will I be judged for having a messy office?

A reader writes:

I wonder if you could say a few words about work offices/spaces. I’m the child of a hoarder and I fight the family DNA daily, but I usually have a messier office than most people. A previous boss with a minimalist office told me that “a messy desk is the sign of a disorganized mind.” In my opinion, her clean desk was a sign of having a really good secretary, and my messy office was a sign of growing up with a hoarder, and also perhaps of being a creative person — you know, like Einstein!

I’ve improved over the years, so the “clutter” isn’t permanent — it’s usually related projects that move from start to finish a bit too slowly for comfort but do eventually get dealt with, and there are a couple of out-of-the-way places that store “projects that have to wait until Jane is between projects” (and Jane is usually swamped). Still, I worry that other people will judge. If I’ve gotten behind, I’ll just laugh and say to someone who visits, “Can you tell I grew up with a hoarder?” I also worry that my boss will judge despite being messy herself.

The urge to purge always hits me after visiting my hoarder mother over the holidays, and things are slow at work. But the current boss who is messy also wants our weekly reports to show that we’ve spent our time our job duties. It’s hard to take a day “off” to do housekeeping.

Is it becoming more acceptable to be a bit messy? Please say yes!

I think it depends on how messy we’re talking about here. A bunch of piles that are reasonably contained? Not a big deal to most people. But an office that’s feels closer to a trash heap? A lot of people are going to judge that, and will think that it indicates disorganization or a lack of reasonable-to-expect discipline in your work habits.

If you’re not sure where on that spectrum you fall, you could always ask a trusted coworker or two to give it to you straight about whether your office has crossed over from pleasant disarray to alarming chaos.

If you determine you do need to tackle it (and at a minimum, I’d say there’s no downside to doing that, and there’s almost definitely an upside), I don’t think you need to spend a whole day cleaning up (although if you have a slow period where you can, that’s often the easiest way to do it — or even come in over the weekend and knock it out when no one else is around, if you’re exempt and willing to do it), but you could probably devote an hour a week to it and get through it pretty quickly … and then keep blocking off that hour a week going forward to keep the chaos from returning.

By the way, I’d actually avoid saying “Can you tell I grew up with a hoarder?” to people. It’s potentially going to put hoarding in their head when it wouldn’t have otherwise been there, and that’s not something you want to do.

{ 287 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Ask a Manager Post author

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    Reply
  2. Turanga Leela

    Fellow messy-desk-haver here. I take comfort in the fact that President Obama also has a messy desk, or at least he said so in a 2008 debate. We’re in powerful company!

    Reply
      1. NotherName

        In “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader,” Anne Fadiman describes the difference between her extreme neatness and her husband’s messiness. It’s really just a difference in organizational style – “messy” desks are often organized visually – some people like to see what they have.

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        1. katamia

          I’m definitely like this. I’m very much “out of sight, out of mind.” If something gets filed before I’m done with it (work papers or home papers), it’ll take me ages to find it because I just don’t think in file folders. And of course I grew up with a parent who was the total opposite and would often “help” me by filing things away where I would never think to look for them. *sigh*

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          1. the gold digger

            My husband and I have discussed his Leaning Tower of Visa Receipts many times.

            Signed,

            The person who moved every three years as a kid and never got to keep stuff so is for sure not in the habit now

            Reply
  3. RKB

    I will gladly clean anyone’s office for them.

    I’m a stress cleaner. I’m currently working on my doctorate, so as you can imagine, my house looks like it’s in a magazine.

    Let me clean things for you… I’ve totally run out of things to do myself :(

    But just a note: I am anal about organization but I never judge anyone else’s, so long as it’s reasonable and not 1) stinky 2) preventing you from doing your work (ie things getting lost in piles). While your environment does reflect your mind, it’s not the sole criterion to judge a person by.

    Reply
      1. Amber T

        Not stinky is majorly important. I didn’t get the sense that the OP’s office would be gross/disgusting, but it’s worth reiterating that point. We have a coworker who’s office is… terrifying, to put it lightly. Most people in my company love printing everything (EVERYTHING) out (RIP all those trees), but information in finance changes quickly, so packets of information become obsolete quickly. Our recycle bins and shredder bins are always full. Except one guy’s office… he literally has stacks and stacks of papers going from the floor to nearly the ceiling (he has to stand on a chair to reach what’s on top). He probably has information from well over a year ago (a completely different era in my line of business). For him, it’s more of a general laziness (and, probably, a bad use of time management). But our cleaning staff is afraid to go into his office now – they once accidentally spilled an old cup of coffee (that he should have just thrown out himself) over some old papers and he went ballistic. I’m not sure the last time his office has been cleaned… our cleaning staff generally does a quick wipedown of our desks and vacuums once or twice a week, but they only go in and grab his trash now. THAT to me is an unacceptable amount of clutter.

        I’m a firm believer in organized chaos – my desk may look messy to you, but I know where everything is and kind find anything in seconds. If your work is good and you know where everything is, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. If your boss brings up a messy desk or office, ask if he/she has concerns with your quality of work. If the answer is no, they’re just commenting for the sake of commenting (which is annoying as crap), shrug it off and keep doing stellar work!

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        1. Sadsack

          I think an important thing you mentioned is organized chaos. I am wondering if OP has had trouble finding things quickly, causing her to feel the need to make the comment about hoarding to someone who may be waiting for her. In that case, I would probably not leave with a great opinion of her (sorry!). My admin has a desk piled high with stacks going back over a year, waiting to be archived. She’s often right on top of things, but some things have been lost. Because of that, I started doing some things myself that normally would go to her because I don’t trust that they’ll end up in the right place.

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        2. Stranger than fiction

          Good point. Mine is messy but I know where everything is and my bosses have said its ok. We used to have a guy whose office was icky with plates of congealed food and old coffee etc. and everyone talked about it behind his back. I don’t have food or anything like that just papers.

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        3. Elizabeth

          I work with a man who has operating statements, schedules, advertising flyers, etc. in his office going back to 1985. I’m not kidding. A year ago he thought he might be transferring to another location and asked me if I wanted all that stuff!

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          1. the gold digger

            My husband’s parents moved from Pennsylvania to Florida a few years ago. When you move, you pay movers by the pound.

            Paper weighs a lot.

            My husband, cleaning out their house after they died last summer, found check registers from the 70s.

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            1. Office PigPen

              My family is like this. My grandparents had saved every tax return dating back to the 1940s. Each kid kept the tax return for the year they were born and the rest were shredded.

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          2. Shelby Drink the Juice

            I worked with a guy that had to have worked there at least 30 years and he had 30 4-drawer file cabinets full of crap! Plus his office was full of more papers everywhere. I felt bad for his manager that had to go through it all when the guy retired last year.

            I keep almost no paper at work, I keep everything electronic except the 4 PowerPoint charts I need to refer to consistently.

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        4. Elizabeth West

          That IS unacceptable–to the point of being a major fire hazard. Your office should take steps to help him clean up. Perhaps the papers he has in there could be archived elsewhere in the building so they remain accessible to him, and he could set up a schedule to do this regularly. My archiving of files took place in the week between Christmas and New Years–a similar activity could happen for your office during a slow time, if you close down then.

          We had a couple of people at Exjob who tended to clutter up their cubes to massively insane proportions. Every so often, word came from on high that they needed to purge or it would be done for them. Because we had an open office plan, anyone who came into the area past the front desk could see it. And our safety inspector was not pleased.

          Reply
    1. Nervous Accountant

      Not to piggyback, but what about having a desk that’s cluttered w too many personal things? Our office is mostly electronic s I don’ have piles nad piles of papers….I do however have personal items..a f ew pairs of shoes under my desk, a drawer full of snacks, a pile of medicines and lotions and vitamins and condiments behind my monitor… I’m usually good about getting rid of trash and useless papers.

      Reply
      1. Wendy Darling

        I actually had one entire desk drawer filled with over the counter medications and first aid supplies, and another entire desk drawer full of cables and adapters. Both of these were quite popular. I had Aleve and ibuprofen when the first aid cupboard ran out (which was usually) and meds for various types of stomach upset. I also generally had the cable someone needed, which was nice because IT was a 15 minute hike.

        I’d try to put that kind of thing away (perhaps an attractive storage box, if you’re out of drawers?) but I don’t think it’s a huge deal unless it’s very counter to the culture in your office. In my office it wasn’t abnormal to have a selection of hard liquor behind your monitor, and all the knickknacks my SO didn’t want in our apartment when we moved in together just lived at my desk, so I had various weird small toys at my desk.

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        1. Not the Droid You are Looking For

          In my office it wasn’t abnormal to have a selection of hard liquor behind your monitor

          Where did you work and how do I get a job there??

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          1. Wendy Darling

            A place with shite work/life balance, and you don’t want to get a job there because there were two reasons people drank in the office:

            1. they spent every waking minute in the office or on their way to the office, so they didn’t have time to drink anywhere else;
            2. sometimes you had to drink to be able to tolerate the job.

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            1. Honeybee

              Not necessarily. It’s not uncommon for people to have beer in their offices or in drawers in their desks at my job and in general our work/life balance is great. (Hard liquor is less common but not unheard of.) We have some left over from the morale events we do on our floor, and occasionally someone else is throwing a party and ordered too much beer so they share the wealth.

              Reply
        2. Middle Name Jane

          Um…I want to work in a place where liquor is allowed to be kept. Wow!

          I also have several power cords, cables, headsets, etc. that I keep in a small box. I’ve got a drawer that has a bunch of ketchup and mayonnaise packets, as well as pens and other office supplies. I freely admit that I’m a pen and binder clip hoarder.

          My desk is cluttered, but so is almost everyone else’s around here because the company bought new cubes that are smaller and offer next to no storage. I literally have nowhere to put things. So, yes, a lot of stuff sits on my desk. But it’s organized in stacks, and I work left to right so as things get done they move to the right until they can be filed. I’m a visual person. I like to see where things are.

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      2. Shannon

        I’d be uncomfortable with having the pile of medicines behind your monitor if they’re in view. I wouldn’t want my RX info out there and I would be concerned with identity theft from the labels.

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        1. Middle Name Jane

          Wendy Darling said the medications were over-the-counter, so I wouldn’t mind that (although I keep them in a drawer to save what little desk real estate I have). I absolutely would not keep prescription medication out. I have medicine I have to take with food, so that stays hidden out of view in my bag and I just take a pill with lunch.

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      3. Evie

        To Nervous Accountant: I wouldn’t worry to much about having stuff there, but maybe make sure that there’s room for people to get under the desk if they need to fix anything computer-y, and make sure if your office rearranges the desks to pack your stuff the you.

        Signed someone who worked in IT where there were stories about the desks you couldn’t get under because of too many shoes, and people how apparently didn’t want their personal items because they didn’t deal with them when a nominally big and throughly well communicated desk rearrange/office move was scheduled.

        Reply
    2. april ludgate

      I like the not stinky distinction. I’ve always been super cluttered and would tell my mom growing up that cluttered isn’t the same as dirty! Yes my room had books and clothes everywhere, but my sister’s room would always have food wrappers and moldy dishes and ant infestations. To me there was always a huge difference.

      But I did recently hardcore organize my apartment after reading “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and I’d recommend it to anyone who feels motivated to de-clutter. I found the personal anecdotes a little annoying, but the philosophy of the book was sound. I’ve kept my apartment clean for almost a month now using that method which is seriously a minor miracle.

      Reply
      1. VintageLydia

        I dunno, some of the testimonials in the book are pretty great. My favorite was the woman who realized she was much happier when the things that didn’t give her joy and were dragging her down and just plain unnecessary were finally out of her life–so got divorced.

        But yeah, love that book. A lot of it doesn’t apply to me but for smaller spaces/categories, there really isn’t a much better method.

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        1. april ludgate

          The testimonials weren’t the part that I didn’t like, it was the beginning of the book where she was talking about learning to tidy as she was growing up that just dragged for me so I ended up just skimming it until she started actually giving advice.

