why does a neat or messy desk reflect on your productivity?

A reader writes:

I’d love to know why people tend to associate a clean / organized desk with lack of productivity. I’m a neat freak when it comes to my desk and I don’t like stacks of papers tossed everywhere, so of course I have a sparsely covered desk, and it seems that anyone who comments on it (usually management) does so with a hint of a negativity. I meet deadlines and handle a lot of responsibility, so it’s not for lack of something to do. I just don’t like a mess and it makes me feel totally overwhelmed when my desk is piled high with things. Is it a twinge of organizational jealousy or do people really think that i’m not doing anything because my desk is clean?

Actually, in my experience, it’s more common for people to say the reverse — that a messy desk makes you look disorganized and like your realm is in chaos.

That said, it’s certainly true that a completely spartan desk with no papers at all can make you appear like you don’t have very much going on — not only have you had time to perfectly organize everything, but nothing appears to be in motion — and I bet that’s at the root of the comments you’re getting. It appears to people like nothing is happening, because they don’t see visual evidence of it.

Not that you should have to do this, but if you put out a couple of folders and a paper or two, I bet the comments would stop.

But yes, of course you should be judged on your actual productivity and work quality, not the state of your desk. In practice, though, we’re humans and we draw conclusions from what we see. A bare desk can make people think nothing is going on there, and a crazily messy one can make people think the work must be a mess too.

{ 225 comments… read them below }

  1. tt

    Like Alison, I’ve only heard comments in the opposite direction – that a messy person may be disorganized, not a near person. I hadn’t thought of that perspective. Then I guess it’s a *good* thing I’m messy ;)

    1. Sharon

      I have noticed at a few of the companies I’ve worked at that the C-level guys tend to have immaculate and empty desk tops. A computer monitor, a pen, and a blotter that is blank/empty and nothing else. You could eat off them. It sort of gave me the distorted idea that the higher in the company you go the less work you have. LOL! I know it’s not true but it amuses me. (I have a middle-of-the-road desk: fairly tidy with things in their places and only one pile of papers.)

      1. LAI

        The head of IT at my former job literally had nothing in his office except a desk, a laptop, the laptop charger and his bike. I’m pretty sure there was nothing in the desk either.

        1. louise

          I scanned WAY too fast and read “nothing on his desk but a laptop, the laptop charger and his bike.”

          The mental image that gave me before I did a double take was pretty great though.

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        Photos of every U.S. president’s desk have been like that. At a certain point in some types of jobs, you’re just talking to people and making decisions.

        1. Mister Pickle

          I think also that at some jobs (President, C-level exec, etc) one’s desktop is more of an ‘icon’ than a real work area. Having a clean, ‘distinguished’ desktop is part of the image of the job.

          This is just me: when I look at someone’s desktop, I tend to not see “clean” or “messy” but “in control” or “out of control”.

          1. Cat

            Yeah, I think the president does have a “working” office with a computer and, perhaps, paper that may or may not be as pristine as the oval office.

              1. hildi

                Yeah, but I bet you’re right about the type of “work” a person does at certain levels: I’m sure it’s probably pretty accurate that at a certain point they’ree mostly talking to people (endless meetings); making decisions; and signing things, etc. There are oodles of handlers to do all the rest of the stuff – whether you’re military, C-suite, or the president.

              2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

                I do think your general idea is right on, though: At some point your job is to talk to people and make decisions. Although I bet you still read a lot. But probably little writing or the kinds of things that occupy most of our days.

    2. Bea W

      Same, although when I see a bare desk I wonder if that person has less work that gives them enough time to keep it that way. I also wonder how they even remember what they’re working on. I am very much “out of site, out of mind”. I had most of my desk packed for an office move and for the life of me could not get focused on what I was working on without the visual prompts.

  2. Muriel Heslop

    My boss hates a messy desk for her team, but hers is the worst of all. She has made it clear that she draws the conclusion that a messy desk = disorganized so I try to keep things neat. My drawer full of stacked papers is our little secret.

  3. Lizabeth

    If I was judge by my office, sigh…

    I wish people would THINK before they speak. Does management have NOTHING better to do with THEIR time???

    1. College+Career+Counselor

      I once cleaned my desk and went to lunch. When I came back, my colleagues said, “Holy crap–we thought you quit!”

  4. HRC in NJ

    I had a co-worker comment that I must not have anything to do because my desk was so neat. Our boss overheard, and said to her, “at least her desk is neat. Yours is a mess!”

    1. Jennifer

      This happened to me too. I put an old notebook on top and once in a while turn a page. It’s from an old job and no one has ever noticed. The comments stopped.

  5. The Cosmic Avenger

    It’s really just a lack of perspective-taking, as with the people rummaging through someone else’s desk for candy earlier today. These people do not understanding that other people are not the same as them, and so can’t conceive of someone thinking or doing things differently.

    My desk is somewhat cluttered, but what’s funny is that I really use very little of it. I just have things where I like them, and I use my computer for everything and don’t really need a stapler or a pen most days, but I like having them in particular places. I could do my work just as well with a desk devoid of anything other than my phone, monitors, keyboard, and mouse. And my coffee cup in the morning. :) This is just how I prefer to keep it.

    1. EngineerGirl

      The corollary is that the judgmental people are notoriously bad at problem solving because they can only approach a problem from one direction.
      Adults fall into 4 categories learning/problem solving: Talking it out, Tactile (have to handle the paperwork and write all over it), Listeners, Visual. The people with really clean desks and only a computer monitor are usually visuals.
      I’m a tactile so my desk is covered with paper with sticky notes all over them.

      1. Jen RO

        Ohh that ‘Talking it out’ category is so me! I’m lucky that my counterpart (the other team lead) also works better by talking it out, so we can always bounce ideas of each other.

        1. hamster

          I am “talking it out too”. I was just explaining how i approach some investigations to a new trainee and i was surprised how verbalising and talking made it faster for me to solve stuff.

      2. danr

        I’m visual and messy. But, I knew where everything was in my stacks of paper. I wanted to get everything in the PC, but I kept running out of disk space…. My firm got the smallest hard drives they could get away with.

        1. Kimberlee, Esq.

          I am exactly this way. I tend to be messy, but I remember where everything is in a very visual way, and at my old job would get a bit upset at people that moved my piles. They might LOOK random, but they assuredly were not!

      3. Meg

        Oh man… no wonder I learn things so fast. I’m all four.

        Talking it out: I’ll ask questions if something isn’t immediately clear. Talking it out and explaining it reinforces the knowledge for me.

        Tactile: I jot down thoughts and comments, draw arrows and make notes on every scrap of paper.

        Listener: Took great notes in lectures and meetings

        Visual: I can figure it out from the documentation provided, or by watching someone.

        My work desk has two external monitors, laptop and dock, keyboard, mouse, phone… and sometimes my notepad for me to write my thoughts down before I forget them, sometimes food (I’m a snacker). My desk at home… eesh.

      4. Windchime

        I’m Tactile and Talking it Out. I have a desk covered with papers (not horribly messy, but not anywhere close to tidy), but I also find that sometimes all I have to do is start explaining a problem to a coworker and then I will suddenly figure it out. He doesn’t have to actually say anything; I just have to talk about it to figure it out sometimes.

      5. Melly

        I love that you articulated this. I’m totally tactile.

        I’m in a new job now and one of my goals was to not be such a desk slob. Hasn’t happened. I need to write all over all the papers!

      6. stillLAH

        Interesting! I think this is one reason my oldboss and I didn’t get along. She was definitely a Talk-It-Out and I’m more tactile.

      7. Cassie

        My first boss was very much Tactile – stacks of files everywhere, pages highlighted, sticky notes, the whole gambit. I think I lean towards Tactile, but way on the other side of the spectrum from her.

