Mastering the Messy Desk

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David sighed. He read it was time for “national clean off your desk day,” and was preparing for the usual gibes from his office mates about how he badly needed to embrace the concept of work office organization.

“The problem is,” David confided in me, “is that I NEED all these piles in front of me. If I have to stick all this stuff in a cabinet in the name of ‘organization,’ it will actually make me less productive. I need to see everything to help guide me on what’s in front of me to do.”

There are many people just like David in many organizations…. And there are many people who question their abilities because they can’t seem to keep their desks organized. If you are like David, here are some ideas for organizing your work office in a way that works for you:

  • Recognize the difference between messy and dirty. Don’t confuse a busy desk with a dirty desk. Piles are fine, but trash is trash. That empty bag of potato chips may not seem like a big deal to you, as it just blends in with the piles, but in a shared work office, people do notice. If you must have piles, make them materials that matter.
  • If you need piles, keep them neat. One person shared with me: “I dislike that other people think my desk is their business, and it is amazing how much a neat pile makes them feel better. I just straighten the stack so that the corners of the papers all line up, and people feel much better.” True enough! Why? Because your piles look like a choice, rather than a random toss.
  • Practice an archiving strategy. If you need piles to know what to do next, establish rules for when and how to organize materials into an archive. How long do you need it after the project is done, just in case? Once that time has been met, where will you put it? Understand your desk’s true “carrying capacity,” and archive accordingly.
  • Recognize what others must retrieve. People with messy (or, “busy”) desks often justify it by noting that if they can find things, it shouldn’t matter to others. This is true, until you are out sick one day, and someone must quickly find something on that desk! If you have information that others may need, help them understand your style by explaining your organizational approach, or labeling the really critical piles that others are likely to need.

Never use your piles as an excuse. If your approach to office organization is to have everything visible on your desk, do not use your piles as an excuse. “Sorry I was late with that – it didn’t make it to the top of my pile.” BAM! You just provided a reason for people to question your work organization skills!  Embrace your unique organizational style, but never use that style as an excuse for not meeting an organizational goal.

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