The benefits of a tidy desk

Is it a big deal if you work amongst clutter, if that's what works for you?

I used to work in clutter. There were piles of paper and software everywhere and buried underneath those were more piles of paper and software, a small dog and a lost tribe.

I’m not sure how I came to have a tidy desk, but in recent years I found I could no longer function in the pigsty (as one of my former workmates dubbed it) and now I wonder how I ever managed it.

But does it really matter? Is it a big deal if you work amongst clutter, if that’s what works for you?

Well, yes actually, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Career Journal website.

Motoko Rich writes of a case at a US architectural firm where the director of technology’s clutter drove his tidy workmates to distraction. When he wouldn’t clean up his workmates ordered “a set of special 64-inch cubicle walls to surround his desk and close off the mess”.

Rich says the problem has grown because people now work in cubicles instead of private offices and the size of the workspaces in those cubicles is shrinking while workloads increase — meaning there is less room for more paperwork. Because of the small spaces, the clutter encroaches on others in a way it might not have in the past and some employers are now requiring staff to tidy their desks at the end of each day, says Rich.

That may seem unduly fastidious, but it could reduce the time staff spend looking for things --and that equates to a lot of time when added up over a long period.

The average US executive wastes six weeks per year searching messy desks and files for misplaced information, according to a Wall Street Journal article cited on the LexisNexis website. The article also claims another study found the average American spends one year of his or her life looking for misplaced items in the office.

So, how to deal with it? In the LexisNexis article, Anthony Vlahos suggests that if you have documents you need to keep, “but you don't use every day or don't have the room to store, use a scanner to create an electronic copy on your hard drive or disk”. Writing on, Caryn Tolpa suggests managing your "to read" pile.

She quotes Jane Yoos, a professional organiser, as saying you should put non-urgent "to read" items in large file folder.

“Use a few folders if you have different ‘to read’ categories, but make them broad categories. As you receive new items, place them in the front of the folder.” When the folder gets too full, Yoos suggests taking a handful of the stuff at the back and … no, not actually reading it, but tossing it without looking, because it's the oldest. Now that’s one way to deal with clutter. Her philosophy is that you’ll always have current stuff in that that you can pull out to read if you have time.

“While you may be concerned that you'll throw away something vital, that's unlikely to happen.”

Tolpa also cautions against printing everything out, because chances are you won’t read it. And learn to filter – you don’t need to keep every interesting article you find on the web. Filter it all down to what’s important.

Tolpa quotes Yoos saying that you should think of your office as you do your kitchen. "People generally have very clean kitchens and offices are really no different.

"Food rots so you clean it up and you wipe your counters. If you can use those same skills that you already have in your office, then you'll maintain it."

So, treat the paper in your office as if it’s perishable.

“Don't pile it up, telling yourself that you'll deal with it when you have time. You wouldn't do that with food in your kitchen.”

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