  6. Cat

    My workplace possibly subtly values a messy desk as a sign of business and subconsciously, I think, creativity. Not anything that get commented on but I think there are climates where it’s a minor (and quirky) part of fit. However, if you like it neat I feel like you can lean into that, accept that people may see it as ever so slightly a sign of neuroticism, and spin that as an advantage re your attention to detail. Not explicitly of course. Just as a subtle signalling thing.

    Meanwhile I am definitely going to deal wth the mound of things on my desk someday.

  7. MaryMary

    My mom used to say that if a cluttered desk signifies a cluttered mind, then what does an empty desk signify?

    But seriously, I never put much stock into whether someone’s desk is neat or messy. Right now, mine is covered in piles paper, but I have a pile system. It works for me. When I worked in an office that was nearly paperless (too many remote or offshore coworkers), my desk was so empty I got a dust bunny in one corner.

    1. Mike

      > My mom used to say that if a cluttered desk signifies a cluttered mind, then what does an empty desk signify?

      My mom said the same thing!

  8. KimmieSue

    I’ve have the messiest desk in every office I’ve ever worked. I’m also the same loud-talking, loud-typing person from a post last week. I must be the most annoying co-worker ever. But yeah, I’m successful and productive. LOL.

    1. Mallorie, the recruiter

      We were separated at birth?

      One of my employees in another state did not believe me when I told her my desk was a hot mess (she thinks I’m super organized and functional – I am, but I’m also a total slob)… so I sent her a picture of it. She died laughing. My desk is the office embarrassment! At least I’m in my own corner and no one really see it :-) I have a lot of things going for me, neatness is not one of them. Or quiet talking apparently as I am the loudest person here!

    2. GrumpyBoss

      Heh, me too! I also tend to play music all day and forget to shut my office door. My coworkers are unbelievably awesome about my noise and cluttered desk.

      In all seriousness, of the hundreds of perceptions I have to manage at work each and every day, someone’s opinion on my desk doesn’t even rank. My productivity speaks for itself.

      1. KimmieSue

        Mallorie – I’m a recruiter too! One the best recruiters I’ve ever worked with is the same way!!!! Grumpy Boss – my co-workers have always been very patient as well. Now, I’m self-employed and work from home with the hubby. His desk is at the opposite end of the house and is super organized. He doesn’t like even looking at my office.

    1. Chriama

      Haha I know! The only reason my desk isn’t messy is because I do all my work on the computer. However, my files are beautifully organized and my desktop is pristine. I don’t understand people who use their desktop as a dumping ground for all their files. The only time I put things there it’s because I need to download a file that I’m going to delete right afterwards.

      1. alma

        I totally dump things all over my computer desktop, but I usually do some pruning at least once a week. I process a lot of files with similar-looking item codes, so just sticking it in a general folder almost guarantees it will get lost (or I will have to spend ages hunting around for it). Putting it on my desktop, I know that THIS is the thing I’m working on right now.

        Judge away… it’s what’s most efficient for me.

    2. Artemesia

      Reminds me of the time I told an assistant that the necessary document was on the left side of the desktop. She spent an hour searching every horizontal surface of my office. ‘I looked on your desk, but it wasn’t there.’

    3. Sharon

      I have some coworkers right now who have their computer desktops COVERED with icons. One guy even has folders on there. I marvel at how they can find anything. I try not to sound judgemental but once I did as one of them if they added just one more icon, would it expand to a second desktop like iPads do. I was sincerely curious about that!

      I only have program shortcuts on my computer desktop, and a few temp files that get promptly deleted or filed. I keep my computer files very tidy.

      1. Former PhD

        My old PhD supervisor actually did fill his entire Win XP desktop with icons! We heard about it from the postdoc who had to sort it out and find his stuff for him…

        FWIW, saving files to your desktop will eventually make your computer run slower, which will lower your productivity.

    4. LBK

      I’m gonna be honest, I am a perpetual desktop shortcutter…but only for stuff I really need to use frequently, not for random files I only need once. I do save those to the desktop a lot but they get deleted immediately once I’ve done what I need to do.

      1. Dan

        I have a folder on my desktop named “Temp” it hold the “use once and delete” stuff that I didn’t delete right away, as well as the “I might need it again someday, so it’s going to stay here for awhile” stuff.

        It’s the equivalent of my kitchen junk drawer :-)

        1. Jennifer

          This. I name it Temp and the month. I move it to a shared archive once per month and start a new folder.

          1. Meg Murry

            I’m not quite so organized as to do it monthly, but I also gather up all the files living on my (computer) desktop and shove them in a dated folder – then a put a shortcut on my desktop to the folder called “old desktop files”.
            I also periodically do this with the papers on my (physical) desk top that are random enough not to have their own file but that I don’t want to throw out just yet.

    5. Anonylicious

      Oh, good, I’m not the only one. Unnecessary shortcuts and cluttered desktops set my teeth on edge.

    6. MaryMary

      I’m not much of a short cutter, but I do use my desktop as a temp drive, so it’s covered with files I’m working on or documents I mean to read when I have some free time. It drives a couple of my coworkers nuts. I was the driver for a section of web training a couple months ago and people were appalled.

      1. De Minimis

        That is a common affliction for my department, we all have a ton of spreadsheets we refer to often, and I tend to have reports that I’ve exported to Excel saved to the desktop….but they really pile up after a few months.

        My desk is even worse, although my goal for the new fiscal year is to come up with a system to reduce a lot of the excess printing of documents.

      2. straws

        I do this too, but a messy desktop drives me nuts. I changed my settings to hide my desktop and use the desktop toolbar instead. So I get everything in a nice dropdown, plus I can admire my full desktop background without so much as a recycle bin! I open the toolbar as a folder and clean it out as often as I can, but at least it’s not distracting me when I can’t.

      3. Jen RO

        I used to do this, to the extent that I would threaten my clean freak friend with screenshots of my desktop (… and of my bags in WoW). I once managed to have more icons that could fit on the screen! (In case you’re wondering, the last ones just disappear, and they show up again once you delete stuff.)

        Now I just save all the temp stuff in one folder that is just as disorganized, but which no one sees.

        1. Soharaz

          My partner makes fun of me all the time because my bags in WoW are so organised…his are all mishmash and drive me crazy!

    7. Karowen

      Both actually drive me crazy to some degree, but the computer desktop is soooo much worse for me! My one co-worker uses it for everything and then her naming conventions for files are the pits so she spends ages digging around to find stuff. It didn’t affect me until I had to go through something she put on our shared drive…my eye is twitching right now thinking about it.

      1. De Minimis

        I just do a search by “date modified.” I also use filenames that include the date the file was created [faster than trying to hover with the cursor.]

        I always tell myself I’m going to spend some time putting some of the files in an “old projects” folder, but I just haven’t done it. Things are going to be slow for the next few weeks so that might be a time to do it.

        1. HeyNonnyNonny

          Me too! My file names are super organized for searching, but my computer desktop and file system? Not so much.

        2. Karowen

          She also searches by date modified, but rather than having dates she just names stuff the same thing and puts “_new” or “_new1”. Sometimes she’ll go to the old one and put “_old” but that’s rare. I’m just always proud when she asks about a project we did together because she’s having issues finding it in her stuff and I can find it quickly in mine :)

    8. LD

      I have what feels like almost 50 shortcuts! All our work files go into one big file and we each have our own file within the larger one…about 6 folder layers in. That’s too much work to get to things I use often. The ones I use most regularly are shortcuts on my desktop so I don’t have to click 6 layers in to get to them.

    9. bkanon

      Laughing so hard at this because it’s true. I dislike trying to show my mother something on her computer because of all the (imo, needless) shortcuts and icons she has everywhere. And they’re not even organized in groups of similar things! Of course, she won’t even try to use my computer because I have a launch bar and changed all the icon images so they were a consistent color scheme to match my wallpaper. Not that doing so was part of my evil plan to ensure no one else uses my computer ever, no, not at all, lalalala.