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      2. GreenTeaPot

        I’m reading that book now and making good progress at home. Work is another story. My last job involved a non-profit with a space problem. Previous managers didn’t throw anything out. There was no central filing system. Information could be found, but it was in many different places. The organization even rented a storage locker. During my five-year stint, we closed a satellite office, emptied out the locker, and tossed out computer user manuals from 1982. (Did I mention the bins full of 30-year-old postal receipts we threw into recycling?) We also adopted a records retention policy. I seldom had a tidy desk, but there was chaos all around. I think we tamed it. Now to tidy up my current desk…

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      3. Wendy Darling

        I’m curious — a fair few items in my life do not give me joy (LOOKING AT YOU PRINTER) but are kind of necessary. What does the book suggest one does about things that don’t thrill you but are necessary and don’t really have viable alternatives?

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        1. Olive Hornby

          It suggests that you rethink the way you look at them, basically–you recognize the work that your printer, toothbrush, etc. do for you and appreciate them for doing that work. That moment of appreciation (thanks, toothbrush, for making my teeth clean!) is conceived as a kind of joy.

          Not 100% sure I buy into this, but it does sort of help you sort the essential-but-not-joy-sparking from the non-essential-and-not-joy-sparking–if you can’t visualize what an object does for your life now, it’s safe to discard.

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        2. TootsNYC

          Haven’t read the book yet, but there’s also this:

          Does it give you anti-joy? Do you look at the cleaning supplies and think, “I know I spent $ on them, but I have too many, they’re crowding the closet, I feel guilty because I don’t use them”?

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      4. Middle Name Jane

        Thanks for the tip. My home is cluttered, and I’m trying to get rid of things I don’t need anymore. I’m gathering clothes, books, etc. to donate. It feels good to clear out things. My mother is a borderline hoarder (not a “Grey Gardens” or “Hoarders” tv show kind of situation), but her home is past the clutter stage and I don’t want to find myself in the same situation one day. It makes me sad because that’s not the type of house I grew up in. This clutter/hoarding thing started a few years ago, long after I’d moved out and been on my own.

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    3. Dorothy Lawyer

      You and I are very similar!
      My home was never as clean as it was when I was supposed to be studying for the bar exam… I’m admitted in two states now, so it wasn’t the worst strategy in the world — but it certainly wasn’t the best!
      Agree also with the statement about not judging – I don’t judge unless it’s actually dirty or you can’t function in it. Clutter makes me crazy in my own home, but I can tolerate it in someone else’s for a weekend.

      Reply
  4. Amy

    Definitely stop telling people you grew up with a hoarder. It’s pretty TMI and overly personal, and getting branded as an oversharer AND a messy person is not what you want. Some people might even leap to feeling you’re a little emotionally unstable with over-personal oversharing + hoarding both in the mix.

    Reply
    1. TheLazyB (uk)

      Also it doesn’t necessarily follow – I am very similar, although I’m better at work than at home, but some people go the polar opposite way and after growing up with a hoarder will then have a horror of any clutter at all.

      I would find you saying that as overly apologetic. And I am also an over apologiser!

      Reply
      1. Wendy Darling

        My SO grew up with a messy mother and turned into a staunch minimalist who hates clutter. I grew up with a messy mother and learned to throw crap on the floor.

        He keeps me in line.

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        1. Neat Freak

          I grew up with a messy mother and am now a neat freak.
          My husband grew up with neat freak parents and is messy.
          I’ve had to learn to meet him in the middle – I can manage SOME clutter up to SOME point.
          We’ll see what happens when we have the kiddos…

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        2. Stranger than fiction

          I grew up with a compulsive cleaner that smacked me across the face whenever anything was out of its place, so maybe that’s why I’m a bit messy now, some sort of unconscious rebellion perhaps? I especially hate filing at work and putting clothes away at home.

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          1. Wendy Darling

            HAH. FILING. HAH.

            I don’t have to file at work much but I hate filing at home. My organizational method is as follows:

            1. create massive pile of paid bills, insurance EOBs, etc.
            2. become disgusted with massive pile of crap on desk, shove pile into magazine box
            3. get disgusted by massive pile of crap exploding from magazine box
            4. throw entire contents of magazine box into paper bag, smuggle into office, dump in shred bin, hope I never need any of that.

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        3. Mallory Janis Ian

          My husband grew up with a mother who kept a spotless house and would absolutely freak out if she came home and the kids had messed anything up (a sandwich crumb on the counter, a toy on the floor, etc.).

          Our own house varies from lightly cluttered and a little messy (when we’re going through the workweek and being lazy about removing our piled-up shoes and socks from under the coffee table and other such household niceties) to somewhat-ready-for-company (we are NEVER perfect). Our pendulum swings from slightly embarrassing to probably-good-enough.

          My husband once told me that if I regularly freaked out about the cleaning like his mother did, we’d probably end up divorced because it would make him so traumatized from childhood flashbacks.

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        4. Elizabeth West

          I grew up with a neat mum and my room looked like a tornado went through it as a child. But I didn’t have smelly stuff, etc. in there. Every so often, my mum would tear through it and clean–as long as she didn’t throw anything away, I didn’t mind.

          I keep it better now but I’m still a little bit of a pack rat. This is something I need to work on. At work, however, my area is VERY organized, even inside my cabinets! It was the same at Exjob, though I had far more items in my space because of shipping.

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          1. Wendy Darling

            Oh yes, my mess wasn’t smelly or vermin-attracting. It was just that every paper, book, and article of clothing I owned was on the floor.

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    2. OP Messy One

      I don’t say it to strangers, just coworkers who have known me awhile. We had a family crisis over the hoarding a few years ago so a few of my work buddies know about the situation.

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        Still don’t say it.

        It can’t possibly help you, even w/ people who know the hoarding situation.

        I’m not so sure it’s even good for you, inside your own mind.

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      2. MommaCat

        Solidarity fistbump; I’m currently dealing with my hoarder-parent’s home.

        Being neat doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’ve worked hard to keep the clutter to a minimum. I second the idea of taking an hour a week, or 15-ish minutes at the end of the day, just to tidy up a bit. I literally used to set an alarm to remind me to clean.

        Reply
        1. OP Messy One

          Having watched someone descend from a dysfunctional environment to a totally non-functional (and dangerous) one, I tend to just be happy that everything functions for me. I think that’s why I worry about impressions because neatfreaks can be so judgmental even though their system wouldn’t work for me. If everything was in a file cabinet I wouldn’t remember where it is or would forget about it altogether.

          I do believe some of the neatest people I’ve known may have some kind of disorder, like OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder). I want to be healthy & functional but also respected by healthy and functional people. Is it necessary to be respected by people with mental problems?

          I guess it depends on how gossipy they are.

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          1. Not So NewReader

            You can build a system of labels and lists. Even a half-hearted attempt would gain you some ground.
            I have a friend, who I think has hoarding issues. It did not start that way. It started with delayed decisions or total indecision. She did not clean up her small mess and as the decades rolled by the mess got bigger. Now it is beyond her control. There are only one or two pieces of furniture in the house that are usable. Everything else is covered. You know the story.
            But what started as a small issue grew exponentially as the decades unfolded. I always say “There but for the grace of God, go I.” I have to keep on myself or I find that the stuff just accumulates. My point is decide not to let the clutter get worse, I know that sounds ridiculous to say that but it can take a deliberate decision not to allow crap to pile up more and more. Set a boundary or a limit and keep to it.

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          2. TootsNYC

            I think that if you’re functional, and if the mess shifts and changes, ebbs and flows as projects come and go, nobody’s going to make huge negative judgments. or, they’ll say, “Yes, but…” Yes, she’s messy, but things get done nicely by her.

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          3. Rebel Yellow

            You’ve expressed some pretty unpleasant judgemental attitudes towards those who are neat, in this and other comments. I think you’ve got some serious issues with this stuff that you could use professional help with. This is beyond “do I need to clear my desk to avoid people thinking I’m too messy?” territory. This is “I have very disordered thinking around cleanliness and mess” territory.

            Your conflation of OCD and neatness is also inaccurate and stereotypical, by the way.

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          4. Inksmith

            Is it necessary to be respected by people with mental problems?

            As someone with a mental problem, though not the one you mentioned, that comes across as incredibly judgemental and shaming, as though we’re somehow lesser than people who are “healthy and functional”. I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way, and I’m sure it does hurt to feel like you’re being judged, but you might want to think about how you phrase something like that in the future, because that came across as incredibly hurtful and judging.

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          5. Dr. Johnny Fever

            FYI, hoarding is often a manifestation of OCD. OCD doesn’t mean excessive neatness. It’s much, much more than that. (OCD person checking in).

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    3. CMT

      And has no bearing on your situation. I grew up with a hoarder, and I’m the complete opposite. I throw out everything I can.

      Reply
      1. OP Messy One

        I don’t hoard, but a tidy environment feels sterile to me. I don’t want to work in a motel room or a room that doesn’t belong to anybody. Some people can feel at home without anything of themselves in the room, which I just don’t get.

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        1. Not So NewReader

          “a tidy environment feels sterile to me. ”

          And that right there is key. It’s not all or nothing. You can have some decorations and some piles of work in process and that is fine, no problem.

          It is when your feelings are never satisfied that the problems kick in. Let’s say you have 10 decorative items in your work space. Are you happy or do you want to bring in more? I have friend that has at least 18 gizmos (trying not to give away too much info here) in her work space and more of the same type of gizmos keep coming into work. There is no end. Her work space looks like it is lined with toys. She has covered every open space with these items, she has no place left to stack her work.

          This is something that I have had to think about in my own life, at what point am I satisfied? How do I know when I have reached that point?

          For the work in progress, do the piles help you to stay on top of things or do they pull you down and make your job feel overwhelming? I can get a few piles. Then the circuits in my head go to overload and I have to clean up the piles at work. At home I can be a little more relaxed, but I find that I have to clean after a certain point. It takes a little longer than at work. And I will say that my house was neater when I was married. I think knowing someone else has to use the same area motivates me a bit.

          Reply
  5. AnotherAnon

    I actually do form an instant negative impression of people with messy offices. In my experience, these individuals tend to be disorganized in other areas of their job too – from issues directly stemming from their messy office (i.e. ability to keep track of and act on important paperwork) to issues with how organized they are in general (i.e. responding to emails in a timely/thorough fashion, efficiently planning and executing the tasks in their workflow, effectively structuring their day, brainstorming and producing on new initiatives, etc.). I’m not saying your workspace needs to take on an uber-minimalist look with not a scrap of paper out of place ever and everything expertly filed away in color-coded files – but there’s a continuum here, and I think you should strive for the neater end of it to reap gains in many areas.

    Reply
    1. OP Messy One

      hmmmm the things you list are things I never have trouble with. I respond to e-mails right away, I get my work done in a timely fashion, etc.

      One of my worries is that someone will judge by my office and then little mistakes will add to their perception. If someone with a tidy desk forgets an appointment or doesn’t respond to an e-mail do you more readily forgive & forget?

      Reply
      1. Shell

        I think it’s that a messy space gives something to point fingers at. Which isn’t fair, I know. If a messy person forgets a task, or loses a document, rightly or wrongly someone may wonder “well, would that task or document not have been forgotten or lost if the person was more organized? Was it forgotten or lost because the person couldn’t find it?”

        Which, again, isn’t fair, because just from this thread alone there are tons of people who know every inch of their chaos and could tell you which pile and which page Document X, Item A, and Report M is on. “Visible clutter” isn’t necessarily the same as disorganization, although it can be.

        We’re all human and we all make mistakes. But a lot of times the response to mistakes is “okay, what can we do to prevent mistakes in the future?” and for better or worse, “neatening up” is often seen as one way to lower the chances of making a mistake stemming from disorganization. I think losing a doc or task from a neat person can often be chalked up as “slip of the mind which happens to everyone” and the same mistake from a messy person will be thought of as “slip of the mind + messy factor”, the latter of which is seen as preventable.

        Reply
        1. Not So NewReader

          This is something to be very aware of. I had a friend who kept things that the company had instructed him to throw out. He was right in that it was a huge waste and very environmentally unsound. But he had been told to throw them out. Additionally he added stuff that would make the job easier. (Do you see the piles growing here?)

