need, want or care about in another. Your desk should now be clear of everything except your computer and all those papers and files you’ve been meaning to put away or take care of. Any meaningful items like family photos can stay.
  7. Put away all completed file folders. Save aside those still in process.
  8. Hold all daily work in a three-story file basket or other segmented container with IN, OUT and IN PROCESS baskets.
  9. Keep your daily calendar next to your assignment basket or wherever you choose to organize your daily work.
  10. Once you have your paper system set up, take out the office supplies and put them on the desk. Remember to only put on your desk what you will need for today.

Your organizing system should be both practical and aesthetically pleasing, reflecting your taste and personality.

Want to know if your workspace is organized? Give yourself the three-minute test.

“If you can find a particular sheet of paper or a file or piece of equipment — whatever it is you need — in three minutes or less, you’re organized,” says Marguerite Carlson, owner of Lawrence-based Organize U. “That’s a basic ground rule.”

Carlson, whose clients include hoarders and other disorderly clients, says a work area — be it a tiny cubicle or expansive office suite — needs to be clutter-free for maximum efficiency.

“Clutter messes with your mind,” she says, “and when you can clear the clutter, you really are clearing out your life.”

And the smaller your workspace, the more important it is to keep it well-ordered.

“Some cubicles are well-organized,” Carlson notes, “and some of them really have too much distracting material. You need to find out which objects or pictures are making you feel at home and how many of them are too personal or too cutesy for the business environment.”

In an effort to personalize their little piece of real estate at the office, some workers can become overzealous.

“Like decorating for every holiday, for instance,” say Carlson. “It can be distracting, and it’s spending time being competitive, if everybody is trying to outdo everybody else. You have to wonder, is that taking time and energy away from work?”

Professional organizer Marilyn Roy, owner of Lawrence-based “Simplify,” suggests workers adopt one basic rule of thumb regarding office excess:

“When you can’t remember why you want to take the time to put away a file, book, document or unfinished piece of work, you don’t need it,” Roy says. “The idea is to clear out everything that you don’t want, don’t need, or that isn’t relevant to your work or your sanity while at work.”

Chris Ralston, an art director at Callahan Creek advertising agency, can easily pass the three-minute test. His colorful cubicle clearly reveals his creative side, but it also functions like a well-oiled, efficiency machine.

“I’m all about prioritizing,” Ralston explains. “Being creative and organized aren’t mutually exclusive, I think. For me, (being organized) helps me think a lot more clearly. A lot of my work is very conceptual, and I have to have a clean place to work.”

The key system on Ralston’s desk lies to the right of his computer, where Day-glo colored sticky notes indicate the level of urgency associated with the stack of papers below them. “Tepid” means he can get to the work later. “Muy Caliente” means do it ASAP.

“(The stacks) are things I have to do right now, or by the end of the day, or next week. I created those little Post-it notes four years ago, and they work for me.

Literally, if it’s not here to my left, then I don’t pay attention to it. It has to be something physical and in front of me, for me to do it.”

“I also do lists every week, Ralston says. “I like to track my progress that way.”

Ralston, who replaced his traditional office chair with a silver stability ball to improve his work posture, has even custom-designed a way for him to organize his thoughts.

“I’m a big fan of Moleskine hacks,” he says. “For my daily notes, I took apart a regular Moleskin and pulled all the pages out of it. Then, I took three little notebooks and organized them into notes for me, for work, and for spiritual or philosophical stuff I’m thinking about. It’s kind of like a daily journal.”

Jackie Bunnell, who works as a researcher at Callahan Creek (and whose own cubicle is the epitome of Zen-influenced orderliness), is impressed by her colleague’s fastidiousness.

“It’s always been my observation that the more creative a person is, usually the messier they are,” Bunnell laughs, “but when I saw Chris’ cube over there in Creative, I went, ‘How out of character!'”

For people who don’t share Bunnell and Ralston’s systematizing skills, Roy says there is hope. But it takes time and effort, emotional and physical.

“There are no shortcuts to setting up a good organizing system,” she says. “Years or months of ‘overlooking’ can’t be remedied in a day. There’s no getting around the clean-out, which can be very tough. People need to work at retraining themselves to enjoy living with orderly environments.”