    10. Cath in Canada

      Absolutely! I’m a very messy person when it comes to physical stuff – I remember telling my teacher when I was maybe 6 or 7 that I didn’t know why my area was so messy, “it just happens”, and I haven’t got any better since – but I’m a total electronic neat freak. My email inbox, electronic files, and iPhone apps are beautifully organised into folders, and my desktop has – let me see – 4 folder shortcuts on the left, and the Skype and DropBox icons on the right.

      1. Shell

        Actually, now that I think about it, I’m like this too! My computer’s hard drive is sorted into folders, everything is in a folder and subfolders according to category…but receipts will languish on my desk for months before I file them.

      2. Jillociraptor

        This is me too! I could never keep my room clean as a kid and my house is just on this side of acceptable (though I definitely need a solid 30 minutes notice before I’m willing to have people over because it’s cluttered). This always surprises my colleagues because I can process and organize huge quantities of information, design organizational systems, etc. like no one’s business. I’ve joked sometimes that I leave all my organizational skills at work ;)

    11. Rat Racer

      I don’t even HAVE paper files any more because I am so bad at managing them. Yeah, my desktop is totally organized, but if you give me a piece of paper there is about a 95% chance that I will lose it, accidentally recycle it, or spill my coffee on it.

    12. Kelly O

      I love you.

      I will TOTALLY judge you based on your desktop. I get frustrated at my current job because I cannot remove some icons from my desktop. They have to be where they are for the program to run. Want to know how I found out? I tried removing them to access from the start menu and nothing worked anymore. So I asked if I could make a folder and put them all there. Nope, they have to be where they are.

      1. Chriama

        It’s funny, but I don’t like a completely blank desktop either — it just looks too empty! So I keep program shortcuts there even though I almost always use the start menu to access them. And for programs that I use everyday, I just pinned them to the taskbar so I don’t even have to search the start menu anymore. Hmmm — now I’m wondering if I could be more efficient by moving some shortcuts to my desktop instead of leaving them in the start menu…

      2. Layla

        It’s probably because the desktop shortcut is set up differently , with parameters

        I’m a messy desk person & messy desktop person. Sometimes I can’t stand it and move everything into one folder
        I try to file project files properly tho !
        Just that when I get busy I don’t have time to housekeep temp files , screenshots or log files…

    13. Chriama

      The funny thing is I’m pretty bad at naming acutal files. It’s easier if I know what type of file I’m looking for (e.g. a screenshot, an email or a spreadsheet), but if I find I’m having a lot of issues with a particular folder it means there are too many subjects in 1 folder (e.g. a project with multiple stages or tasks) and I create more subfolders.
      So it’s not that I’m totally organized — I’ve just gotten good at keeping the mess down to a manageable level and out of sight!

    14. C Average

      I think I almost literally never look at my desktop. I’ve always got a jillion things open and I nearly never shut my computer down. I know this is awful behavior, but I’m pretty much always online and always have something in progress. I go to work, I pack my computer around to meetings, I haul it home and have it sitting on the counter so I can check in periodically . . . I pretty much never close my programs (I use the same ones consistently) and shut down unless there’s something actually wrong. And when I’m installing something new and the little dialogue box asks me, “Do you want to save a shortcut onto your desktop,” I’m like, “Sure, why not?” *click*

      I closed my windows and counted my icons, and I have 30 of them. I don’t use a single one. I pretty much only navigate from the Start menu and the system tray.

      As long as the things I need are where I need them, I’m pretty much oblivious to everything else.

    15. Katie (Not the Fed)

      Oh thanks for the reminder! I rarely use my desktop but I hate a cluttered one (as it also slows your load time IIRC). Found and deleted a bunch of shortcuts from my manager using my computer and installing programs (which is another thing entirely, I am in the stages of Your Boss Sucks, Leave Already).

  9. Katie the Fed

    Mehhhhhh I hate this so much. Messy desk goes with my personality type (INFP). Totally me. But I was that kid in elementary school with papers sticking out every which way from my desk, the one in high school with piles of random papers in my locker, and my house tends toward the messy. I’m just a fundamentally disorganized person. I do my best to mitigate but left to my natural state I’m disorganized.

    But dammit I do excellent work. I really do. So if you’re making assumptions about me you’re missing out.

    1. Who are you?

      When I was in Junior High School (now known as middle school) my locker was a hot mess. One day I was out sick and apparently there was a bit of a shoving match between two boys. In the scuffle my locker was bumped against and popped open. The mess spilled out onto the floor, ending the fight, and resulting in two teachers spending time picking up the mess. The next day I was told that I needed to keep my locker neat to avoid this happening again. LOL! It never popped open again but my locker was messy a week later.

        1. Adonday Veeah

          I’m an INFP, and my house is very well organized, but only by default. I learned the hard way that if you don’t have a lot of stuff you don’t have to organize it. I do semi-annual purges. Instant organization!

          Don’t talk to me about my desk.

        2. Jillociraptor

          Ah, interesting. I’m an INFJ and this makes sense–I’m not very organized with THINGS but I’m very disciplined in thought. It’s easy for me to organize my ideas or to create systems, but once it’s outside my head? All bets are off.

    2. Shell

      I’m an ISTJ, I’ve always been an ISTJ, but I feel like I must be Doing It Wrong because I really don’t care about clutter. At home, clothes on the floor is fine. At home and work, papers on the desk (piled, and in a way I can find it), fine. If it gets to a point where I can’t efficiently find what I’m looking for I’ll tidy it up, but clutter doesn’t bother me and I find constantly tidying an annoying thing to do, much to the chagrin of my mother. If it isn’t adversely affecting my productivity, I only tidy up when I’m bored.

      And yet I’m an ISTJ! I don’t get it. :)

    3. QualityControlFreak

      INTJ and my desktop (and desk top) are pristine. I do have extensive files, both electronic and hard copy, but they are meticulously organized.

      I knew a woman who used the stack method; there were numerous stacks of papers in columns on her desk. You could ask her about that memo regarding Project Q and she would turn to her stacks, moving along the columns from left to right, then reach two-thirds of the way down the 5th column and pull out the requested document. Now THAT blew my mind.

      1. the gold digger

        My husband was able to find a receipt that was months old by going to the right depth of the Leaning Files of Pisa on his desk. I still think all that stuff should be filed in folders in a drawer, though.

        1. Adonday Veeah

          My ADHD sister is like this. Looking for stuff in her house is a geological dig. She will come apart at the seams if you touch her piles. I don’t know how she manages it, but she never loses anything.

        2. the gold digger

          This was important enough for me to leave the bedroom and come back into the kitchen and turn the computer back on. It’s Leaning Tower of Visa. Honestly. I have teased him about it enough that you would think I would remember the proper name. But no – it comes to me only when I am about to brush my teeth and get into bed with a book.

      2. C Average

        I’m an INTJ, too, and I know I come across as a bit of a slob.

        The funny part is, I’m ruthlessly organized about the small number of things I actually use daily. Stuff like keys, workout gear, gadgets and their chargers, sunglasses, passport, etc., are always in the exact place they need to be. It’s the entropy of the stuff I don’t use or particularly care about that creates chaos around me. I just don’t care enough to actively manage the inflow of stuff people give me, stuff that comes in the mail, stuff the kids haul home from school, stuff my husband hauls home from work, etc., etc. So it piles up until I get sick of it and do a massive purge.

        I’m not actively sloppy. I take care of the things I value and use. I just can’t be bothered to spend time pushing back the tide of unwanted crap that finds its way into my habitat.