          Well, one day something unrelated happened and he got in hot water for Unrelated Event.
          And the boss added, ” and your area is a pigsty”. The boss was angry and hunting around for anything that he could find. Combining the piles of stuff with the Unrelated Event, the boss found grounds to demote my friend. It was a straw that broke the camel’s back. My friend went from being the Golden Child to being ostracized and mocked.
          Interesting part: His collections were not real bad, I have seen far worse. And like you are saying, he had family members with hoarding issues, so he had a raised awareness of the concern.

          In fairness to you, OP, I have to say that if you think it’s a vulnerable point for you then you have to rope it in.

          Is it right that people judge on messiness? No. Will they? Yes. And their judgement can come at the worst possible time and in the worst possible way. Please take my advice as advocating for you and your success. I’m not the neatest person in the world either.

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      2. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.

        Eh, I have always had a VERY messy workspace, the kind people comment on like “omg, this is a very messy office”, there’s not a soul in our workplace who would connect the state of my office to my work habits. At all. I have a killer reputation for precision, timeliness and organization. (And a really messy office.)

        I finally got bored of having the messy office a year ago and started throwing out tons of things and not accumulating more. (I have assistants who can accumulate things if I need them accumulated.) Then my amusement was people going “wait, where did all your stuff go???”

        That’s worn off so I might go back to being messy again. :p

        Reply
        1. Office PigPen

          Same here. I am just not a neat person by nature, and I find that as soon as I throw something away, I need it again. I also cannot throw stuff in the trash (has to go to the shred bin down the hall). It’s gotten worse since I lost my assistant and am behind on scanning the piles of paper reports (that are not available in electronic format — believe me, I’ve asked), but I’m sure my office horrifies the guy in the next cube who disinfects his desk every other day.

          My digital, work space, though — that is organized within an inch of its life. I cannot stand having things named in random ways or have to rely on Windows search to find things. People are totally flummoxed by the difference in my desk and my networks share.

          Despite this, I am somehow known as a highly productive person who rarely makes mistakes. ;)

          Reply
          1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.

            Yeah, I went paperless. All these years of society talking about it, and I realized one day it had hit possible for me.

            I have literally stopped accepting paper. If anybody tries to hand me paper *anything*, I say “I’m sorry, I no longer accept paper” and refuse their outstretched hand. I don’t accept any stuff, no teapot samples, nothing. People blink, A LOT, but I won’t take anything from anybody.

            The can email me the doc or a picture of the teapot.

            My office still isn’t neat! But it has 10% of the stuff it used to so it’s 90% better.

            Reply
          2. TootsNYC

            I also cannot throw stuff in the trash (has to go to the shred bin down the hall).

            I mentioned this idea elsewhere. It can to go into a trash can–for the short-term. And then the whole trash can can be carried down the hall at the end of the day to be dumped into the shred bin.
            Do what you need to do to manage the immediate paper in the easiest way possible, and then deal with the difficult part (the shred bin) later.

            Heck, you can even dump the non-confidential stuff that’s sharing the trash can into the bin, if that makes the whole thing easier. The idea is to make it so streamlined that you find it easier to do it.

            Reply
            1. Not So NewReader

              My boss and I rip our confidential stuff in half lengthwise. It’s easy to spot what needs to be shredded. And the ripped paper is kind of a code to each other that says, “I double checked and, yeah, I actually do want to shred this document.” We love our shredder, after years of a crappy shredder we got a good one. Both of us like to shred now.

              Reply
            2. Jaydee

              We have to shred confidential stuff, but for cost reasons are encouraged to recycle anything non-confidential. We have garbage and recycling cans in our offices that are emptied by the janitorial staff. I just keep a separate tray for things to shred and about once a week grab the whole pile and stuff it into the shred bin.

              Reply
            3. Office PigPen

              Yeah, I’ve tried several similar strategies without success. It can’t go into the trashcan at all because, if for any reason, it’snot emptied before 5:30-6 p.m., the cleaning crew will take it as regular trash. Can’t risk that. You also can’t “dump” stuff into our shred bins. They are locked and have a 2″ slit on the front of them, so you have to put the stuff in there a 1.5″ stack at a time, which involves removing clips/staples/binders. I don’t have a job that is conducive to spending that much time hauling/unclipping/stuffing paper into the locked bin. I chuck it either in a pile on the floor behind my desk or in a box and then try to limit it to one special shred pickup a month to keep the records department from hating me too much.

              Reply
        2. Cat

          Yeah, I think there’s a level where people learn how to react to you. If you have a messy office but do stellar work, they will learn that, for the most part.

          Reply
    2. ThursdaysGeek

      My cube would be considered messy, but I’m very organized. Nothing out on my desk is work, and I’m very close to working in a paperless manner. But I have toys, plants, and pictures all over the place. If you were to judge me by my desk, you might say I’m creative, or perhaps childish. If you were to judge me by my computer organization, where I work, you would see a completely different picture.

      Reply
    3. Cat

      Most people in my office have super cluttered offices and I’ve noticed zero correlation with actual ability to be organized – most actual organization is done electronically now.

      Reply
      1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.

        Yeah. I’m hyper organized in my electronic methods.

        I will judge people for a crappy file structure or mentally disorganized Googlefu.

        Reply
        1. Marcela

          Hahaha, you are right. I can live happily with my husband’s chaos, but I can’t look at his inbox or home directory. They are my version of hell.

          Reply
        2. Mike C.

          How do you keep a good file structure when requests/projects start out small and then grow vastly in scope on an emergent basis? Or maybe related stuff starts melding together.

          That’s my biggest problem – I’ll have little databases set up for small things and I’ll reuse them because the boss needs something right now and a few weeks later I have a giant mess and start over. If I knew ahead of time what the general scope was, I could properly put the time in to segregate different projects.

          Any thoughts?

          Reply
          1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.

            Hitting the nail on the head re challenges for electronic organization: planning based on scope.

            If somebody changes your scope, things getting messy fast.

            I am (mostly) in charge of or have birds eye view of scope and can plan either from the bottom up or am able to start flexibly enough to make changes-that-aren’t-massive when scope changes.

            I feel your pain. << is all I can say.

            Reply
      2. Mookie

        Most people in my office have super cluttered offices and I’ve noticed zero correlation with actual ability to be organized

        That’s me. Now and again I go into slightly compulsive cleaning fits that don’t involve organization and method so much as rapid, unthinking disposal of things. Purging to keep clean doesn’t make somebody productive, at least in my case.

        Reply
        1. Mookie

          To clarify, because that reads strangely: that’s me in the sense that the two aren’t necessarily related. Complex, messy-looking taxonomies aren’t necessarily illogical, just difficult to take in from the outside.

          Reply
    4. DMented Kitty

      I usually ignore any cluttered/messy desks when I work with someone (as long as I don’t share the desk) – I really don’t think about the mess or think much about the person unless it’s obviously affecting how they work – e.g. if I need a file and they frantically scramble around digging under their pile of clutter for five minutes and looking frazzled in the process; if I could see they are “in control” of the situation, I really couldn’t care less if your desk is a mess. If you work just fine with it, sure. But if it’s affecting productivity, maybe it needs some improvement. :)

      Reply
    5. AnotherAnon

      Perhaps I should give some examples to clarify. The people in all these scenarios all have at least one doctorate degree and high-profile positions:

      1) Large office. Four normal-sized desks all for one person. Desks all piled high with partially-filled coffee mugs, food wrappers, and a random assortment of outdated personal things mixed with work documents. Calendars on the wall from at least four years ago, never taken down. A clock on the wall with a battery that has long-since died. Floor unwalkable due to random piles of work-related documents and files everywhere, making for a precipitous task of navigating the arena. The owner of said office runs amok all day, at least a few days behind on his work at all times, and spends maybe 10% of his work time actually doing his job. The rest of the time is spent searching for files and on spur-of-the-moment tasks that are technically not part of his job.

      2) Large, shared office, with messy person’s belongings spilling over into poor neat person’s area (said neat person had less seniority than messy person, and seemed to avoid the office like plague, choosing to work elsewhere). One oversized desk that is piled at least two feet deep with unsorted piles of paper. I met with said person to go over paperwork and spent 30 minutes waiting for the owner of this office to sift through piles and piles of papers, not finding what was sought after. Then personally got blamed for not turning said paperwork in, though I had placed it in messy person’s mailbox right outside the office door just two days earlier.

      3) Small office. Paperwork piled haphazardly on the desk, then on the chairs, then spilling over to the floor. Hardly room for two people to sit down. Said person also had the habit of running at least 30 min late to meetings and not answering important emails until one sent a first, second, and third reminder.

      Reply
    6. Honeybee

      Honestly, I do too. But I’m not talking a little bit of messiness on the desk – but if someone has piles of papers everywhere and crumpled up old receipts and old empty coffee cups…my experiences with people who keep their offices like that (more than you’d think, given I was in academia so long) have not been pleasant on the organizational front.

      However, the advisor I had who was the absolute worst about keeping up with emails and actually getting tasks done on time was one of the most meticulously organized people I’d ever met. He just consistently underestimated the amount of time in which he could complete tasks and also consistently signed himself up for way too much.

      Reply
  6. The IT Manager

    I agree; do not mention hoarding or blame hoarder DNA. I also think if you literally need to take a day “off” for cleaning, you’ve crossed the line into too messy. Multiple small stacks of paper related to various project seem okay. Piles that seem like they might topple over and require a day to decultter have passed into too messy possibly some time ago.

    Maybe schedule an hour to clean up and declutter at the end of every week. If something is waiting for Jane to be between projects, the pile should be moved somewhere it’s not visible – file cabinet, drawer – and not just out of the way. In fact I think putting your piles away where they’re not visible would be a good way to deal with the image problem. Can this be stored in a file cabinet and pulled out when you need it?

    Reply
  7. GT

    If you want to comment on your office/desk space (which is totally up to you!) I’d go for, “I keep my clutter on my desk instead of in my mind.” As a person whose file system consists of stacking (and I know where everything is – even if it may look unattractive!) I feel you on the judgmental nature of some neatniks. As long as bugs and dust are not problems and you don’t lose things, I think you’re ok. I’m always envious of people with completely clear desks – I don’t understand how it is possible (but apparently it is!). I agree with Alison’s advice on dedicating 1 hour/week to start to dig out, if it’s something you want/you need for professional reputation.

    Reply
    1. StudentPilot

      I use “Please ignore my organized mess”.

      I try to spend a few minutes at the end of the day tidying up – even if it’s just straightening up the file folders with the work for various projects, putting away pens, or putting books back onto the bookshelf. I find it helps my desk look more organized. (ummm….but don’t ask me what my file cabinet drawers look like…)

      Reply
      1. littlemoose

        I would do that sometimes at the end of the day on Fridays. Coming back into work on Monday was easier if my desk wasn’t a hot mess. I’ve fallen off the wagon on doing this, and I think I should restart. Thanks for the motivation!

        Reply
      2. GT

        My problem is definitely “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to the drawers. If it’s on my desk, it will get done. If it is in a drawer, forget it! I think it’s definitely two different approaches to thinking/completing tasks. I’ve tried to switch over, and it lasts all of 48 hours.

        Reply
        1. Margaret

          I’m also have that issue. I think there are ways to keep things organized in a way that’s visible (to you) but not too visible (to others). I rely a lot on vertical organizers for file folders – then they can go on top of a desk surface or within a bookcase, but it’s easy to see what folders are there and recall what’s in them and what needs to be dealt with (one of my bookcases is half-height and basically behind the main part of my desk, so it’s even more out of the way to anyone else looking in!). Yet it’s still a bit more condensed and out of the way than simply piles on top of a desk.

          Reply
        2. Karowen

          I am right there with you! The second it goes in a cabinet or in a drawer, it’s not going to get dealt with again – including personal items, or even extra notepads. Instead I essentially have a (small) stack of to-be-dealt-with work, and then everything else is off my desk (or more accurately, in its proper place on my desk) by end of night.

          (I’m serious about the extra notepads. I wind up going to the supply closet to get more, then come back to my desk, open my filling cabinet for the first time in ages and am totally shocked by the stack of notepads I have. It’s a problem.)

          Reply
          1. StudentPilot

            We must share a cabinet – I have many, many, many notepads (of varying sizes!) in mine. And also a mini first-aid kit, tea, food (our building doesn’t have a cafeteria, and I’ve been here with no lunch when it’s been in lock-down mode), an umbrella, shoes, paper, pens, tape – the typical drawer things.

