The last few weeks of December always seem calmer and a good time to reflect on the year. Unless you're in retail or another industry where the entire month can determine your year, many of us close the office and let ourselves enjoy some quiet time with friends or family.

I tend to take the last week of December off to consider what worked well and what didn't last year and what I'd like to see happen next year. Leading up to that last week, I tend to do some light housekeeping of my business so I can prepare for planning rather than wasting my precious free time clearing things.

I use a checklist to clean up shop, literally and figuratively, which includes everything from clearing out my in-box and desktop to the top of my desk. 

Clean up your workstation.

Before you begin, consider what it would mean for you to live and work a less-cluttered version of your life. Before any piece of paper is recycled or email deleted, take a moment to think how you'd feel with a less-messier life, whether it's a cleaner desk or desktop. This exercise isn't a feel-good process. It's an important part of the process because a cleaner space, physical and digital, leaves you with cleaner headspace for thinking. Write it down and tackle that housekeeping list in November and December.

I tend to take the KonMari method of decluttering my space. Marie Kondo, the organizing guru and author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, recommends decluttering by categories rather than particular spaces. For example, don't just clear off your desk. Instead, gather all of the same kinds of materials and tackle those first. My biggest clutter is paper. Newspapers, magazines, notes, and business cards never seem to organize themselves. Based on those four types of paper and taking Kondo's approach, I'd make four stacks so I can review each item individually and determine where it needs to go: file away or toss. 

Cleaning things out also means you'll be able to being more open to your intentions as well as how you approach challenges and opportunities. The key is to start the new year with a clean slate and to do everything possible to keep it clean throughout the year.

In-box zero needs to be a daily goal.

Every year, around this time, I feel the need to get to in-box zero, meaning I've either deleted or filed away any and all emails that came in throughout the year that I haven't already addressed. It's become part of my annual routine that I've named it Operation In-Box Zero since the process typically takes me a few weeks and its unofficial start time is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Why? Most people aren't working that day so I don't have to manage emails coming in and reviewing what's in my in-box.

Not having a bunch of emails waiting for a response feels good to me but having them there isn't anxiety-inducing either. How I overcome in-box zero issues is I try to delete as quickly as possible and organize by end of the day. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and when it doesn't it snowballs to the point that any dent I make doesn't seem significant.

To keep my in-box as manageable as possible, I need to go through it daily. If that can't be done, I'll try to file or delete emails at the end of each month. Starting the new month clean is just as motivating as starting the new year with no emails. 

Clear your desktop.

If you're like me, your desktop has hundreds of files all over the place. Documents I've not yet had a chance to digitally file away. Research I plan to use for future articles. Usually, it takes me a few hours of sifting through each of those files and either sending them to the trash bin or filing them away. It's an often-overlooked space to clean but turning on your computer and seeing a clean space is gratifying. After you organize your emails, this is a good project to tackle next.

Set up healthy habits today for a better tomorrow.

Research shows that habits are wired so deeply in our brains that it's hard not to default to them. In some cases, it's great because it frees our brain from having to constantly make decisions like how to get to work. The flip side is, of course, that bad habits become hard to break.

According to the authors of the study, habits tend to form slowly but, once formed, can have great stability. They're also among the most stable and powerful behaviors that we have. Just as poor habits become habits, so can healthy habits become part of our daily lives. 

Making small steps toward keeping your workspace clean and organized will go a long way. Habits such as going through your email at the end of each day and filing away excess papers at the end of each week may take time to complete but the benefit is starting the next day or week in a clutter-free environment which allows you to approach your work with a clear lens. 

Published on: Nov 21, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.