    4. Anx

      I’m an INFP and I can’t stand a messy desk or area. But that’s because I have major challenges with personal organization and if I don’t stay on top of it, it becomes a major source of stress of me. That said, I’ve always lean toward keeping any shared spaces organized because I think it facilitates efficiency in groups and that mess is more likely to be detrimental to a team than organization. I do my best to keep things easy so that less organized people don’t have to put too much effort into maintaining the system.

      I think people hate me though because I’m that person that wants to have a semi-annual office purge/clean up.

  10. Unmitigated Gal

    I, too, keep a very neat desk and have received the same sorts of comments. They hurt, but I try to remember the folks making the comments are probably just jealous of the neat desk.

        1. Cat

          For me it’s like downhill skiing. I ontelectually understand that some people really like it but I don’t really GET it.

        2. OfficePrincess

          For me, a neat desk either means I’m 100% caught up on my to do list (including the “hey someday I should” list) or we’re expecting a VIP visit. I love when it’s the former and am jealous of anyone who can regularly hit that point.

      1. Katie the Fed

        I’m just confused and a little awestruck by them. Like if I saw a moose walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. How does that happen?!

        1. Anonylicious

          Suddenly, I want to see a moose walking down Pennsylvania Ave more than I’ve wanted anything in a very long while.

      2. Jen RO

        I am jealous. I don’t think I could function like that, but I do love my desk for the first hour after I tidy up!

      3. Rat Racer

        I am not super jealous of a clean desk – but if your house is organized and clean then I am deeply admiring. Especially if you have kids and a shedding animal.

        1. Who are you?

          This is the reason I can’t spend any time on Pinterest. I love photos and blogs about how to organize the home. I imagine my place all bright and shiny with a place for everything and everything in it’s place. Then I look up and see the clutter and chaos that my life is with two kids, two working parents, a plate full of volunteer activities and I feel like I’m letting someone down. I envy those who have it, but I’ve admitted to myself that it’s probably never going to happen for me. (Sigh!)

          1. Adonday Veeah

            It’s the two kids. A home with two kids can never be anything but chaos. Enjoy it while it lasts. You can tidy all you want once they leave the nest.

          2. hildi

            I so know what you’re talking about. Pinterest is an escape and it helps me feel like pinning beautifully organized homes that it’s somehow translating into action in my own home. But you’re right – you look up and see the chaos of what surrounds you….and then I just go and get a snack and decide I’ll tackle it later. My later might be years from now.

          3. Anx

            Same here. For me it wasn’t the chaos, but the money.

            Even the ‘reuse’ or ‘crafty’ organization was way out of budget. I had to just accept the fact that storage costs money and that was a no-go.

      4. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

        Really? God, I do. I’m a messy desk person and I would LOVE to be a neat desk person. LOVE.

        1. Katie (Not the Fed)

          Me too! And a clean house person! I realize it’s the little things every day that keep your stuff organized (wiping down a surface, filing papers immediately) but I am having difficulties actioning these key directionables.

          Also I prefer skiing over snowboarding FWIW (see above). Tried to learn snowboarding once…went back to skis. I’m all for new experiences but there’s only so many times I can fall over.

    1. Anon333

      I’m a messy and wish I was neat. I’ll cop to being jealous. I wish I had the follow-through to be a “clean up immediately afterwards” person, but I’m not. I’m a “clean up in batches and feel accomplished”.

      1. Beebs

        Me, too. I consider it a personal shortcoming that my desk is such a disaster. But not one I feel strongly enough about to actually fix. (Well, I do thoroughly clean my desk twice a year. It stays that way for 2 days.)

      2. Natalie

        For whatever it’s worth, “clean as you go” is absolutely a habit that can be developed. It takes time, like any habit, and a forgiving attitude towards yourself as you will definitely forget all the time.

        I used to be a really messy marathon cleaner, but over about 5 years I turned into one of those “put it away, not down” people. House and desk are quite clean, as was my car when I had one.

        1. Layla

          I’m curious as to how you turned into one.

          Did u start when you had more free time? Or some other drastic event like losing something important ?

          I want to be you !

  11. jenwales

    We had a boss who was a neat freak and had a fit if a desk was even slightly messy – the only thing allowed on them was whatever was being worked on at the time and everything else had to be out of sight. You weren’t even allowed to keep your stapler out if you weren’t using it at the time.

    I got a new job and am happy here with my slightly more cluttered yet usable desk.

    1. JJ

      OP here- I once worked for a place where the owner had terrible OCD and would arrange our desks every night before we came in the next morning- he would throw *our* things out because they weren’t allowed on our desks (pens, post it’s if they were a different color, paperclips anything that wasn’t his “standard issue”), and we were only allowed to use the standard company pen. i think they were a black bic something or other. When marketing reps would come in and give us freebie pens and mugs, he would toss them in the garbage. he would also walk around the office and take our inbins and other piles of work and slam them on our desks to make sure the paper corners were exactly even. he also spent a good part of the day organizing the magazines in the waiting room and fixing the pictures on the wall to make sure they were level. **** needless to say, i ran out of there screaming*****

      1. Mike C.

        I can’t decide if I would end up screaming at this person for messing up my workspace, or just following him around making a larger mess every time his back was turned. Holy crap, I would lose it with this person.

        1. Sharon

          I would have fun with him and get unceremoniously fired. Just go behind him moving things a fraction of an inch to the left. LOL!

          1. James M

            I would get rub-on decals of large insects and put them on all the light fixtures (on any translucent part facing the light). I’m sure an OCD boss would have my hide for it though.

        2. jj

          You know what worked for awhile? I started keeping feminine products in my top drawer and he stopped rummaging and throwing things away that we’re not company issue. For years, The day before he would come back from vacation we ceremoniously moved everything in the office by an inch. :)

          1. The Cosmic Avenger

            See?? I suggested this to prevent people from rifling through your drawers looking for candy, and a few other commenters thought it wouldn’t work! Hah! :D

      2. J-nonymous

        Yeah, I might have been awfully tempted to have some fun at his expense.

        I had a terrible boss who was OCD and claimed that was the reason she *had* to rifle through papers on my desk and move my (clean) coffee mug into the back corner of my desk area. I decided to do a little test and when she wasn’t around, I tilted a couple of her hanging framed prints.

        She didn’t notice at all. I concluded (perhaps wrongly, but I don’t think so) that OCD wasn’t at the root of her behavior toward me, she just wanted to invade my space.

      3. Anx

        I don’t doubt that having a superior or even a coworker with OCD that projects their anxieties onto their staff and creates unrealistic and inefficient standards is stressful and creates a work environment in which it’s very difficult to maintain your usual productivity and morale. And obviously some of the behaviors in this thread are unacceptable, especially when it comes to invaded boundaries.

        But I’m alarmed by some of the comments here alluding to intentionally messing with someone with an anxiety disorder.

        Perhaps it’s a result of the misuse of “OCD” to describe people who are fastidious, micromanaging, fastidious, persnickety, particular, uptight, high-strung, or meticulous.

    2. Phyllis

      Heh. I had a boss who would prowl the office after hours & if you’d thrown away a pen or a highlighter and she could get a millimeter of ink out of them, you’d find them back on your desk the next day.

  12. Eden

    The way I work, my desk gets covered with piles of in-process stuff during the day…but I make sure it’s all filed away and neat at the end of the day. So I’m a little of both.

    In my office, the messy-deskers are more frowned-upon.

  13. alma

    Oh boy. One of the most organized hardasses I ever worked with had a cubicle that, at first glance, looked like an episode of Hoarders. She processed incoming and outgoing packages, so that accounted for a lot of it, and she could otherwise get away with it because she was a 30-year-plus veteran and was kind of the “wizard” of her particular task. But man. You could have hidden a dead body in that cube.