            Reply
        3. Mallory Janis Ian

          I’m the same with out of sight, out of mind. To me, putting the work in a drawer is the last step in the process and means that it is done. My desk-top file holder is stadium-style, so that I can see the titles of each folder. The folders themselves are a single step in the workflow (i.e. ‘Enter Requisition’; ‘Check for PO’; ‘PO Issued – Check Payment Status’, etc.). Once the workflow is complete, the document gets filed in a drawer for future reference. The person who preceded me in my job used a file drawer for work in process, and I never could remember to do the stuff that was in the drawer.

          Reply
    2. Gene

      I’m way at the messy end of the desk distribution because I’m a visual person and if I see it it will get done. If I file it, it will get forgotten. My boss, the verbal processor, completely understands and accepts that in me. An earlier supervisor of his was of the “Messy desk = disorganized mind” mindset. I had a good relationship with him, wo when he said that to me, I replied with, “So, by that logic, an empty desk signifies an empty mind?”

      It never came up again.

      Reply
      1. A Bug!

        Funny; as that quote’s often attributed to Einstein (with dubious authenticity), and the OP specifically mentions him, I came into the comments to point it out!

        Reply
  8. knitcrazybooknut

    I would really recommend checking out the NSFW website Unfuck Your Habitat. The site promotes a healthy approach to maintenance cleaning in place of marathons that drain your energy and make you hate cleaning. It may be that your past experience is coloring your thinking about what cleaning should look like. Could you devote 10 minutes a day to just straightening up? You might be more productive in cleaning if you set a timer for ten minutes and know that at the end of this focused time, you’ll be done for the day. If you do that for one work week, you’ve already cleaned for 50 minutes. I would bet that you could make a huge dent in your office clutter with that much focused time.

    I am seconding Allison’s suggestion to stop mentioning hoarding. You’re creating an association where there might not be one, and injecting extra anxiety into the situation. Your coworker may just see a busy person with many projects and relate to your workload instead.

    Good luck! And be kind to yourself.

    Reply
    1. Shell

      Seconding UfYH. I tried doing that last year but fell off the bandwagon. I really started to apply it this year and honestly, truly? Having a neat–maybe not spotless, but neat–space, at home and at work, has done wonders for how much I’m able to enjoy the space (especially if the tidying is for visible surfaces than in a drawer–the more I get to look at it the better I feel). Tidying my work desk takes about 5-10 minutes at most; at home it’s a little longer. And I’m not a naturally neat person at all (hell, cleaning my bedroom took about a week of little bursts at a time); it’s a retraining of my mind and habits from when I was 5 years old. (I refrain from telling my mother how she was right all along. :P)

      I was a controlled chaos person too; I knew exactly where Item A was in that pile and I could produce it without problems. So it wasn’t as if chaos impacted my productivity per se, but honestly, after a bit of retraining I could just as easily produce Item A in a similar stack within a filing cabinet, and the latter makes my space nicer. But no marathons! It really is just a little bit at a time. And do whatever you’re capable of to the degree you want it–you absolutely don’t have to have every surface clean enough to perform surgery on top of it.

      That said, I agree with Alison that it really depends on how messy it is. If your space resembles a health hazard it’s more important to clean/reorganize than if it is just a number of piles here and there.

      Reply
      1. Shell

        Oh man, rereading this I think I sound way too smug and espousing the “NEAT! TIDY!” mantra which is pretty obnoxious. What works for me may not for others, after all.

        But OP, if–not when, if–you decide you want to tidy up (or if bosses/external pressure forces it on you), short of your space being a health hazard it really doesn’t have to be a big thing.

        Reply
    2. olives

      I agree with all of this. UfYH especially – I followed the blog really closely for about a year, and it really helped me get past a lot of the weird excuse making, guilt and terror I had around cleaning up. I’d only ever done marathon cleaning, and really didn’t have a sense of how it could be otherwise.

      A few years along – I’m not a perfectly neat person! The UfYH lady would be disappointed in me – I rarely if ever make my bed. But I *have* reduced the clutter in my life significantly. And I’ve gotten to a point where I look at a pile and think to myself one of “I’m tired – I’ll deal with that later,” or, “Hmm, that’s starting to pile up – I’m going to take 10 minutes right now and see if I can’t find someplace to put these things.” The same sizes of piles used to produce so much guilt in me that I’d be more or less crippled in terms of actually being able to do anything, now mostly inspire me to clean things up again.

      And now, it’s at a level where I can use my space, I can enjoy my space – and while a tinge of the old guilt comes up periodically when I’m stressed and I want to make excuses to guests for the state of my house, I can mostly have people over (or into my office, looking at my desk) without feeling so protective.

      All this is to say: OP, there are so many of us like you! I absolutely think though that the key you really need to feel unlocked about this is *not* getting validation that it’s 100% okay to have a messy desk and have no one ever judge you for this. The real thing you need to get to is a headspace where your regularly produced mess feels like something you can handle, rather than something you need to apologize for to everyone you meet.

      Good luck, it’s a hard journey, but worth your while!

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        Totally agree, watch your feelings, OP. Feelings have a way of setting up housekeeping and taking over your life.

        Reply
    3. JB (not in Houston)

      Yeah, I’ve even done my home with a 5-minutes-a-day process, and although the progress was very slow, it was steady. I’ve also done a “today I will go through this one small drawer, or this one pile of things, or this one [other small area]” method, and that worked too. Focusing on a small amount of time or a very small area to organize makes it manageable.

      Reply
  9. Pwyll

    Are you naturally a “pile” organizer? Do you know where everything is in your “messy” office, despite paper being everywhere? I work in a place like this right now, with people who literally know the document I need is 3/4 of the way down on the pile in the top right corner of their desk, and if I asked them for it they’d produce it (perhaps faster than if it were stored meticulously in a file cabinet). If this is you, and we’re not talking gross trash or safety hazards, I think it’s the type of think you can laugh about by saying, “Controlled chaos!” instead of anything about being a hoarder. And if you’re in a creative career, I think you have even more leeway to talk about right-brain vs. left-brain and all that. But you’ve got to be able to deliver with that sort of attitude too: and if your messiness makes it that you lose important documents or seem frazzled and disorganized, you really are going to need to address that and not make light of it quite as much.

    Reply
    1. OP Messy One

      I really hate file cabinets! They are like graveyards to me. If something is finished I don’t feel the need to keep any of it (especially since most of my projects are in computer files anyway). If something isn’t finished, putting it in a file cabinet is like saying “I give up. I’ll never do this.” I’d rather just make a conscious decision to scrap a project and throw it all away.

      But… I do need to have go-to projects for when things get slow. I don’t like not having something to do.

      Reply
      1. knitcrazybooknut

        One thing that works for me is having a file in a cabinet and putting a reminder in my calendar for a day I might have time for it. That way the job is out of the way, but it’s still in my visual path, so to speak. Helps me bring it to top of mind without being visible to anyone else.

        Reply
      2. Ad Astra

        That’s how I am! I have ADHD and recently read that people with ADHD often need important stuff to be visible because they tend to forget about whatever it is they can’t see. That’s not to say you necessarily have ADHD, but your aversion to cabinet files may be for a similar reason. I’ve found that having sorting trays on my desk can really help because I can still see the documents. I also strongly prefer to do things digitally instead of on paper if I can, since my computer has a search function.

        Reply
          1. JAM

            That’s what I do. I have one stacker hold my piles (and if I get too many of those it means I’m doing something wrong) and one stacker hold all my project notebooks and to do lists. I’m mostly paperless so this is basically just active projects that have non-digital work. I take 5 minutes at the beginning and end of each day to put everything in the stacker or pull it back out and get to work. During the day my desk may be organized chaos but when people see it on their way in or out it looks contained. It makes people assume I am working harder but not letting things slip between the cracks, even though I was doing that just fine before I got my stackers.

            Reply
    2. Cath in Canada

      This is me! I have various piles of paper, but know what’s in each one. I also currently have a notebook, mug, kettle, box of tissues, empty snack bowl, three bananas, a framed photo, my phone, and a bike light (plugged into computer’s USB port to charge) on my desk at work.

      Funnily enough, I’m absolutely meticulous about keeping my computer desktop uncluttered and my electronic files and folders hyper-organised, but this just doesn’t translate to the physical world for me for some reason. I’ve been that way since I was a little kid and couldn’t really find a good explanation to give to the teacher who wanted to know why my drawer was so messy. But even then, I always knew exactly where everything was!

      Honestly, as long as your mess isn’t bad enough that it’s affecting anyone else (paper cascading onto their desk / smell / ants / losing their documents in the clutter), you’re *probably* fine, although it will depend on your office. And if anyone uses the cluttered desk/cluttered mind line on you, ask them what an empty desk signifies!

      Reply
      1. Cath in Canada

        Forgot to add that a former boss (whose office was waaaaay messier than my desk) once told me “the only person I’ve ever met with a bigger stack of unread scientific papers on their desk is [Nobel Prize winner my boss used to work with]”. I just smiled and said “thank you!”

        A guy I work with now has an office that’s a perfect little oasis of calm and neatness in a busy, messy building. Not a thing out of place, classical music playing softly in the background, and he always has perfect posture and perfectly pressed clothes, and greets everyone with a serene smile and a polite “good morning, please do come in”. I once went in there during a major deadline crunch, and he had a slightly rumpled shirt and not one but TWO pieces of paper on his desk! I almost blurted out “OMG ARE YOU OK?!”. So it’s all relative…

        Reply
  10. Roscoe

    I hate this. Some people are neat freaks, and some people are cluttered. I’m the latter. Thing is, I can often find something in less time than it takes my “organized” peers to do so. But then you have those managers that think they only way to work is the way they find best. These people are often neat freaks. I think it depends on your job honestly how much you will/should be judged. If you have a very results oriented job, then I don’t think your office matters that much as long as your results are where they should be. If you have a job where your results are not easily quantifiable, it will make a much bigger difference.

    Related story: I was a teacher one year, and I took a sick day. One of my supervisors who ended up subbing for me that day actually decided to “organize” my desk for me. What was funny is that even though it was messy, she texted me with a question about where something specific was and I could give it to her. Afterwards, we actually had a conversation, and she gave me her reasoning on why she cared. Essentially she said that part of what i needed to do was model organization to the kids I was teaching (jr. high level) and even though it worked fine for me, that wouldn’t work for a lot of kids who saw my space that way. I was actually ok at that point with her logic and made an effort to be neater. It was a compromise.

    Reply
    1. Jennifer

      Yeah, unfortunately this one is in the eye of the beholder. If your boss has a totally empty desk, you’re probably better off having a totally empty desk too. Or at least keeping your papers out of sight.

      I’m an organized pile person myself—if I file something nice, neat, and away I’ll never see it again–but in our world, neatness wins no matter what, same as early birds always win over night owls.

      Reply
  11. CaliCali

    I think there’s a line between messy and filthy. I don’t have a super organized office — I’d say it’s a bit messy (small piles of paper on the desk are no big deal to me), but I make sure trash goes in the trash can, food items get thrown away or put away, silverware is put in the dishwasher, etc. I’ve only ever had complaints once, very early in my career where other people needed to find things on my desk, and my lack of organization was making that harder. If you show an organized thought process, the state of the office probably won’t undo that perception. If you’re scattered and hard to understand, the state of the office will be added to that perception.

    And I agree about not bringing attention to the hoarder thing, because it’s operating on shaky ground. You could have coworkers struggling with hoarding themselves or with family members who hoard, and while a somewhat jokey, cavalier treatment of the issue might be how you cope, it may not be for them.

    Reply
  12. Jen

    I am someone who has to have a clean workspace or else I feel like the walls are closing in on me. My house is messy due to having two young kids and a messy husband so my office is my nice clean orderly space in life. But I have a VP who thinks “A clean desk is a sign of an empty mind so I have a stack of papers/magazines I leave on the corner of my desk for when she’s around.

