What to Put in Your Desk Drawers and How to Use Them

Post 7 in the series: How to Set Up Your Desk

For your desk drawers, I recommend having two of the three-drawer units. These three-drawer units have two normal drawers on top and then a larger file drawer on bottom. Here’s an example:

You can get by with just one if you need to, but I recommend two. One goes on your right and the other goes on your left.

Here’s how to set them up.

The Four Main Drawers
There are obviously lots of variations on how you can set up your drawers. But however you do it, there are in general about five main things your drawers need to accomplish. I find it most useful to utilize one drawer for each of these purposes.

So here are five main drawers that I recommend that you have at your desk:

  1. Wallet/keys drawer
  2. Pen/pencil/office supply drawer
  3. Labeler drawer
  4. Finance/mail drawer
  5. File drawer (pending and project files)

You can reduce this number down depending upon your desires, needs, and drawer space. In my post on recommended productivity tools I outlined two of these drawers. This post here gives you the more complete picture. But, again, reduce (or expand) to the degree that works best for you.

Wallet/Key Drawer
When you get into work, you need a place to put your wallet and keys (at least if you’re a guy and don’t like keeping them in your pockets). Use whichever drawer seems easiest for this, since you’ll be using it a lot.

This doesn’t take up the whole drawer, obviously. So I actually divide this drawer into three, using the larger divider-things that came with the drawer to divide it up. My wallet and keys go in the front area. In the middle area I keep a box of tissues. The area behind that is for temporary storage of any temporary items that I might need to store.

Pen/Pencils/Office Supply Drawer
I outlined this drawer in the second post in my series on recommended productivity tools. (In that series I also cover which pens and other productivity tools that I recommend.)

The main purpose of this drawer is to keep a supply of pens and mechanical pencils on hand. Secondarily, I recommend these items: 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.).

At work, I have a center pencil drawer built into the desk, and so actually use that drawer for this purpose. At home, I use the top drawer in my right-hand drawer unit.

I’d prefer to do things exactly the same at home as at work, but there are a few differences that are best accommodated in this way (for example, I don’t have a center drawer in my desk at home). So, this works fine.

Labeler Drawer
This is the drawer where you keep your labeler for labeling any physical files (which I also blogged on in my second post on productivity tools). Along with the labeler, this drawer also provides a place for your stapler, staple remover, and tape. I also have room in the back of these drawer for blank CDs, CD sleeves, and a cloth for cleaning the screen.

At both work and home, this is the second drawer in my right-side drawer unit.

Finance Drawer
This is a drawer that is needed at home but not at work. It keeps all the supplies that you need for managing your finances. This may include these items: checkbook, extra checks, church offering envelopes, extra keys, envelopes, address labels, and stamps.

Even though I pay most of my bills electronically, there are still a few that work best on manual. So still have a need, consequently, for stamps and address labels (so you don’t have to write your address manually on every envelop). Also, bill-paying aside, you need to have some stamps around anyway, even if snail mail is now more rare, and this provides a place for them and some envelopes.

File Drawer
You want to have your most active files with you at your desk, and the file drawer that comes in most drawer units works great for this. Keeping the most active files here means the pending and active projects file divisions. Usually one drawer is enough space for these, and I use the unit on the right side.

Pending files are the files for holding support material for non-project, ongoing, routine operations. At home, my pending files include: General, bills to pay, notes to enter, receipts to enter, other financial to enter, to return, to attend, to discuss, waiting, and allowances.

So, for example, when I get a bill in the mail that needs paid, it goes into the “bills to pay” pending file. On my calendar I have a repeating task every two weeks to pay bills that aren’t automatic and electronic, and at that time I deal with everything in there. That way I have them out of mind until the specific time to deal with them.

When I have a purchase whose Quicken category won’t be obvious from the store, it goes in my “receipts to enter” file and I categorize it when I update my finances in Quicken (also on a routine). Same with bank statements–they go into “other financial to enter” and then they get reconciled when I deal with Quicken. If I ever receive physical tickets for something we have to attend (rare, but it happens), they go into “to attend.” Support material for any agenda items would go into “to discuss,” “allowances” holds my kids allowances so that I can grab from there every week and always have some ones on hand, and so forth.