  14. LAI

    I don’t know if they’re concerned about your lack of productivity, but I wonder if they are worried about your priorities. I generally like to keep my desk neat and clutter-free, but on really busy days, that’s impossible. I literally am throwing things on my desk and running to the next thing. When I do take the time to sit down and organize the mess, it might take an hour or two to follow up on each item and properly categorize it in its location. I always have time to do this clean-up eventually, but sometimes I only get to it after a few days because I have to deal with the more urgent matters first. So if your desk is constantly spotless, I wonder if your higher ups are thinking that you’re delaying work or doing less work than you otherwise could because you’re spending more time than necessary organizing your desk.

    1. Chriama

      I think that goes into the general perception thing Alison was talking about. If you have all this time to make sure your papers are neatly filed, do you really have enough work to do? It’s not necessarily a fair perception, but if you have a habit of storing papers in drawers you could start keeping them in trays on your desk.

      1. Dan

        +1

        Neat desk people aren’t necessarily doing nothing but cleaning, and messy desk people aren’t necessarily disorganized crazies. However, it’s important to understand that perception is hugely important.

  15. LBK

    I’m an obsessive desk organizer and going to my coworkers’ cubes sometimes gives me actual pangs of panic. Just stacks of paper everywhere, random things they don’t need, boxes and bags of food, office supplies thrown everywhere, binders left open…gah. Just thinking about it is making me sweat. OP, I totally feel for you – I wouldn’t be able to deal with a culture that wanted me to have a messy desk.

    1. Nichole

      No. No no no. Having some minor anxiety just imagining your coworkers. When I’m busy it’s not unusual for me to have a little paper clutter, but even if it means staying over a few minutes, I straighten up before I leave on Fridays. Coming in to a messy desk throws off my week. Open binders and visible food (!) are no-nos even at my busiest times. I will admit, though, that I stopped reading this thread to straighten up some paper piles.

      1. LBK

        I used to have to sort and process huge stacks of paper forms and even then, they were immaculately organized. There may have been 5 different piles on my desk, but they were always neat, perfectly parallel to each other and in the exact same spot every time I did it.

        I think most of it comes down to muscle memory – I rely very heavily on mine to be efficient and if things aren’t always in exactly the right spot, it throws me off completely.

    2. Adonday Veeah

      Our Executive Admin is like you. Her desk is preternaturally neat. (I’m sure she judges me by my office, and not in a good way.) One time I had to go into her desk to retrieve a key when she wasn’t there. Even her paperclips were neat. I did the most helpful thing I could think of — I mussed her paper clips. I like to think I made her life a little better.

      1. Kelly O

        There is NOTHING wrong with keeping your paperclips neat. I occasionally straighten mine up in the little container so they’re all facing the same way.

        Also if you mess with my desk, I will cut you. :) I kid, of course. Mostly.

    3. SH

      LBK – Horror story time. I temped for a company while they were between receptionists. The former receptionist left food crumbs and condiment packets everywhere. She also left an open bag of Cheez-Its. There were Lisa Frank office supplies (pens, pencils and organizers) in and on the desk. After I cleaned the desk (with permission), clients commented on how nice it looked.

  16. My 2 Cents

    In a similar token, at my first job, which was in a large, public building, I learned that anytime I walked anywhere in the building, regardless of the reason, I should be carrying a few papers with me. If my hands are empty then I look like I am loitering around, if I have paper in my hands then I look like I’m on a mission.

    1. Anonylicious

      Carry a clipboard and walk with a sense of purpose. People will assume a) that you’re busy, and b) that you have a right to be where you are. Learned that trick in the Army.

      1. Diet Coke Addict

        It’s truly shocking what you can accomplish when carrying a clipboard, a ring of keys, and a walkie-talkie. Those are the Holy Trinity of items, but any one or a combination of the above will encourage people to assume you’re doing something official and/or important.

        1. Case of the Mondays

          There is a great episode on “Trailer Park Boys” where they just put on hard hats and are able to walk into a building, start cutting it up and stealing the metal. No one questions the men doing work in hard hats.

      2. Kelly L.

        Corollary: Anything looks like work if you carry it in a manila folder, as I learned while swapping comic books with a friend who worked on the other side of our site.

    2. Cath in Canada

      “You can get into any building on campus by pretending to be a project manager coming to a meeting. Just carry a notebook and look worried” – head of our engineering department

  17. Jenny

    The whole messy vs. clean desk thing is super annoying. During my first two jobs I would share a desk because it was a newsroom and I’d have evening shift and someone else had morning. Due to that and because the desks were easily visible in the newsroom camera, I kept things very clean. If I had too much out, someone would send me a nasty note.

    Now I’m used to having a clean desk. But I have a VP who has told people that I don’t have anything to do because my desk is so neat. This is massively annoying because I can’t work with a messy desk, it makes me anxious. Plus, for the most part, my job requires very little paper. I do almost everything online. My DESKTOP on my computer is a mess. I have about a billion folders, files nad photos saved there. But my actual desk? I can’t handle mess. It stresses me out.

    I would never expect anyone to have a super clean desk unless their desk was in a very visible place or if it was more than just “Messy” but transcended into dirty – with fruit flies and an odor. Otherwise, the mess is fine – just don’t make me copy it.

    1. Dan

      …more than just “Messy” but transcended into dirty – with fruit flies and an odor…

      I currently work with this guy. I’m not a neat desk person, but that dude is nasty.

      1. Jipsy's Mom

        I work with that guy, too! I share a cubicle wall with him. Let me just say, the fruit flies – they don’t stay on their side of the wall. :(

    2. Ani

      Most of my life I’ve tended toward the messier desk. But within the last few years, I want everything to be super neat that is within my eyesight and peripheral vision while I’m sitting at my computer. Just outside of my peripheral vision I have stacks of folders and other stuff I haven’t organized. But especially when I’m dealing with bouts of depression it seems I especially need my space to be clutter free to focus.

    3. Who are you?

      Fruit flies! We have them in my office and since I’m the cube closest to the kitchen they seem to be all over my desk. GAH!!! I know it’s fruit fly season based on the weather here and there being no food kept out in the kitchen but OMG I want them gone!

      1. Lizabeth

        Take a piece of paper, make a funnel that will fit in a drinking glass. Fill glass with vinegar, just enough so it doesn’t touch the bottom of the funnel when you pit it in the glass. Tape the funnel to the glass around the rim. Fruit flies fly in, can’t get out and usually drown in the vinegar.

        1. Judy

          I usually take a small bowl, put vinegar with a drop of dishwashing detergent (to change the surface tension so they can’t land on the surface), cover with plastic wrap rubber banded on, poke tiny holes in the plastic wrap. Custard dishes work really well.

      2. Jenny

        There’s this thing you can buy at the hardware store (I found one at Home Depot) and it looks like an apple – but it has a solution in it and it draws the fruit flies in and then kills them. I had to get one because of a cubicle neighbor at a past job. It did help my desk fly free. It’s called the Fruit Fly Trap.

  18. Sidra

    I’ve definitely noticed that people with VERY sparse desks are not very high performers (from my perspective as a peer- I am not a manager) or they do everything electronically.

    When I say sparse, I mean no papers/charts on the wall, no reference books or notebooks out, etc. I also have a very clean desk, but could never have a cleared-out workspace just as a matter of course. I have books, papers, notebooks out- they’re super organized, but they have to be there for me to do my job. So yeah, I am skeptical of people who have nothing at their desk… What are they (not) doing that this is possible? It looks like they’re not engaged in stuff outside the basics.

    However, people with messy desks are similarly bad… Lots of motion, not much happening! Low-performing “camping out until retirement” types almost always have very cluttered workspaces.

      1. College+Career+Counselor

        +1 Back in the early 90s, I had a boss who was relocating to temporary digs for a couple of semesters while they were doing renovations on the building. He took the opportunity to, uh, reduce his hoard. I think he sent a 30 gallon tub of paper for recycling EVERY DAY for the entire month before he moved. The housekeeping guys started bringing a handcart to get it out of the office. Granted, he’d been in the office for 25 years, but still….

