How To Declutter the Physical Workspace by Sorting and Purging (Step 2 of 12)

“I hate clutter. It really bothers me because I can’t think properly. If you’ve got distractions in front of you, your mind goes nuts.”

-Simon Cowell

I remember as a medical student, I didn’t really give much thought to how important organizing my physical environment was. I was swamped with textbooks, curriculum documents, journal articles, bills, financial aid paper work, and other documents that completely cluttered my physical workspace. I did not know this at the time, but each item that was unnecessarily in my workspace was taking up a small amount of my mental space and preventing me from becoming maximally productive.

 Unfortunately, many students and clinicians will have hundreds of unsorted documents on their workspace. Your mind will continue to process, on a subconscious level, any items that are not rightfully in their place. So, each rogue piece of paper that is left on your workspace is taking up precious mental energy that you could be using to focus on studying, to advance a project, or to engage in deep work.

What You Will Need:

Time needed: Approximately 0.5 to 1 full day
Materials needed: Trash bin, lots of Trash Bags, Paper Shredder, Pen, Post-it Notes. For a list of recommended supplies for productivity please see the STEP 1 blog post on getting supplies. 

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The Process of Sorting and Purging

This step of Sorting and Purging your physical workspace environment will be crucial for you to develop an effective productivity system. The process will involve gathering every single item in your physical workspace and Sorting them into three general piles (1. Possibly Keep, 2. Trash, 3. Donate). Afterwards you will Purge your workspace of any trash and items to donate.

For this step please REFRAIN from trying to organize any of the items, other than into those 3 general piles. We will go in detail on how to organize your physical environment in the next two steps (Steps 3 and 4), and most people will need a separate full day to do the organization part. Also, your full attention will be needed for this step so please please please, put away your phone, computer, email, TV, etc. 

Just so you don’t feel like only You have a cluttered workspace, I attached real-life examples below! I have been invited to medical students, residents, and attendings’ houses to help them declutter and reorganize their physical workspace. Below are actual pictures of the decluttering process for people I have helped! The pictures below serve as evidence that YOU are NOT alone when it comes to being cluttered…..


2nd Year MEDICAL STUDENT Workspace
2nd Year Internal Medicine RESIDENT PHYSICIAN Workspace

GATHER ALL items in your physical environment

This step is rather simple but takes some time. I want you to gather EVERYTHING in your workspace and place it on the ground. Literally clear out all of your bookshelves, drawers, backpacks, files, closets, office, pockets, white coat, picture frames, journal articles, mail, stationery items, electronics (chargers, USB cables), etc.  Yes I really do mean EVERYTHING on the ground! 

 You will be reorganizing all parts of your workspace so it is time to get everything on the ground and you can decide if you really want to keep things. I was surprised by how many duplicate items I had in different areas such as extra stethoscopes, note pads, pens, duplicate books. When you gather everything, you can start to consolidate your items. Our resident example below had 3 graphing calculators, 5 hard drives, and other duplicated items he had no idea he had!

Our Resident’s Duplicate Items!

SORT ALL Items into THREE Piles

Now it is time to look at every single item on the ground and sort it into THREE Piles. For larger items or one’s that do not easily stack, you can use Post-It notes to label them into one of the three piles. Don’t take too much time to think during this step. You are just doing “Clutter Triage” and quickly sorting things into one of these three piles.

The Three Piles are:

  1. Possibly Keep Pile
  2. Trash Pile
  3. Donate Pile 
Separate Everything into 3 Piles: Possibly Keep, Trash, and Donate

Possibly Keep Pile

For the “Possibly Keep Pile,” include all items that you will keep for sure and items you are not quite sure about. I don’t want you to spend too much time thinking about each item. If you are unsure if you want to get rid of something, then just keep it in the “Possibly Keep Pile.” We will spend much more time on sorting out this pile in the following two steps.

Trash and Donate Pile

So the “Trash Pile” and “Donate Pile” are for items you definitely don’t want to keep. If an item carries minimal value to you and others (i.e. outdated books or documents) then just put it into the Trash Pile. If you feel like items may be of use to someone else like a colleague, friend, or medical student put it in the Donate Pile. Remember if you donate to a charitable organization you can get a tax deduction!

 When I was going through the process of creating my productivity system, I was amazed how many things in my workspace that I did not need. I had so many outdated books and documents that were not relevant to my current practice (old medical school review books and very old edition textbooks). 


If I haven’t opened a book in 3-4 years, what are the chances I would actually use it? Consider throwing away very outdated books that are of no use to you or donating it to a student or colleague that may benefit. You may also be able to sell books on Amazon (link to sell books) or donate it to the library. If it is so old and of unlikely use to anyone, I would recommend throwing it away so it doesn’t clutter someone else’s workspace! I helped declutter the physical workspace of an attending physician below by sorting and purging all of his 3 decades of accumulated books! How can you be productive in this type of environment?