    Reply
  13. LQ

    I’m a fairly neat person (actually I’m more minimalist than neat, if I don’t have it, it can’t be messy) and I’m unbothered by clutter unless the person can’t find things, it smells, or it looks like a health hazard. Saying the thing about growing up with a hoarder would make me wonder if all three of those were true, I’d look again, even if I hadn’t noticed it the first time. I get that you’re trying to explain it and brush it off. Are you saying this when people remark about it? If people are frequently remarking about your clutter then it might be time to consider if it is too much. If you are saying it because people are looking around make sure that they have a spot to sit that is clean, if that is your office. If you just have a cube and you frequently have people come over to talk to you make sure there is some space to put something down. If you really have to say something try, “I can find everything I need.” or something along those lines.

    Reply
  14. Temperance

    People who associate neatness with perfection and intelligence are like the people who associate waking up early with fastidiousness and responsibility: they are wrong, and they are so darn annoying and smug about it.

    I grew up in a very cluttered, disorganized home and never developed the neatness gene that people who grew up normally seem to have. What works for me is attacking messes and clutter in spurts. I take 15 minutes and go through one drawer or pile, and I do it while I’m in between other tasks (so I feel refreshed afterward, not annoyed about cleaning).

    Reply
    1. LQ

      I think so much of this is where along the spectrum you fall. Since I’m farther along the neat end I hear a lot of not enough work and not creative things comments and I hateses it. But I’m neat so no one is going to tell me that a disorganized desk is a sign of a disorganized mind because it wouldn’t make any sense. I think a lot of that is the person who would say something like that will find something else to tell me than you. It’s a spectrum, but as long as people can find what they need there is no reason to lash out at us early waker upers or not have a lot of stuffers. Just like it’s none of my business that your office has more stuff than I have in mine or that you stay up until 3 am. It’s easy to fall into the trap of it when you hear someone else snark about your life, but most people don’t, they don’t say anything, so you don’t remember.

      No one wants to tell the story about they got up and went to work and everything was fine and they went home and everything was fine and they went to bed the end.

      Reply
      1. Temperance

        I will admit to having made such a comment in the past about one of my coworkers (our office manager has time to walk around telling people that they can’t keep a tiny and neat pile of NAPKINS on their desk, yet she has no time to handle the “special projects” she insists that we do), but honestly, I agree with you.

        I think I’m fortunate in that my boss doesn’t care that I’m forever 15 minutes late when we don’t have an early meeting, and that she doesn’t care about the stacks of junk and papers in my office so long as I get results.

        Reply
        1. LQ

          It’s hard to remember all the times no one cared because they go right under our radar. Your boss, my current boss. Most of the people don’t comment. It stands out because it is unusual. I also think that’s why so many people are commenting about the OP not saying the thing about hoarding. That sort of pushes it into the realm of A Thing That Should Be Discussed and out of the realm of why is the person commenting on my workspace when everything is fine.

          Reply
    2. irritable vowel

      Yes, so many of the insignificant things that people get judged about at work have a moral component incorrectly attached to them. Messiness is one of them, not being an early bird is another. I know there are people at my workplace who judge others for being untidy because untidy=disorganized in their minds, just like starting work later in the morning=lazy (even though obviously these people, *ahem* I, stay later in the day!).

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        ” a moral component incorrectly attached to them.”

        Oooh, this is one of my hot buttons.

        You don’t brush your teeth because it makes you a good boy or girl. You brush your teeth because it saves you money at the dentist, and pain, and preserves your ability to eat ice cream (bcs you don’t have sensitive teeth).

        You pick up your toys so they don’t get broken. And so they’re not in the way when you want to play with something different.

        You file things so you can find them again. So they don’t get lost. Or ripped.

        Not because it makes you a more moral person.

        Reply
        1. Not So NewReader

          I am chuckling. I have a friend who has not cleaned in … quite a while. She is one of the kindest, sincerest people I know. She would give you the sweater off her back, and you two don’t even know each other.

          Many, many factors go into one’s morals or one’s ethics. To use one single point such as messiness/neatness is really absurd. Additionally, we all have at least one point we are not really strong on, so using this logic then we are all moral failures. Which, of course, is simply not true. We are human with different strengths.

          Reply
      2. Temperance

        I sometimes get snarky comments about my lateness (15 minutes), but not from my boss, who knows that I regularly work late and through lunch, and that I show up at 6:30 a.m. when I need to. I don’t really care what the secretaries think about my work and schedule, but it’s still annoying!

        Reply
  15. littlemoose

    I agree with AAM’s suggestion to devote a small chunk of time to the organization effort in your office. Maybe just a little time at the beginning and end of the day, or over lunch, and that would add up for you without seriously impacting your productivity at work? You could set timers on your phone and dedicate 15 or so minutes to it, and then move back to work tasks once time is up. I think it’s worth doing, not just for the sake of appearances to others but also for practical purposes. What if you fall ill or are out of work unexpectedly, and your coworkers need to find things? If your office is really disorganized, that will be a headache for them and could be deleterious to the business. Maybe focus on organizing the “what my coworkers would need if I won the lottery” stuff first.

    I’m sympathetic to the paper clutter – I fall into that trap too, even though I generally do know where things are. Personally, as long as it’s not yucky stuff like food containers left to sit (which I have seen in a couple of coworkers’ office before, gross), there’s no bug issues, and you can find things quickly, it’s not that big a deal from my standpoint. But I think it may still be something to work on – we all have things to work on like that.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      When I started the job I have now, I would spend 4-5 minutes picking up just before I left. I’d put pens and scissors away, file the files and so on. My new boss noticed. She said, “You don’t have to do that.” I said that I kind of do, because my computer is the master computer and she has to turn mine on before hers. Sometimes it is just easier to do the task at my desk, rather than turn her computer on also. So my papers should be filed and my desk cleared off enough for her to sit down and do a few small tasks.
      I could do better about the stuff around the perimeter of my desk, but I always have areas that she can set down a file and work with the file. I am hoping at some point to clear up the other stuff on my desk.

      Reply
  16. Not the Droid You are Looking For

    This is definitely one of those situations where being in the creative department works in my favor. Even my most neatnik boss would just take a look at my office and say, “the creative department must be so busy!”

    I do set aside the last few hours of my Friday to organize my project list for the next week and straighten my space.

    Reply
  17. I'm Not Phyllis

    It definitely does depend on how messy you mean. For example, my desk can certainly get messy when I’m busy and don’t have time to file or clean, but my office itself is generally not a messy place (no piles on the floor, I can find all of my electronics without moving anything, no dirty dishes or old food). Rightly or not, know that if your office gets too out of hand, people will talk about it and that’s not necessarily the kind of attention you want. Granted, it will probably be overlooked if you’re otherwise organized and able to meet your deadlines. I would suggest following Alison’s advice (and just ask!) or taking some time to really clean it – even if you can only spare 10 minutes a day, if you do it consistently it will make things much better.

    Reply
    1. I'm Not Phyllis

      Also, I think there’s a bit of a difference if you have your own office with a door and if you have a cubicle. Not sure why I feel that way but there you have it.

      Reply
  18. TotesMaGoats

    When I worked in admissions while an undergrad I worked directly for the dean of admissions. He was by far the messiest person I’ve known in a long time. His office was a pigsty. Every summer for four years, I would go in and clean up his office. Throwing out cups, old papers, organizing things, filing magazines. There were just stacks and stacks of things. It was a running joke on campus about how messy he was. But he always got his stuff done and never lost anything. He’s now the VP for Enrollment Management. So clearly not a hindrance.

    However, I’ve had friends who verged on being a hoarder at home, though I don’t know what their office was like. My sister and I helped them pack up their house to move and also helped paint most of the lower floor. It was disgusting. They never threw away anything. Unopened DVD’s and VHS tapes. CDs still in cellophane. Really old newspapers on the kitchen table. They were also chronically late to everything…even the funeral of the woman’s father didn’t happen on time. (True story). I often wondered how both managed to keep their high paying jobs. Their reputations were as unreliable and generally messy. YMMV.

    I would stop saying you are a hoarder. Taking 30 minutes or even an hour each week to straighten things up isn’t “not working”. It’s part of doing business.

    Reply
  19. Liz L

    I come from a paper heavy work environment where everyone had a messy desk/office. If you were too clean, they suspected you didn’t have enough work to do. I say have a look around at what the average desk looks like and try to keep from being too extreme either way. But at the end of the day, work with what’s best for your productivity, not other people’s perceptions and assumptions!

    Reply
  20. Bowserkitty

    Previous Boss loved telling me to keep my desk clean, yet she was constantly cluttering it up because the mess of her own desk was too much for her to handle. It was always just papers.

    Since getting New Job I felt insecure, at least until I had a peek at all of the other offices around me as I’d walk by them on a daily basis. It helps to work around doctors. Mine is a little disorganized at the moment but I feel better…

    Reply
  21. Sibley

    I’ve been in a lot of offices, in a lot of companies, in multiple states, and I’ve seen a lot of messy desks. I also had a coworker who 100% came down on the “your workspace is a problem” side, so I’ve seen in practice. I’m on the neater end of the scale, but here’s my observations.

    Signs it’s ok:
    – you can find what you’re looking for quickly
    – papers are in distinct stacks/piles that don’t look like a toddler put them together.
    – visitors to your office over a few days will see signs of progress
    – visitors aren’t distracted by your stuff
    – nothing is falling off tables, chairs, etc

    Signs you’ve crossed into a problem:
    – you can’t find things
    – the fire marshal/building engineer has a problem (that’s a bad one)
    – coworkers close your door so visitors won’t see your office/avoid your office
    – papers everywhere, and it looks like a tornado deposited them
    – everyone who visits says something about the mess (wow, you’ve got a lot of paper, etc)

    Suggestions:
    – try sticking each project into it’s own folder or whatever.
    – you mention projects that are low priority so you never get to them. Maybe they should be abandoned, and thus cleared out? or given to someone else to do? or just get them done?
    – can you scan documents in and save them digitally? Some things you just need for occasional reference, or need to keep for whatever reason, but don’t need sitting around. or send stuff to the file room, or offsite storage, etc.
    – I get that you feel bad spending a bunch of time cleaning up, so instead of spending a whole day on it, try spending 15 min or whatever per day. Pick a spot, a pile, whatever and go through it. You could also spend the day on it then tell your manager that you’d gotten fed up with it, and just needed to clean it out. An annual clean out is not a bad thing.

    Also, you mentioned that your mother was a hoarder. Consider if a therapist or something could help you identify any tendencies you may have, develop coping/cleaning strategies, work through your emotions towards stuff, and how to recognize what’s an “ok” level of stuff vs. too mcuh. This is worrying you, and talking through things with someone who has some experience might help.

    Reply
    1. Ineloquent

      In your list of ‘bad’, I’d include that proprietary info is out and unsecured. Bad no matter how clean you otherwise are.

      Reply
      1. hamster

        Oh my god true. At one job i had a person who was assigned to manage security or whatever and would hold you if you breached clean desk policy. AKA unlocked computers of client files on the desk unsupervised. each had a closed rollbox with drawers for this. of course no-one is 100% clean desk all the time.I used to stick stuff in one huge notebook ( staple, scotch, just stuff ) and closed that one in the desk . Overtime it was rather fun because this way i curated some know-how based on that notebook .In the end it became so useful people came to me with questions knowing that “it is somewhere in hamster’s notes”. Each time i went over one pice of stuff again and again i could see how my knowledge changed and /or improved on one subject and i had like a small history of process ydf ( how is done, what issues, what it was done beffore previous issues) . I started having a crearing picture on things because of this forced order

        Reply
    2. OP Messy One

      I think I’ve managed to stay on the side of productive & organized enough for my ways. I do tend to feel more comfortable with clutter around me, so I’ve never been able to be one of those clean-deskers.

      Having dealt with mom’s problems has changed my focus to functionality & safety, which I agree with you on — stuff sitting around on a table or desktop don’t keep me from getting to a fire exit and since they tend to be my future or current projects and not collaborative projects, other people aren’t affected. But… there is a prejudice against messiness. Having thought about these piles as projects and not messes, I’m considering just putting labels on them so at least they look like productive messes.