      2. Sidra

        Not a day goes by that I’m not glad I didn’t go into academia myself! I work with academics and that’s almost too close!

    1. LAI

      Agreed about the charts and things. Generally, I get a lot of visitors to my office so I usually try to keep the surface as clear as possible. However, I have tons of resources within reach – the wall behind me is covered in directories and other references that I use frequently, and I have a row of frequently used binders and files neatly on the corner of my desk. Yes, I could put them away in a drawer or access the electronic version, but if it is something I use several times per day, it’s usually faster and easier to have it within reach. In my role, if I had nothing on my desk it would either mean that a) I wasn’t doing that much work, b) I wasn’t experienced enough to know what I needed often, or c) I was wasting time pulling things up and putting them away several times per day.

    2. Vera

      +1 – This is what I came to post. There’s a difference between neat & tidy and empty & sterile. I am known for having one of the cleanest desks in my immediate area, but I have stuff posted on nearly every square inch of my cube wall, and my desk has neat stacks of folders, catalogs, papers, books, etc.

      I think it’s like how homes feel “lived in”. A desk should feel like someone has “worked in”. So whether you keep things neat or it’s a complete mess, you can definitely tell someone has been working. But my co-workers who have desks totally devoid of anything at all – maybe the sparse paper or photo – it makes me wonder if they have ANYTHING going on. I would agree with Sidra that most folks I know with desks like this are not high performers (not trying to make a blanket statement, just an observation).

  19. Anonylicious

    My desk is not the neatest (and it’s covered in Post-It notes), but my officemate’s disaster of a desk makes me look really organized in comparison.

  20. Mike C.

    I hate hate hate these “false morality tests”. If you want to measure someone in trait X, don’t measure them on (usually unrelated) trait Y, measure them on trait X. This is nothing more than stereotyping.

        1. Beebs

          Ah, that’s why my boss was carefully feeling the contours of the piles on my desk when I walked up the other day.

  21. CheeryO

    Maybe it’s because my company is obsessed with having hard copies of ALL THE THINGS, but I work with some insanely messy and disorganized people. During my first couple months, I was super organized, keeping everything in my gigantic filing cabinet save for whatever I was actively working on. I kept getting comments that I needed more stuff on my desk, and that I didn’t “look busy enough.” Now I keep everything on top of my desk in piles, and wouldn’t you know – I haven’t had another desk comment.

  22. Ohword

    My boss had to go in my desk while I was out and found what she was looking for right away. However, the amount of paper “made her nervous” and when I got back I was on desk cleaning punishment. For whatever reason, she believes paper is always undone work.

    The reality is I hate filing and I also hate being bored. I’ll put all my filing off during busy times and reorganize during a slow period that time so I have something to do.

    It does make me feel better to know others in my office have been on desk cleaning punishment before, too.

  23. Nanc

    My desk has many piles of stuff on it during the day because 1. it’s easily accessed when I need it–don’t have to keep diving into drawers and 2. The other folks in my office are desk-sitters and I don’t want ass prints on my desk. If anyone tries to move stuff to perch there’s nowhere to put it and I just point them to one of several comfy chairs if they need to sit and talk about something.

    I do put everything away at the end of the day–doesn’t take long and it’s nice to come into a clean work surface.

    1. Cassie

      I hate desk sitters. Some female coworerks do this. My male boss does this too. I hate it. They don’t care if there’s paper/files on the desk, they’ll push it aside and sit down anyway (or just sit on the paper which drives me nuts).

      For what it’s worth, I have a guest chair in my cubicle. Sometimes I’ll move it next to my desk so that they can’t sit on the desk unless they move the chair first.

  24. Adam

    Sounds like a case of sometimes you just can’t win. My desk isn’t usually very clean, but if I were neat all the time and people made comments how I must not be very busy due to lack of paper, I’d be tempted to respond by putting a big leafy plant on my desk with a name card in front that read “Here’s your paper!”

  25. OriginalYup

    I’m a tidy desk person myself, and I don’t generally notice other people’s desks unless they’re at an extreme end of the spectrum. So spartanly clean and organized that you could perform surgery there, or so messy that it looks like a landfill.

    That said, the only time I can remember making a negative judgment about someone having a very neat work space was a CEO that I despised. He was a horrible ivory-tower manage-by-numbers type who didn’t seem to have a clue what the company actually did. I worked on a different floor and had only interacted with him in conference rooms. Until one day I had to drop some papers off to his assistant, and I saw this spacious office filled with beautiful wood furniture and literally the only thing on his desk was a folded newspaper. No files, no papers, no notepads, nothing. For all I know he was just very tidy, but the sight of it was like gasoline on my existing rage fire that this guy was totally disconnected from any type of actual work or engagement in the company.

    Sp I can’t imagine that any reasonable person gives a hoot about extra clean desks unless they have some other axe to grind.

  26. MnGreeneyes

    I am a spatial/geographical organizer. I know which pile all my stuff is in and even where in the pile to find it. Has driven many a supervisor crazy, so I felt very vindicated when the school/university I now work at had a research study published on this very subject. :) http://carlsonschool.umn.edu/news/clutter-conformity-and-creativity-work

    Love that I now have ammunition when people complain about my desk (one way or the other). There is no right or wrong way to have a desk. Clean or “messy” both indicate very special traits about the person the desk belongs to!

  27. NK

    Now that I think about it, I do take note of someone’s messy/clean desk if it tends toward either extreme (mine is on the messy side FWIW), but I really make no judgments about someone’s productivity based on it. If I’ve worked with you a lot, I have a lot of other data points, and if I haven’t, I’m more likely to make a quick judgment (rightly or wrongly) based on how quickly you get back to me or how much you sound like you know what you’re talking about.

    1. Not So NewReader

      I agree, it is only significant if used in combination with other points. I pick up/clean up my desk and area every night before I go home. During the day, it looks like it got hit by a paper bomb. My boss says NOTHING. Her desk is much neater.
      Even the baseline that I go back to when I clean up, I am not happy with. But until I have time to hammer out a better system this is what I have. My boss feels that I am on top of things and she is not going to worry about it. I am sure if I were not getting results and if I were not on top of things her response would be entirely different.

  28. E.T.

    I’m pretty neat and organized. For example, if I can scan it and save it onto our servers, I hate having a paper copy cluttering my desk. I have multiple computer screens too (the office provided one, and I brought my own from home), so that makes it very easy for me to reference my files on the computer than printing physical files out.

    Well, this actually worked against me when we moved offices a few years ago. Because I don’t have the habit of covering my desk with papers and scattering fifteen files across the floor, it was assumed I didn’t need a large office and thus I got assigned one of the smallest offices. Okay, they were right, technically I didn’t “need” a larger office, but I was slightly upset I got penalized for being neat and organized. Therefore, when someone left the company and his empty office opened up, I immediately told my VP I wanted that larger office and, with approval, moved into that office the very next day.

    To make sure I “justified” a larger office in the event we ever move again, I now always keep a few files on my desk (in a nice orderly vertical line). I also took out the files I normally keep inside my desk drawers, put them on wire file organizers around the office, using them as office decor. My desk drawers now contain only candy and snacks and backup small office supplies like pens and post its.

  29. Mike C.

    Look, when someone makes a comment stating that the state of your desk directly reflects in your value as an employee, how do you all not reflexively tell the person talking that they are a complete idiot? I still cannot get over what a completely stupid thing that is to say.

    1. Cat

      I think it’s a mistake to take every comment with a “hint of negativity” that way. Sometimes people say stupid things that aren’t well thought out but that they aren’t meaning to be a direct reflection on you and which it isn’t worth escalating.

      1. fposte

        Right, a lot of this is what Miss Manners calls “blather.” Other examples that could be snarky but usually aren’t are “Leaving early today?” “Nice you get to go outside!” and “Oh, you’re lucky you can eat that.”

