The Tools You need to Have (and Where to Keep Them)

Post 2 in the series: Recommended Productivity Tools

While the right tools are important, the tools themselves won’t get you organized. You need to know how to think about your tools and where to keep them. Otherwise, getting the right tools will simply create clutter.

So before getting into the specific tools I recommend, I’m going to do two things. First, I’m going to outline the basic categories that everything you can possibly have at your desk falls into. Second, I’ll give a brief overview of all the tools that may be useful to have in your workspace and where they should go at your desk.

Understanding Workspace Setup

I posted some notes on workspace organization last week in anticipation of this series, so that may be worth looking at. The most relevant concept for our purposes here is that there are two kinds of things at your desk: permanent stuff and transient stuff.

Permanent Stuff

Permanent stuff falls into four categories: equipment, supplies, decoration, and reference.

Equipment goes on the desk if its used more than once per day, and in a drawer if not. Supplies go in a desk drawer in small amounts, with extras being kept in a cabinet or supply room. Decoration goes on the desk and walls, but should be kept limited. Reference items go in file cabinets and on bookshelves.

Transient Stuff

Transient stuff falls into three categories: input to be processed, action reminders, and project support materials.

Input to be processed goes in the in box. Action reminders will be in your task management software or, if you are paper-based, planner. Project support materials would be in electronic files and possibly some physical files.

The tools that we’ll be discussing in this series fall into the categories of equipment and supplies.


Core Tools and Their Locations

Here is an overview of the physical productivity tools you need to have and some brief words on where they go. My aim here is to provide you enough details on where to keep things to get you started; I’ll provide more details on desk setup in a future series.

The Desktop

On the top of your desk you should have your in box, computer monitor, any necessary computer peripherals, at least one pen, and maybe a pencil. If desired, you might maybe also want to have a desk lamp, a decoration or two, and a printer if you have one to yourself and there is room.

And that’s it.

The rest of the desktop is for working and just plain providing some breathing space. Any additional items will get in the way and, at least unconsciously, be a nuisance. The key principle is: keep your desktop as clear as possible.


I’ll go into more detail on how to set up your drawers in my series on desk setup. But for the tools I’m covering here, two drawers are sufficient.

Drawer #1

In one of the drawers at your desk you should keep these items: pens, pencils, extra pencil lead, paper clips, scissors, a letter opener, and a unit of post-its. You might also want to have some rubber bands, super glue, twist-tie-things that come with the cords in neat new electronics gadgets, business cards, Advil, and maybe a few other things that fit and are useful (some permanent markers, a small ruler, etc.).

Don’t keep too many extra pens and pencils in this drawer; 5 of each is plenty. The point is to have a reserve to draw from if the one you are using on your desk runs out, you misplace it, or you just want to grab a few more for some reason. If you have any additional pens and pencils beyond the 5 or so, they go in a supply closet where you store extra supplies.

Regarding super glue and rubber bands: I admit that I hardly ever use these things. Having them around at all may be an old hold-over from when less stuff was computer based. Or maybe I just have rubber bands in there because I think it’s neat. The super glue is there because we have kids who sometimes break things. So, obviously, some things here are more or less relevant to each person’s specific situation.

Regarding the twist-tie-things: Whenever I get a new electronic gadget, I save those twist-ties the cords come tied up with. Or, I should say, I save them unless they are the flimsy kind. They really come in handy to tie up any cords that are longer than needed, so as to keep them from becoming unruly. I use them all the time.

Drawer #2

In another drawer you should have this equipment: stapler, staple remover, tape, and a labeler.

I admit that I hardly ever use the tape. But if I ever need it, I don’t want to have to go walking to find some. There’s space for it, so it’s easy enough to keep around.

The stapler I use about every other day or so. Whatever you do, do not keep your stapler on your desk. That just looks ugly. It goes in a drawer. So does the labeler.

I also keep a stack of blank CD-RWs in this drawer, some sleeves for the CDs, and a cloth to clean my screen.

Additional Drawers

If you have additional drawers, other stuff that you might want to keep in them include: chargers, extra batteries, Kleenex, and printer paper (if you have a printer at your desk). If you have a cubicle with a storage bin or a desk with some type of hutch on one part of it, these items also work well in there.

Obviously there is probably a lot of other stuff some people keep in their desks. That’s fine, but my recommendation is to keep the amount of stuff you have around to a minimum. Have only the essentials, and a bit more if it doesn’t take up any needed space.

Keep things to a minimum so that it is easier to keep them organized. The aim is easy, finger-tip access so that your workspace functions like an effective cockpit.

Around Your Desk

Around your desk are chairs, wastebaskets, and maybe bookshelves.

Supply Room

Extra supplies go in a supply room. Keep at your desk what you use, and keep extras somewhere else to avoid clutter. For example, if you have a printer and keep printer paper around your desk, keep one unit around. Keep extra units in the supply room.


Kept portable and with you should be your capture journal.

Posts in This Series

  1. Recommended Productivity Tools: An Introduction
  2. The Tools You Need to Have (And Where to Keep Them)
  3. Recommended In Boxes
  4. Recommended Capture Journals
  5. Recommended Pens
  6. Recommended Pencils and Paper Pads
  7. Recommended Staplers, Staple Removers, and Tape
  8. Recommended Scissors, Letter Openers, and Post-Its
  9. Recommended Paper Clips and Super Glue
  10. Not Recommended: Desktop Organizer Things
  11. Recommended Chairs and Waste Baskets
  12. Recommended Labelers and File Folders
  13. Recommended File Cabinets and Bookshelves
  • Kellie

    I haven’t even read the post but am so impressed by the pictures! I have it saved and when I get the house set up – God willing – after we move I will read the post!

  • Dennis

    I’m loving this series. Thanks for thinking it through and guiding us.

  • James

    Yes! Thank you Matt very much for taking time to share this Productivity series with us. It’s really very helpful!

  • jeff

    what do you call those black “seperator thingies” in ?

  • Matt

    I’m not exactly sure what to call the things on the right, but I got them at Office Depot or Office Max. They might just be considered drawer dividers, like the thing on the left.

  • jeff

    Thanks Matt.
    I found out that they also go by Drawer Inserts or Drawer Organizers

  • jeff

    I went shopping today for a drawer organizer/insert/divider.

    I bought this, .
    I compare it to yours and your thing on the left of the pic is better. Your pen compartments are narrower. Can only carry 3 pens side by side. Mine is 6 pen wide. and too long.

  • Erica

    Hi! I just found these posts after searching for hours on how to set up a new office…great information! However, the photo links have been disabled? Do you have any new links to these articles with the photos available!
    Thanks so much!