      Reply
  22. CaliCali

    Also, to mention something cautionary about taking it too far — I once had a coworker who had a shared office space (like a room with four cubes in each corner) and had boxes and boxes of old documents, who insisted they stay there until she could go through them and sort (which would have taken at least a couple of days, it was that many boxes). They were there for months and months — she often wasn’t working at that desk. After a while, a strong, terrible smell started coming from behind one of the box piles that was against a wall. It turned out that a RAT had chewed through a box and made a NEST in one of them. They had to call in an exterminator, destroy the box and all the surrounding boxes that had since become biohazards, and replace carpet, drywall, and other things the rat and rat by-products had contaminated. So not only did she end up losing most of the documents anyways, she contributed to a huge office issue that cost a lot of time and money to fix.

    I doubt you want to be the person who someone, 10 years later, is talking about on a work blog as a cautionary tale, so if you’re at a somewhat-messy-but-not-literal-box-piles level, I’d make sure to keep it there.

    Reply
    1. OP Messy One

      I’m not that person, fortunately! There are some things waiting for me to go through them, but we do have slow spells here when I can do that. The piles are rather small in my opinion but there are quite a few of them.

      Reply
      1. CaliCali

        Excellent! And yes, I find an approach where I chip away, bit by bit (see the UfYH shoutout above) really does help a lot. For me, the goal isn’t to be spotless, just to feel comfortable in my space and to have OTHERS feel comfortable in that space. My piles tend to accumulate with active projects, but once the project is over, I usually do a bit of cleaning and purging — and my projects are 1-2 months long, so it works out fairly well in keeping things relatively sane.

        Reply
      2. hamster

        If you do not acess all of them stack them in 4 folders. or binders or boxes 1 -Current 2- Next 3 maybe 4 Refernence. I was mostly digital but we were disorganised at my oldjob. At one meeting they asked each of us 1 simple thing to get that will help us. I asked for a personal whiteboard where i wrote in colors what we had to do now/tomorrow/ next week / in 4 months plus other miscelannea. It got SO popular that other people in my team would come and write stuff. So much better than just piles/outlook reminders ( which are look at me now and then you close the window) . Plus i could do all sorts of drawings from system architecture to flowers butterflies etc.

        Reply
      3. TootsNYC

        It sounds like you, personally, are in pretty good shape.

        I think that when the mess ebbs and flows, rotates, gets straightened up when times are slow, and things are usually found, there’s not that much criticism or negative judgment.

        Reply
  23. Kristine

    I too am a messy desk person. I have 3 piles: 1) Relevant paperwork (which gets filed away when it’s no longer relevant), 2) a small cluster of snacks and coffee (which gets smaller throughout the day and replenished each morning), and 3) crap my boss asked me to hold on to for her and then never came back for but refuses to let me touch.

    Funny enough, even though my desk is probably the messiest of anyone on the team, I am without a doubt the most well organized in terms of project notes and statuses.

    Reply
    1. hamster

      How is that messy? I mean you have 3 mental areas , nothing crosses over. I would literally tape the zones with colored tape but i start to believe i am ( nature or nurture i don’t know why) more methodical than most

      Reply
      1. Kristine

        My desk is really small so those 3 piles take up the entire thing. If anything else gets added (like a package I have delivered to the office) then it looks overwhelming. Maybe it’s just messy in comparison to everyone else. None of my teammates have anything on their desks other than their monitors.

        Reply
        1. hamster

          Yeah i see those pristine empty desks and wonder if people work there. But i would use some vertical stacking dividers for magazines to keep papers ( especially those for the boss) and a box/drawer for snaks ( coffe cup being exception allowed to sit near my proximity. But really empty desk not the same thing as organised desk. I guess it also helps because i like to stack things neatly , so even if there are there my things look like they belong there

          Reply
          1. Elizabeth West

            I would do the same–and have a little holder just for Boss’s stuff, near the end of the desk so she can come get it if she needs to. Or else have a plastic file box in the corner for it. I might store something for my boss, but not on my desk.

            Reply
      2. Solidus Pilcrow

        hamster, have you worked with the 5S methodology by chance? The suggestion to tape off areas is something right out of the methodology.

        I work in a manufacturing facility and we follow 5S out on the shop floor with all the lovely colored tape everywhere and have also implemented it in the front office area. Some people got a little too enthusiastic about the tape/labels. :)

        Reply
        1. hamster

          Not really but it does sound up my alley. I am trying to devise a system to help my husband to be more organied. Clear acrilyc boxes, reducing the general amout of sheer shit and labels help. this way you can how how to put stuf away smartly

          Reply
  24. Kat

    I have had bosses who really judged people by the state of their desk. Messy people were designated sloppy and careless and neat people were responsible high-performers, no matter what the truth is.

    I am a slob by nature. I don’t know why. I just somehow always have things everywhere. But because previous bosses have made it such a priority, I’ve developed a system that both forces me to be more mindful and FAKES looking cleaner than I am.

    -I bought cascading file holders and pretty folders and label them with common tasks, like “Press Releases” or “Talking Points”. Most of them have nothing in them, but people always comment on them and how organized I am.

    -I went to Ross or TJ Maxx and bought cute box organizers. At the end of every day, I shove every piece of paper on my desk into them. Before I throw them in, I do glance at the paper to see if I should throw it out, if it’s something important, or if it’s something to save. I toss what I can and the important stuff goes into yet another cute letter tray at the front of my desk. Everything else gets shoved in the cubbie. That forces me to get rid of the junk and shows people who pass by that my desk is fairly clean and the very important stuff is up top

    -If people drop off paperwork on my desk, it either goes into the cubbie to rot or into the letter tray to be dealt with later, so it’s always contained.

    I’ll never be a tidy person, but this gives me the illusion of being tidy! People always say how together and organized I am, and little do they know that I treat home home like a floor-drobe and can’t find my hairbrush.

    Reply
    1. Amber Rose

      I have empty file holders too. I usually forget to use them since I have a couple desktop trays I mostly use for everything, and everything else gets shoved in a drawer.

      Reply
    2. Snork Maiden

      “Most of them have nothing in them, but people always comment on them and how organized I am.” I’m cry-laughing at your faux organization. I am the same way as you – looks like I should stop by the office supply tonight and get some brightly-coloured folders and boxes to shove all my papers in!

      Reply
      1. Kat

        It is both awesome and sad at how work faking neatness works. I really WANT to be clean…but life gets in the way and there’s always something better to do, so I resort to trickery instead.

        Reply
    3. bearing

      This does not sound like fake organizing. This sounds like efficient, minimalist, ACTUAL organizing.

      I applaud you and your system.

      Reply
  25. Ad Astra

    At OldJob, sometime during the first week, my manager pulled me aside and asked me to do a better job of cleaning up my desk before I left at night, because that’s a Thing That Matters in that office under those bosses. Not an unreasonable request at all, but my desk had a total of three papers (stuff I intended to refer back to the next day) and, like, a pen. Knowing that just a few items on my desk was too many in that office turned out to be valuable insight about how that place ran. I got into the habit of clearing off my desk every night, but I didn’t stay at that job long.

    Reply
  26. Brandy

    What’s the mess? Papers? Or coffee mugs/wrappers/trash? If the former, well, welcome to my life. My white board gives people migraines to look at it. I have sticky notes all over my monitor and a stack of projects/notebooks/binders probably knee high in a corner. Nobody cares.

    Note that I am not in a role where clients would pop into my office- I would keep my office far tidier if clients were coming by.

    Reply
  27. Amber Rose

    Depends on what makes up the mess, too, and if you ever try to neaten up.

    I have an in pile, an out pile, a filing pile, an “I’m using this now” pile and a small pile of office supplies like sticky notes and message pads and labels. There’s a sort of method to the madness, and every Friday I make an attempt to rid myself of everything that can be put away. My desk is usually messy but you know, I work. Piles happen.

    My one coworker however has an empty pop bottle pile, a wrapper pile, piles of scrap bits of wire and shavings, and most likely a pile of dust. And then his work on top. Much less acceptable in my opinion. He gets mocked for it all the time too.

    Reply
  28. Bend & Snap

    At the job that changed my life–taught me to keep a neat workspace and sent me to Franklin Covey training to learn how to prioritize and tackle work–my boss told me that my messy desk was sending a negative signal. And it was really just papers organized by pile. But I cleaned up my desk that day and have been a “one piece of paper” person (in the form of a paper planner) ever since.

    It definitely has impacted how people perceive me, and I do tend to think that people with a lot of clutter aren’t as organized and therefore potentially not as high performing as those with neat desks or offices.

    Reply
    1. FiveWheels

      The difference in my performance when I’m cluttered vs tidy is night and day. My work is as good either way, but tidy I take a file from the cabinet, work on it, insert all papers resulting from that work, and move on.

      Cluttered, I find the file, search through my emails to see if anything relates to it, search through my filling to see if anything relates, search through my post, put it all in order, read it all to remind myself… And THEN start working.

      The more I can force myself into unnatural tidiness, the more work I can do.

      (I’m a lawyer and for audit purposes EVERYTHING needs to be in hard copy on the physical file.)

      Reply
  29. CrazyCatLady

    I’m fairly messy but the office is one place I try to stay organized because of perception and also because it aggravates me so much to have papers all over the place.

    A few things I try to do:

    1) On the days the cleaning people will come, I clean my desk as much as possible (because they won’t move papers or anything)

    2) At the end of every week, I will spend 15-30 minutes organizing my papers and files and writing a to-do list for the following week.

    3) This may not work at some workplaces, but I try to use as little paper as possible. I file everything on my computer. If I do have to print something, I try to eventually get it back on my computer in some way (either through email records, or scanning it on) and then throw the paper away. Paper ruins everything.

    The owner at one of my previous jobs had such a HUGE and messy office and you couldn’t even find any floor space because it was covered in papers. I have no idea how he ever found anything but it’s not what I remember him by and it didn’t affect my perception of him much (aside from having no idea how he found things or why he kept things).

    Reply
    1. Amber Rose

      We have so much paper. I am required to keep scanned copies and physical copies in duplicate of everything. It’s so hard to control. D:

      Reply
    2. Elizabeth West

      Paper ruins everything.

      OMG this is so true. I’m trying to get rid of stuff at home, and the amount of paper I’ve accumulated over the years is just mind-boggling. At work, we do everything electronically. Now that I have a decent scanner, I can get some of the stuff I have to keep into electronic form and file the rest. I have six zillion file folders.

      I also need to get a bigger shredder. Most of my bills have been cut down to emails and I’ve reduced my mail a LOT (that is one thing I tend to hang onto), but I still get enough that it annoys me to deal with it. I stopped getting receipts for stuff like gas, skating sessions, and other repeated stuff, too. They are like packing peanuts–they get everywhere.

      If I keep doing this, eventually I’ll have a better setup for working at home those days when I need to do it because of weather or some other reason.

      Reply
  30. Allison

    I’m a messy person too, my room usually looks like a tornado ripped through it, so I woudn’t judge someone who has a messy office, UNLESS:

    – it gets in the way of their work; if they’re always misplacing important things, or if their search for the missing Important Thing causes a delay, or they’re often late to meetings because they had trouble finding something, that’s an issue.

    – it smells bad and/or is actually dirty (dirt from outside, dust, old food, mysterious sticky substances, mouse droppings, etc.), rather than just cluttered. if there’s a vermin issue and the office and they suspect it’s your office attracting them, do something. because there there are ants and flies, eventually there are spiders too!

    Reply
  31. alter_ego

    I have a messy-ish desk a lot of the time, and my coworkers run the whole gamut, from people whose desks are so clean I’m genuinely not sure how they get stuff done, to people where it is a problem occasionally, since they can’t find anything. Other than the not being able to find anything, the only time it’s really annoyed me, or that I’ve had any opinion about it at all, was when we were going to be having a huge open house to celebrate our move to a new office. the open house took place a couple of months after the move, so we were all settled in, and there was going to be a LOT of clients there, as well as photographers taking pictures for our promotional materials. It’s an open office with low cube walls, so an email went out asking us to make sure our desks were neat. Not empty, we could have papers and folders and all sorts of stuff on them, but they needed to be in stacks, rather than spread across the desk in a slowly collapsing pile that was moving more and more onto the floor surrounding the desk as well as time went by. One coworker took this almost a moral issue, claiming that asking him to clean his desk was stifling his creativity, and did we want our clients to think that we were just a bunch of robots with no personalities? Which was so far off base as to be completely irrational, and I eventually asked him to please stop whining about it (we shared a cubicle, so I was frequently the target of these rants).