      2. Dan

        Why rage against someone that made a stupid comment?

        If you’re right and he’s an idiot, you’re coming down to his level and it reflects badly on you.

        If you’re wrong and he’s just making small talk or “blathering” as mentioned above, then you’re the idiot.

        1. Mike C.

          I was thinking more from the context of some higher up type actually judging people’s value to the company by their desk – if it’s just small talk between coworkers I see your point.

    2. Not So NewReader

      I think that sometimes people are trying to make small talk. Because they are very self-conscious or awkward they do not realize the ambiguity of what they just said. If a person’s desk is covered in work they could be valuable because of the demands on them. If a person’s desk is relatively empty they could be of value because they get things done.
      The key here is that the person may not be thinking in a negative context. I usually double check the look on their face or I put it in the context of the over-all conversation. Another factor to throw in is the source, as in, is this person known for saying klutzy things? Do they have a history of awkwardness?

      I worked with someone who had a superior knack for saying the most ambiguous things with the POOREST timing. Very seldom have I seen a person wearing blinders this big. He was totally oblivious as to how he sounded and oblivious to contexts he did not see or understand.
      Yet, when he did actually get the alternative context of his statements, he would be genuinely upset and apologize.

      BUT, if a person has a history of snark, you can take what I just said and throw it away. That is a whole different game. With those snarky people, I tell them to stop it.

  30. Snarkus Ariellius

    Can we please STOP trying to make personality-wide generalizations about people based on office decorum and desk organization?

    Maybe this is an urban legend, I don’t know, but I feel like some pushy consultant/motivational speaker somewhere fed some executives at a luncheon somewhere a bunch of garbage about how you can “read” someone by looking at her desk.  (You know how people like that always try to make up shortcuts to get substantive understanding of people and things.  Pigeonholing is faster than actually getting to know someone.)

    I wouldn’t pay them heed or you could do what AAM suggested, but if you do, I’d just leave out some blank pieces of paper and empty folders just to mess with people.  ;)

    1. Not So NewReader

      The last two jobs I had, the boss would drive by their employee’s homes. The idea was that how the employee kept their home was tied to the ethics of that employee. So boss #2 drove by my house and told me. I said something like “Sure, and I have not raked up my leaves yet.” He said no, leaves did not count. Leaves did not show long-term neglect. What he was told to look for must have been building disrepair/overgrowth of plants and grass/etc.

      But there are a few schools of thought out there that perpetuate this theory that the messiness of one’s work area or home is tied to something personal about them. I think it will be a loooong time before society as a whole shakes off this theory. (Notice I am not agreeing with it and I am kind of ticked about the drive-bys. But I also know that this manner of judging people is out there and it’s good to be aware of it.)

      1. Kyrielle

        Oh, and the people who were rending and had no control over repairs/paint and maybe were hassling the landlord about them must have loved that!

      2. Snarkus Ariellius

        You know what your boss did was totally inappropriate, right? I can’t tell how you feel about it because you seem so cavalier here.

        And I can totally see some overpaid, desperate consultant came up with this.

  31. JJ

    OP here- I guess i should say that my desk isn’t totally empty- i put my files back as soon as i’m done with them, scan things instead of keeping stacks of paper, and i have a bookshelf that i keep other items on so they aren’t surrounding me on my desk. My coworker is the complete opposite- there’s even stuff on the floor- she prints everything and whenever i have to look for something i feel like i need to breathe into a paper bag because i can’t imagine how anyone can work like that!!

  32. The IT Manager

    My desk looks fairly clean most of the time; although, occassionally printouts pile up. The trick is that all my data is online. I keep one large notepad with a pen on top next to my computer and that’s where I scribble everything. I am horrible about looking back at my notes though* so I keep the one pad and flip to a new page when needed.

    * Basically if I do not use my notes by the end of the day, I will probably never use them.

    1. Shortie

      I do something similar with notes, and my desk always looks clean. I keep one notepad on my desk where I can scribble things, but at the end of the day (or the beginning of the next day), everything on that notepad either gets crossed off or added to an Outlook task for future follow-up. Then the top piece of paper gets recycled and I start over again.

    1. Judy

      Once when my sister was at our house, she did some cleaning in her car, and her kids asked if she was going to be buying a new car.

  33. JB

    Yeah, this is one of those things that’s unfair because it doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation, and you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I know some people who have nothing on their desks only because they have minders–people who will remind them of what they are supposed to be working on and who will pull any documents related to it and then file them when not needed. And I know people for whom the amazingly cluttered desk and office reflected an inability to focus and a tendency to leave things undone.

    But it seems that for most people, it’s merely how you work.
    –Do you forget to do tasks if they aren’t on your desk?
    –Are you a piler, not a filer?
    –Do you like having everything you need at your fingertips and hate having to pack and unpack stuff every morning and evening?
    All of those mean your desk will be messy regardless of whether you get your work done.

    I like having stuff at my fingertips, but I also have noticed that when I have too much that can catch my eye, I feel like I have more work than I actually do. Like somehow having extra stuff to look at makes my brain feel like I’m drowning in things to do. So I try to balance between having what I’m most likely to need out and everything else put away. But for some people, having to get up and find documents is such a distraction that they lose concentration. Still others can’t focus at all on their immediate task if they have unrelated things in their sight line, and they don’t mind stopping to put stuff away or pull files.

    I wish people would focus on their own work rather than other people’s desks. If people are getting their work done and their office isn’t a safety concern,* who cares?

    *I have a coworker whose office looks like a bio hazard, and that’s where I draw a line.

  34. Clover

    We have a clear desk policy because my work involves handling a lot of sensitive information. I find it easier to just keep everything in my drawers rather than worry about which papers should be out of sight and which are okay to leave out. I’m not one for random desk junk/decoration (plants, photos, mini figurines, etc.) so my desk is basically empty except for my computer. My email inbox on the other hand is a mess, I am terribly at organizing my email!

  35. Laura

    I know exactly where you’re coming from, OP. My desk is immaculate – for that matter, so are my files, my drawers and my e-mail inbox. I get comments all the time about how I must not be busy because my desk is so neat. This isn’t the case!! I’m painfully organized, but it doesn’t mean I’m non-productive.

  36. Allison

    Gosh, you can’t win can you? People will judge you if your desk is messy, others will judge you if your desk is neat. I once had a manager who took issue with the drawers under my desk being too messy. Not sure he ever related it to my productivity, but for some reason it was a real problem that I never took the time to clean it out and organize it. Silly me, I thought I was in the office to get work done.

    Why can’t some people grasp the concept that different people thrive in different kinds of environments? Some people need quiet, others need (controlled) background noise. Some work best in the office, some work best at home. Some thrive on chaos, some need order. If a manager is concerned about a person’s productivity, why don’t they assess their work rather than make some lazy judgement based on their workspace?

  37. hnl123

    oh man, I JUST got an email from my boss to keep my desk more organized…. but my desk area is already Spartan bare I didn’t even know what to do but just rearrange the few things that were there. He said it made me seem disorganized….wth?

    1. twig

      This happened to me once! I had just finished cleaning off my desk leaving just the files for stuff I was working on, when my boss came into my office looked at my desk and asked me to neaten it up a bit.
      (His usual method of cleaning off his desk was to go through everything and hand it off to me for filing, working etc)

  38. Sarah

    I am a super-clean desk person because I am almost 100% paperless. I don’t like clutter so I keep tape, stapler, pens, etc in drawers. I have a few paper files but not enough to fill the two filing drawers in my desk.

    I have always dealt with comments about how I must be an insane neat freak (nope, just efficient) or must not have work to do because my desk is so empty. So I keep a to-do list and all my random phone call notes, etc. in a steno notebook on my desk, and usually leave whatever file I was working on open on my computer when I step away from my office. My productivity speaks for itself and eventually there are no more comments.