Behind the pending files are my project files, which is just one file for every project that has any physical support material.

Secondary Drawers

Those are the five most important drawers. Here are some additional ones that are useful:

  1. Charging cords
  2. Extra file folders
  3. Other stuff

Charging Cords
It is useful to have a drawer for all of your chargers. My charger drawer is in the left hand drawer unit at home. It includes my iPhone charger, camera charger, an extra laptop charger, camcorder charger, and various cables.

Extra File Folders
If you have a second drawer unit, it is useful to use its file drawer to hold empty file folders. When it comes time to make a file, you grab a folder from this drawer, label it using your labeler, and then put it in with your project files (if its for a project) or in your primary file cabinets if it is operational or reference.

If you don’t have a second drawer unit, you can keep extra file folders behind your pending and project file divisions.

Other Stuff
In one of my other drawers in my left-hand unit at home I keep printer paper and extra paper pads. I also keep a roll of printer paper in the supply closet, but this gives me some paper close at hand as well.

You can have drawers for all sorts of other stuff as well. The key is that you designate a purpose in your mind for each drawer, rather than just tossing things wherever they will fit. There is never a reason to have a junk drawer! :)

How to Use the Drawers
You keep in your drawers only an amount of each item that you need to have in use. Extras go away from your desk in a supply area, which I outline in detail in the next post in this series on setting up the rest of the room.

For example, keep in your pen drawer only about 5 pens. If you have a box that contains 10 more, put that box in your supply area, rather than over-filling your drawer with all those pens. When you start to run down on the supply of pens at your desk, go grab some more from the supply area. Likewise, don’t keep a zillion paper clips in the drawers. Keep what you need, and if you have an extra container, put it in the supply closet or area.

This helps keep your desk like a cockpit. It is smooth functioning and lean. It has what you need, and you don’t have a bunch of extra stuff getting in your way.

Posts in This Series

  1. How to Set Up Your Desk: An Introduction
  2. How to Set Up Your Desk: Basic Principles
  3. Excursus: Against Desk Hotels
  4. The Four Ways to Configure a Desk
  5. Where to Put Your Desk
  6. What to Put on Your Desktop and How to Use It
  7. What to Put in Your Desk Drawers and How to Use Them
  8. The Rest of the Room: How to Set Up Your Office
  • http://www.theinvisibleGod.com Chris

    This desk/office series is overwhelming–not your fault.

    When I was planning to move the piano studio downstairs, I could see it all so clearly in my mind. Everything had a place.

    Now that we are downstairs, the little table next to the piano doesn’t fit nearly as much as I thought it could. The bookshelves are about full, the huge closets are overflowing a bit, there are still piles of sheet music on the floor all round my table, the stacks of papers waiting to be dealt with in the bins haven’t been touched much(except to rearrange) since we moved down here in April), the “things to take care of today” pile keeps growing…

    Happily, the office supplies inside the desk are in good order and once I have more file folders the bottom drawer will look a little nicer.

    I’m living according to hour by hour deadlines it seems and not really sure what to do about it.

    I’ve seen studios about as “lived in” as mine, and others that are neat as a pin. The students are learning and maybe it doesn’t really matter too much. Yet, somehow I think we all like the feeling of being caught up…

    I appreciate your posting this information and I will try to work on it a little at a time, I guess.

  • http://www.theinvisibleGod.com Chris

    Addendum to my comment above:

    Maybe at some point you will write a post about the helpfulness of having a friend or relative who is much more gifted in organization and willing to assit those of us who are less gifted that way.

    I have a dear aunt who visits a few times a year. It is a joy to work on an area of the house with her, and it seems like whatever area she helps to organize stays that way!

  • Matt


    Great point. Friends and relatives who are gifted in these sorts of things make a huge difference when they offer some tips and help with the organizing. And this is true in all sorts of areas. It’s something we should cultivate more.


  • http://facebook.com/jjstables Jeffrey J. Stables

    In my current office, I’m limited to two built-in drawers (with no option to bring in an additional drawers unit). A normal drawer sits above a file drawer. Any tips on how to trim efficient drawer use into this situation?