Attending Physician’s Accumulated Books!


You will also likely have many old documents, patient lists, journal articles, etc. Look through each one and see which ones you can toss and which ones you will put in the “Possibly Keep Pile.” Create a separate stack for documents you want to throw away that contains sensitive information (patient information, address, social security numbers, phone numbers, bank statements, etc). You will also need a paper shredder (link to paper shredder here) to dispose of that stack. 

Medical Supplies

For medical supplies that you may not use any more consider donating it to a medical student, resident, international mission, or underserved clinic. Another consideration is to gather extra medical supplies and create an emergency medical kit for your office or car. 


Pictures are hard for many people to throw away. Consider keeping pictures that are updated or have true sentimental meaning to you. If you feel bad about throwing away a picture, consider scanning (link to scanner here) it and saving a digital copy so it does not take up your physical space. If you are going to keep a picture, consider framing it and hanging it on the wall so it does not take up physical desk space. 

Miscellaneous Items

You will also encounter many miscellaneous items such as awards, trophies, stationary items, random boxes, CD’s, DVD’s, etc. Once again, look at each item and think when the last time you used the item and what it means to you NOW versus what it meant to you back when you first obtained the item. 

When in Doubt, Throw it Out!

My general rule is, if I haven’t used an item for greater than 1 or 2 years it can most likely be tossed or donated. There are so many items I feel like people can leave undecided for weeks, months, years, and even decades! Really decide if any item “should” mean something to you or if it actually “REALLY DOES” mean something to you. 

Even though these items may seem harmless, the amount of subconscious thought you put into them adds up to days, weeks, and years of mental space. NOW is the time to decide what these items mean to you. Remember if something does not serve any purpose for your current life then you have the power to let it go! Your current AND future self will thank you for this. 

“When we clear the physical clutter from our lives, we literally make way for inspiration and ‘good, orderly direction’ to enter.”

-Julia Cameron

Purging Your Workspace

Purging is definitely my favorite part of the process! For sensitive items that need to be shredded, do this now if you have a shredder (or have someone you trust shred these documents for you). Place the shredded documents in trash bags. 

Shred Time!

Place ALL other items in your “Trash Pile” into trash bags. Now proceed to directly dump all of the trash bags from the “Throw Away Pile” in a large trash bin outside your house. If you don’t have a large trash bin readily accessible, I suggest taking all of the trash bags and placing them into your car. Take your car to the nearest dumpster later on and make sure you throw away all of these items away by the end of the day. 

I had about 20 large trash bags fullof things to throw away when I was done sorting out all of my things! You should immediately feel a huge sense of relief after throwing away these items as it will immediately clear out a significant amount of physical and mental space. 

For items that you would like to donate, decide where each item should be donated to and place them in separate boxes or bags for that specific person or location. Stick Post-It notes to label where they should go and place them outside and permanently away from your workspace area. 

“If you have debt, I’m willing to bet that general clutter is a problem for you too.”

-Suze Orman

CONGRATULATIONS, you DID THE RIGHT THING and have likely purged a significant amount of items around your workspace that have been lingering for the past years or decades. You should be feeling great! See below the workspace of our resident physician after we sorted and purged everything from his physical workspace! Now he has a clean slate towards creating an effective physical workspace.

After Sorting and Purging, You Will Have a Blank Slate Towards Productivity!

In the following step (Step 3). We will go in detail on how to create an optimal physical workspace from scratch, without all of the clutter! Step 3 will also cover exactly how and why certain amazingly simple productivity tools such as a 2-tray system, Boomerang File system (watch video here), scanner, shredder, etc can exponentially increase your productivity! Make sure you have all of the “absolutely necessary items” from Step 1, we will be using all of them in the next step! Here is a sneak peak of what your future workspace will look like after Step 3:

Sneak Peek of Your Future Productive Workspace!

For now, don’t worry about the big “Possibly Keep Pile” on the floor, we will organize that in Step 4 after you have created a functional physical workspace from Step 3.

I hope you enjoyed this post and I wish you a happy Decluttered life after this! Click here for an overview of all 12-steps to help you achieve a productive life.

Please sign up for our newsletter below if you would like to receive updates as each step comes out! Once again, I look forward to being part of your productive and stress-free life.

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[…] 2. Declutter the Physical Workspace by Sorting and Purging […]


[…] it’s time to decide what to do with each item in the “Possibly Keep” pile from Step 2. The key to this step is that you MUST decide. If you are going to keep an item, decide if it is a […]


[…] This video goes over how to declutter your physical workspace (Step 2 of 12). To read my full blog post going over detailed instructions on decluttering your workspace: CLICK HERE. […]

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