    PLUS I have a reputation for always being able to find/execute things quickly (thanks, computer search function) so without my even saying anything I’ve always wound up getting coworkers to go paperless and/or scan in most of what was piled up on their desks because they decide they want a more efficient system. I would NEVER tell anyone how to organize unless they asked, though, because I’m a big believer that whatever your system is, it obviously works for you.

  39. Frances

    I have always been a messy desk person (my jobs tend to involve the production and editing of printed material, so close to a print deadline there are drafts everywhere), but at a previous job where I also had some reception duties, I sat at a traditional style reception desk with the high front counter. My coworkers frequently needed to turn things in to me, so I had an inbox on top of the counter, but the system that I set up was to take things out of the inbox and file them elsewhere as soon as I saw them, so if I was at my desk, the inbox was empty. People were *constantly* walking by my desk, looking at the empty inbox and doing that “must be nice to not be busy” thing. I did try to smile and chirp “no, it’s all just elsewhere on my desk,” a few times, but it drove me crazy.

  40. danr

    When people asked about my desk and piles of paper, I said that I was waiting for diamonds, but I hadn’t gotten any coal yet.

  41. Lora

    Does it make a difference what your desk is cluttered *with*? I mean, at the moment I have to do the clean desk thing because I’m at a client’s office working with sensitive material that has to be put out of sight at the end of the day. But my home office is definitely cluttered with all the reference books that won’t fit in my 7′ tall bookshelf. And bookends, and vendor toys, and about a million different colored pens and Sharpies, a couple of watercolor paintings, a mobile of paper hummingbirds, a kite shaped like a giant bug, a comfy sweater and a smelly Yankee Candle. And at least one cat. The cat part is critical to my productivity, as is the slinky. Also a bunch of potted plants and sun catchers. And probably a really gross coffee cup. Now that I think about it, a tin of peppermints too…and a box of fudge someone gave me for Xmas that I still haven’t eaten…

  42. Mister Pickle

    It would be difficult – probably impossible – to get people to volunteer for it, but my Dream Project would be to analyze the computer desktops and filesystems of several hundred ‘random’ business-persons, and see what kinds of correlations might exist.

  43. AB Normal

    I think AAM nailed it!

    OP, there’s a lot of room between “stacks of papers tossed everywhere” and an entirely clean desk that looks like no work is ever done on it. I bet that if you kept a clean, organized desk that had some “life” to it — like others mentioned, a notebook, some neatly organized folders (I have mine in a horizontal organizer), or yellow pad, with some notes in view, people would stop commenting.

    “In practice, though, we’re humans and we draw conclusions from what we see.” It’s so true, and sometimes, it’s just easier to adapt a little bit so we can make it easier for people to draw the right conclusions.

  44. louise

    Am I the only one who started cleaning up a few things…? I have several piles I’ve been meaning to get to for weeks. In one of them, I found something I thought I’d lost permanently, so yay!

  45. Jen

    I have a friend whose office has a “2 item” rule. Basically, employees can only have 2 items on their desks at all times and the items have to be white. Everything else has to be tucked away in your desk. When she leaves a third item on her desk accidentally like a pen or a note pad, her boss will actually put it in her desk for her while policing the area for offenders. One of her coworkers was written up for leaving her office sweater on her chair after she had been warned to knock it off. There are a lot of other strange rules there, such as your employee number being tacked onto your cube wall or office door, rather than your name.

    1. Frances

      I would not survive long in that office (and that seems like a huge waste of the boss’s time to spend it counting items on people’s desks). I hope that job has other benefits that makes that kind of ridiculousness worth it for your friend.

  46. Kelly O

    I can’t remember where I read it, but I recently came across an article that said many times true productivity is calm, so it will appear to be sparse to many people. We’ve been wired to recognize stacks of paper as signs of work, and associate them with “busy” which MUST be productive, right?

    Granted, people organize differently. My husband is a piler, and it drives me nuts, as I am a filer. So we keep his piles contained and I try to not look at his desk too much. But for me, the idea is true. When I’m truly productive, I only have what I’m working on right then on my desk. If I’m composing a letter, I may only have a notebook out, but I’m still working.

    I cannot deal with clutter. It drives me nuts. In my current job the paper just never ever ends. It piles up faster than I can handle it, and some days I have to stop and deal with the paper so I can keep moving forward. There have been days my desk was just covered, and it drives me nuts. It’s part and parcel of this role, which is one reason I am so ready to move on.

    I’ve also worked in some places that have a Clean Desk Policy, meaning documents need to be put away and/or locked up daily. Most of us have offices with doors that lock, so we don’t have to stress so much, but when I was just out of college, my organized self LOVED having the justification to take fifteen minutes at the end of each day to put things away and get organized. So many times people look at you funny when they come in and you’re not just pounding away at whatever task, but are doing those “Quadrant II” things.

  47. J-nonymous

    I spent almost ten years at a company with a clean-desk policy. Because we might be dealing with sensitive client or confidential information, we were not allowed to keep anything on our desk when we weren’t there and every drawer had to be locked when we were gone. And if you were flagged as violating the policy, you could be terminated on the third time.
    I’m by nature a very messy and disorganized person (who is a born organizer of *tasks*). I (now) keep a damn clean desk surface, but god forbid anyone looks inside the drawers.

  48. Anon For This :)

    My boss is pretty clueless about my workload, so when I get caught up, and want a few hours “down time”, I pile useless paperwork and folders on my desk and make it look cluttered. In her mind, a clean desk = nothing to do. Works for me!

  49. JustMe

    I had a manager who perceived having a clean whiteboard to be a bad thing. My coworker told me this. I was too puzzled, because I liked having a clean whiteboard since I wrote all my notes, and kept a to do list on a notepad. Needless to say I still can’t stand him, and it’s been 5-6 years since he was my manager.

  50. Trixie

    I enjoy starting the day off with an organized desk and work area the same way I like to come home to an already-made bed. I find it so relaxing and calming.

  51. Unanimously Anonymous

    An old trick I picked up in my Navy days…before leaving for the day, stack the clutter in reasonably neat piles, at 90-degree angles. “He’s busy as a one-armed paperhanger, but dang, isn’t he organized?

  52. Shortie

    I have received these “must be nice” comments when people see my email inbox over my shoulder or when they notice that I always meet deadlines. It is very annoying. I am terribly overloaded with work (as is everyone at my company), but I either handle emails/tasks within a day or two if they’re quick (within reason; I don’t let them take over important project time), move them to a folder if they’re information-only, or move them to my Outlook task list if they require me to do something more substantial. So, I’m still getting just as much email and work as anyone else; I just don’t leave it in my inbox for weeks or months on end.

    1. Willow+Sunstar

      Same here. I just took over a job where all we get is in our e-mail. The person before me had 100 or so e-mails in the inbox and didn’t really organize very much. Over the course of last week, I whittled them down to about 10.

  53. Willow+Sunstar

    My company has a work remote policy, so for the longest time, I wasn’t even allowed to keep anything on my desk overnight. I now am finally allowed to put stuff on my desk since I moved to another department.

  54. K

    The IT department shares a very small room (literally used to be a closet) with the public access TV station at my work and it’s almost always disorganized somehow. The problem is that we have a lot of equipment that will be useful someday maybe but isn’t useful now, but we know as soon as we throw it out we’ll need it. We also need a lot of spare cables and parts for computers available for use at any one time. Since my supervisor is not an organizer by any means, it is my ongoing duty to organize and clean the office and make sure that I know where things are in general.
    As for my desk, a small server lives on it permanently (not my decision) but otherwise I try to keep it as clean and empty as possible (though with multiple PCs and projects running at the same time that’s not always possible!). I need space and cleanliness to work!

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