    But as long as no one is trying to convince me that it’s an affront to them personal to ask them to neaten up for a client or photographer, I don’t care at all what people’s desks look like.

    Reply
  32. Yetanotherjennifer

    Is your clutter of the type that could be made to appear neater with baskets, boxes and file folders? Your projects in waiting could have their own box, your current projects could be in another… Check out the container store for different ideas. You could also look at blogs like Apartment Therapy and personal organizer websites. You could put a bunch of hanging folders in a box and sort the projects anyway you wish. Don’t worry about labels. The idea is to simulate a pile without it being a pile. As long as you can find things fairly quickly, you’re fine. And if you choose a pretty box it may make things look even tidier.

    Reply
  33. Nethwen

    When I see a messy work space, I don’t even come close to thinking “hoarder.” Depending on how messy things are (and smelly) I think 1) organized chaos or 2) person more interested in talking than doing.

    My mom was the sort who had a schedule for everything and the house was neat and clean. My sibling, as a teenager and adult, thinks sleeping on a bed with no sheets is perfectly acceptable, as is inviting the dog to sleep there, too and seems to think clothing was made to keep people from walking on the floor. I rarely look at an adult’s behavior and attribute it to how they grew up, at least not for things like what kind of food they eat, clothes they wear, how neat they are, etc.

    Reply
  34. Mena

    I’m more wary of the super-neatnik office/desk space … not enough to do, need neatness to feel secure, hyper-controlling ….

    Reply
  35. Stephanie

    FirstJob involved looking at a lot of technical drawings, so sometimes people would have key ones pinned on the walls. I went into one guy’s office and his walls looked like Carrie Matheson’s during a manic break. It was a little unnerving.

    I’m a messy person, myself. And my job will give me lots and lots of paper. I usually just take five minutes to sort it all and recycle the unneeded stuff. I think as long as you can find everything and your clutter isn’t impacting your work, you should be fine.

    Reply
  36. VintageLydia

    Visual clutter does not mean disorganized, but the correlation is high. Being organized is far more important than it looking pretty, but image is something to consider. You’re a piler, so maybe get a bins you can pile in that can be easily moved if you need to clear your space quickly. But other than that, so long as you can find what you need, and if you have others who need to get into your papers finding what THEY need, you’re not actually creating a biohazard, and people don’t routinely comment on how messy your office is, you’re probably good.

    This is hard for me because aesthetically, I prefer surfaces as clear as possible and almost-but-not-quite-minimalist. But I’m most productive when things are out where I can see them. I’d love to put my bulky dayplanner away, but I won’t use it if I do. My computer lives in the sunroom even though I have an office. And ordinarily my art supplies are stored away but if I’m in the middle of a project all bets are off. I keep a few regular pocket folders on hand so if I need to clear the sunroom table (our main eating area) I can keep like with like but it all gets stacked on the console next to/on top of my laptop and not in a drawer anywhere.

    Reply
    1. OP Messy One

      Officially, I’m judged by my output, not my methods, so I do take offense at people who insist that a messy desk means something about my work product. I get pretty good feedback, and where I fall short doesn’t relate to messiness or having an organized mind. I’m expected to be creative, which is tough in a workplace where people are very resistant to change (that’s a whole other letter to AAM!)

      Reply
      1. katamia

        I do take offense at people who insist that a messy desk means something about my work product.

        I agree with you so much there. I’m definitely on the messy end of the spectrum (piles, mostly–nothing gets filed until I’m done with it otherwise it’ll never get done), but you want a document formatted to absurdly specific specifications? That’s what I do best. They’re two totally separate things. Some messy people do crappy work and some do great work, just like some neat people do crappy work and some neat people do great work.

        Reply
      2. Not So NewReader

        You can tell them your boss is okay with it.
        You can ask them if they have seen your outputs to verify this statement.
        Or you can nod in semi-agreement and say, “Yes, some people do need to have an organized desk in order to be productive, but some people do not and are still productive.”
        Or maybe you can offer to put their request to one side and they can wait while you clean up your desk.

        Your solution might actually be to just put on a bullet proof vest in your mind- let the remarks bounce off the bp vest. It’s either that or pull the piles in a bit.

        I have a rule of thumb that helps me, either come up with a reply that ends the remarks or correct the situation. Listening to an on-going commentary about a particular thing that I do is draining to me. I can’t stand listening to the steady stream. The repetitiveness is more annoying to me than the remark itself.

        If I were in your shoes, I would look around to see if I was any messier than most people. I might ask the boss if she was concerned (or may not, depends). Then go forward from there. I know that if I am sure that the bosses feel I am getting results, getting the job done, that helps me to process this stuff easier.

        Reply
  37. Christian Troy

    I’m going to be honest — I do think having a messy desk is a bad sign. I don’t think you need to have the interior of an Apple Store or Muji, but I kinda feel like the fact you’re making hoarder jokes doesn’t really reflect positively on you.

    I think some people have given some good tips but I would try to put some effort into organizing things. The reality is you might be out ill or have an emergency and people will need to find things one day.

    Reply
    1. FiveWheels

      That’s key. I currently have the joy of taking over files from a former colleague who let’s just say didn’t quite have everything in order. It has been borderline nightmarish.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        OMG. I had taken over a job where the files were unreal. Who folds paper into thirds and staples it shut before filing… using numerous staples????? Who does that???? We are talking about drawer after drawer… To go through several inches of draw space and sort it took me hours. I had no idea how long it took me to do one drawer.
        Let’s say a file required twenty different sheets of paper. I would find TWO sheets of paper. Where are the other 18? who knows.

        It’s a good thing I don’t drink.

        Reply
  38. Mockingjay

    I would look at how much you are printing. I have made a conscious effort in the last year to not print so much and work primarily from electronic documents. Our servers are backed up daily, so I know there is a primary file and a backup document.

    Last year I spent about two weeks cleaning out my office. The first week, I used 15 minutes at the end of the day to go through files, binders, and drawers. I got rid of (shredded or recycled) about 90% of the paper in my cubicle. The next week, I went through the electronic files on my laptop. Again, if it’s on the server, I didn’t need another copy on my desktop.

    For items that I absolutely have to print, I put them in manila folders and write the name in pencil on the tab, so I can erase and reuse the folder when the document is complete. All draft prints are then shredded or recycled right away.

    I also went to TJ Maxx and got a nice desktop holder for my pens and sticky pads, because I like them within arms reach. I emptied out the drawers for the most part. It’s too easy to throw stuff in there which is quickly forgotten. I have a file holder, but it mostly holds blank pads of paper for notes.

    My cubicle looks much more inviting and professional without the clutter.

    Reply
  39. OP Messy One

    I think “organized chaos” is close to the mark. There are piles on every surface, but they are small piles, easily moved, and won’t be there forever — when we have slow periods I do get at things.

    I tend to be a visually-oriented person, so on the one hand, I like to see my projects in order to be reminded, but when I don’t have time for them seeing them gets me down. If I file things away it’s “out of sight out of mind.”

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a scanner, but my piles aren’t really scannable. They’re things like books & magazines, with some miscellaneous stuff like take-aways from training sessions. I never know what to do with those.

    Reply
    1. VintageLydia

      The takeaways can probably be straight up tossed unless you reference them. Would something like vertical files work? They’re basically piles oriented vertically instead of horizontally but they look more visually appealingwhile still being out in the open. I’m a lot like you where I need to see things to work on them, but visual clutter drives me to distraction so I’m in the middle of figuring out how to deal with my papers, too. I’m coming to the conclusion most of them can just go in the bin, frankly.

      Reply
      1. OP Messy One

        I did that with a stack of stuff between Christmas & New Year’s. The other stacks require some thought, or so I think until I get into them, probably.

        Reply
        1. NotherName

          I am not a naturally organized person. Most of my work these days doesn’t require paper, so the computer does it for me (desktop shortcuts are now my piles, and nobody knows!). However, when I have had to work with a lot of papers, I found that multi-colored manila folders were great. Put stuff in a folder, and it’s no longer a messy pile – now it’s a File. Even a pile of folders looks acceptable to some people. And I could organize things very easily visually.

          Reply
    2. Temperance

      I use a whiteboard for this! I categorize and color code by name, and keep it up there while it’s going.

      I don’t know if this is an option, but I create files for that sort of thing and send them away until I need them. Of course, this only works if your organization has dedicated filing space that isn’t your office.

      Reply
    3. irritable vowel

      I think things like what you describe in the last paragraph really need to be put away/shelved/discarded–they’re distinct from work materials and are just visually adding to the clutter. If they’re magazines that you’re planning to read but haven’t yet, make a goal of looking at one a week until they’re gone. If you’ve already read them but there’s an article you wanted to keep, pull it out, file the articles, and recycle the magazines. Books should be shelved, or if you don’t have a bookcase in your workspace, just “shelve” them with a couple of bookends on top of a file cabinet or something–it’s more visually appealing than a big stack on top of the same cabinet. Workshop takeaways–these can be filed out of sight or discarded if you don’t think you’ll need them again. (I like to keep mine, not because I necessarily refer back to them but they serve as a reminder of my professional development activities.)

      You mentioned elsewhere that you don’t have a scanner–if you have a smartphone there are plenty of scanning apps that will allow you to create PDFs of paper documents; maybe you could do this with some of the stuff you’re just keeping to keep rather than stuff you need for your projects.

      Reply
      1. Elizabeth West

        I used to do this with magazine articles, until after years doing it, I realized that most popular magazines recycle the hell out of the articles. It was no use keeping them because the same stuff would come out later in a more updated version–I wasn’t actually missing anything. After that, I threw away my file. I was so proud of myself. Not only that, I stopped subscribing to or buying so many magazines.

        Instead, I find stuff online and bookmark it. On days when I’m just lazing around doing not much of anything, I go through my bookmarks and delete ones that are bad, I know I won’t get back to, or can’t remember why I marked them in the first place.

        Reply
    4. Not So NewReader

      You can still make files for some of this.
      For example training materials. A very simple system would be one file for each year, “training 2014”, “training 2015” and so on.
      With magazines and books, make a note as to why you are saving it, or flag the pages you want to go over. I am not sure if you need permission to toss stuff, make a pile of stuff that you need permission to toss if this is the case.
      You know your job best, maybe can you create a rule of thumb such as, “If I have not looked at this magazine for a year (other time frame), then that means I do not need it.”

      I have a cheat sheet for my most important stuff. I keep it in a Word file so I can update it easily. Then I print out the sheet and put it in a specific place. My cheat sheet saves me reams of paper. Yes, I call it The Cheat Sheet. It has a lot of things on it that would otherwise have no where else to be in this world.

      Reply
  40. one of those tidy people

    Genuine question: to people with messy desks, do you work on the desk at all? Or does it serve as storage while most of your work is done by computer?

    I very often need an expanse of clear desk space in order to set things out while I’m working on them, especially oversized materials such as maps. I couldn’t do that if papers that weren’t involved were being stored there. Though, I have a colleague who has a very messy desk and moves to the tables in another area to do that sort of work.

    Reply
    1. OP Messy One

      I do almost everything on the computer, so I don’t need much workspace on my actual desktop. That might be the root of my problem – paper stuff is much less important than my computer files.

      Reply
    2. Amber Rose

      I use my desk. When I need to spread out, I just grab the piles of mess and either consolidate to one pile, work on top of it, or shove it in my desk drawer.

      I’m actually really organized, but some offices (like ours) just generate massive amounts of things that need to be at arms reach.

      Reply
    3. Roscoe

      I do everything on a computer, but now and then write down notes, or get paper versions of things that I keep on my desk

      Reply
    4. Temperance

      I have a really large desk, so I work on a clear area and stack things on other areas. I do periodically stop and sort things and throw them out, but my job is paper intensive just by its nature.

      Reply
    5. LCL

      Very insightful comment. Mostly my desk serves as storage while I do work by computer, or go to another physical location for something. On the rare occasions when I need to do a lot of sorting, I have to use the table in the main office because there is so much material to sort it wouldn’t fit on my desk even if my desk was clean.

      My desk would be less messy if my company provided more than minimal admin support. Our facility went from 3 full time admins in 1994 to 1. The admin work didn’t go away.

      I also try to make a very clear distinction between individual work spaces and shared work spaces. People are always surprised that use of shared work space is a nuclear hot button issue with me- I always argue for less things in the shared spaces. To me, personal workspace equals clutter and shared spaces should be as minimalist as possible.

      Reply
    6. LQ

      I’m neat and for a while I had a coworker who would occasionally take over a part of my desk when I was gone because it was cleaned off enough that she could spread things out. She always asked and cleaned up so I was happy to let her use my desk as the spare space to spread out. Sometimes they use coworker’s desks.

      Reply
    7. katamia

      Basically all my work is computer-based. All flat surfaces are storage areas except the floor, which I do like to keep clear.

      Reply
    8. So Very Anonymous

      I have a lot of desk space in my particular cubicle. Some of it holds stuff (messy person here, definitely in the genes, mom has a sign in kitchen that says “Dull women have immaculate houses”), but I keep areas cleared for working. Most of my work is on the computer, but I really need clear working space on the desk for some things. Things get filed when I’m done with them or they go in a to-be-filed pile. I will go through and create neat piles of things according to project, and maybe once a month or so I’ll do a bigger tidying up. I’m very, very good at deadlines and over the years have gone from a last-minute person (always meets deadlines though) to gets-stuff-done-before-deadlines. I have to have some kind of organizing system because I know things will get more disorganized as the semester goes on, and if there’s a structure in place, and knowledge that the important things will also go in THIS FOLDER, etc., I can recover fast if something’s mislaid or goes wrong. For me, messy is something to be managed but it’s also part of my working process.

      When I was in college I had a roommate who was an anxious cleaner, and in a fit of extreme anxiety she would clear off EVERYTHING on both sides of the room. I’d leave with my history paper materials spread all over my desk in the order I needed them to be in and I’d come back to ABSOLUTELY NOTHING on my desk. My class materials were… somewhere? and *everything* of mine was in a different order. For days I’d be asking things like “where is my laundry detergent??” Perhaps not surprisingly, there were other sources of conflict, but this used to drive me crazy. You don’t just clean off someone else’s desk if they’re working on something!

      Reply
      1. katamia

        Augh. I had a parent who did that sort of thing. I cannot with people moving my stuff, even to this day. Just…no.

        Reply
  41. Macedon

    I think mentioning your experience of growing up with a hoarder could come off as oversharing and excuse-chasing, since there is no necessary causation between the hoarder in your life and your personal mess. Genuine hoarding is a compulsion, while being messy is a learned habit or a laxer attitude about neatness. Neither of these is a bad thing, provided your space is sanitary, welcoming and accessible for you or anyone else who needs to navigate your clutter to retrieve something quickly. That said, needing a full day to tidy up your stuff isn’t too promising.

    Re: judgement — that one is going to be difficult to fully avoid, since many people tend to associate organisation with cleanliness or discipline. (Likewise, a fair few are prejudiced against overly tidy people, judging them as fixated, over the top, picky or even strict. ) There is not much you can do about that – nor, I think, should you feel forced to. But take me with a grain of salt: I’ve got four/five candy or chocolate sources on my desk at any given time (variety is key), and I’m not stressing over my image.

    Reply
    1. OP Messy One

      I do judge people with very tidy desks. I assume they have OCD and worry too much about details and not enough about the big picture. I actually did work with someone once who couldn’t stand to have anything at all on her desk – no pencils, blotters, phone – nothing! She seemed happy, though.

      Reply
      1. VintageLydia

        Just a heads up, OCD is far more likely to be associated with hoarding than cleanliness/tidiness. Just like you work best being able to see your open projects, others work best by clearing their space except what they need at that exact moment. Both are valid.

        Reply
        1. FiveWheels

          My inclination is to clutter everything, but I work best if things are empty -desk -perfectly – tidy. I think if anything it’s ADHD – low attention span means I pile things up for later, but I can’t concentrate on what I’m doing now if I can see and think about those piles.

          Reply
          1. So Very Anonymous

            I have this, too. There’s a certain point at which I have to clear space and neaten things up. Sometimes the piles I don’t have time for at the moment get put into a drawer, to be deal with later, so that I can have clear space.

            Reply
          2. Jaydee

            Same here. Its very frustrating because I really do *prefer* to have a neat, tidy home and office and to have a very organized, structured schedule. But my natural tendencies and inclinations are the opposite. So while I will start the day with a clean desk and a list of 10 things to do, I’ll end the day with 27 open browser tabs, a blinking voicemail light, a couple of draft emails in various states of completion, 3 files and some miscellaneous papers on my desk, multiple pens and post-it notes out, and a lost to-do list with only the 1st and 6th items checked off before it disappeared. Unfortunately, by then my meds have worn off (yes, it is ADHD in my case) so my ability to cope with the chaos is depleted. I definitely agree that a mix of low attention (“I’ll leave it here so I remember to do it later”) plus distractability plus hyperfocus (“Wait, how did it get be 4:00 already? I didn’t even eat lunch!”) contributes to the problem and it takes concerted effort to swim against that current.

            Reply
      2. Macedon

        Well, there you go. You know you do it, so it’s not completely reasonable to expect that some of your peers won’t have some kind of opinion on your personal mess. Insofar as your office still fits in the guidelines I mentioned in my previous comment, try not to overthink it. And, well. Try to develop some tolerance for people who are excessively tidy too, if you can. As you’re noticing in your own situation, desk-related impressions, on their own, don’t really indicate much.

        Reply
      3. CaliCali

        Thing is, for some roles, worrying about details IS what they’re supposed to do, rather than focus on the big picture (I’m a messy, big picture person, so I’m not coming from it personally). Also, do you mean OCD in the actual clinical sense or OCD as shorthand for being fixated on cleanliness? Because the latter is not a valid perception — 1) many tidy people have no compulsions relating to it 2) many people dealing with OCD have it manifest in myriad ways, including (as VintageLydia said) hoarding.

        So the actual answer to your question IS that yes, people judge messy desks, in much the same way that you judge super clean desks (which is probably why you have the question in the first place, since you’re projecting your attitude and wondering if others could hold the same of you).

        Reply
        1. NotherName

          I think desks are like wardrobes. People might or might not like what you do with it, but everyone judges one way or the other…

          Reply
      4. hamster

        No, ocd people are also having big picture goals ( on to do-lists , with charts that track progress through, and other lists of ideas, maybies , and potentials) Basically list heaven. I keep my personal tehnical notes in a graph like structure. Because logic and beauty of mild ocd :)

        Reply
      5. Not So NewReader

        My wise friend told me that if I stopped thinking X about others, then I would be less concerned that people were thinking X about me. This one is kind of tough, because we look at life through our own lenses first then later we think about what others might see or think from where they are standing. If you let go of your ideas about people who have neat desks you will find that people will seem less judgey about your desk.
        So you might want to test drive this idea. Let go of your stereotypes about neat desk people and see what happens to your critics.

        When my friend told me this I found it really annoying. But I tried it. And I found yes, if I let go of X, then people around me also seemed to let go of their version of X. Here’s an example and I hope you chuckle. I used to think too much about people who wore a lot of make up. I put way too much thought into the subject. At the same time I worried because I didn’t wear make up often and I wondered if people thought less of me. So using my friend’s idea, I decided to stop thinking about other people’s make up. After a little bit, I realized that hardly anyone was thinking about my LACK of make up.
        I have used this several times now, with different things and found that it works with consistent results.

        Reply
  42. Tuckerman

    I think that if you have to ask whether your office is too messy, it probably is. It’s at least messy enough that you’re concerned about being judged. If you keep it clean, you’ll have one less thing to be concerned about.

    Reply
    1. OP Messy One

      Having grown up in a house I was embarrassed to let people see has ruined my sense of what’s “normal” or “acceptable.”

      Reply
      1. hamster

        I am extremely organized and my SO is less so , maybe a closeted hoarder ( or would be without me ). But i not a neatfreak . I am also lazy. So when doing laundry even if i do not physically put the clean one back i put them in 2 piles on the couch mine and SOs . So things are not jumbled up. I fought very hard with him and myself to bring this order in my life ( and hired help for cleaning ) . Because we did grew up rather messy but i always felt better in organisation so i tried to emulate it. Plus what better way to spend a week-night when you do not have any chores other than devising a storage system for make-up ?
        TIP : if something is so complex in your life that requires an unintuitive system you hold on too much of “whatever”. But then again this is something that brings me a sense of accomplishment .

        Reply
      2. ExceptionToTheRule

        I am also the child of a hoarder. When my father passed away, the only thing missing from what you see on the TV shows were the spoiled food & a dead cat or three. If he’d owned the home he died in, I’d have just burned it to the ground, instead I cleaned it out with a shovel.

        Actual, true hoarding can be a manifestation of OCD or anxiety or any other number of mental illness and is now recognized as a stand alone disorder in the DSM V. If you feel you don’t have a sense of “normal” or “acceptable” I would suggest that one thing you could do is seek some therapy to deal with the issues being raised in that type of an environment if you haven’t already. Growing up like that definitely warps the way you think. Good luck OP.

        Reply
      3. Not So NewReader

        If you were too embarrassed to let people in, then you do have some sense of what is normal/acceptable. If you really had no idea of what was normal you would have just let people in.

        I think that it is more to the point to consider, are you where you want to be in life with the hoarding issue or do you think that you can do better? If you are discontent with where you are at, then what steps would you like to start to begin to change that?

        My father kept everything. I have mentioned before about the blank 1040 from 1945. When I emptied his house, I gave away 7 – 30 gallon garbage bags of paper goods. Of what was left we did not have to buy paper goods for six months. My father lived alone. I started thinking about business. Overhead costs. Six months of paper towels would go under the heading of overhead costs. Dang, what a waste of revenue/income. I started applying numbers to everything. I bought enough paper towels to hold me until the next week’s grocery shopping. I bought enough pairs of jeans to last until next week’s laundry. I just kept going with the numbers. It’s been years and almost everything in my house has a limit to it. I have two sets of sheets. The dog has a week of canned dog food. I could go on, you get the idea. This started because I wasn’t where I wanted to be, I had too much stuff. So I set limits on various items. Other items have time limits, such as last week’s newspapers are all in the recycle pile by Saturday. I use similar ideas at work- either limit the quantity or limit the time I keep stuff.

        Reply
  43. Xarcady

    I’m neat at work, because other people can see my desk, and occasionally descend into total slobbery at home, which then takes a valiant effort to return things to “normal.” Paper is my downfall, or it used to be.

    It sounds as if you don’t like the mess much, but don’t know how to deal with it.

    My suggestions would be:

    1. Find out about handling paper–there are books, on-line tutorials, even YouTube videos on this subject.

    2. Think about which system would work best for you. Practice–take a pile of paper and use Method 1 on it. Then take another pile of paper and use Method 2.

    3. Study your office/cube. Do you have the necessary resources to handle the papers and whatever else is in the mess? Do you have a filing cabinet? If so, where is it? Right near your desk where you can swivel your chair to reach it or across the room? If you need to see current projects out in the open, look up the various paper sorters available out there. Maybe you need a return for your desk to put a paper organizer on. Think about this. Don’t make snap decisions. Buying organizing equipment/supplies won’t make you organized, but there is a point at which you can’t get organized without them. I.e. if you have 100 books, they will look messy piled on the floor. You need some sort of bookcase to hold them.

    4. Pick a paper organizing system and try it out for at least a month. Make your motto, “I will not increase the mess in my office this month.” In other words, don’t work on the old mess, just deal with new papers coming in. Jury-rig any organizing supplies you need for this month.

    5. If the new system works, great! Figure out what supplies you need and get them. If it doesn’t, do not beat yourself up. The system simply didn’t work for you. Move on to a different system and try it out. Repeat until something clicks for you.

    Once you have a system for dealing with incoming paper, it shouldn’t be too hard to start working on the piles of paper that have accumulated. You have a system now, you have the right resources.

    Notice there’s a lot of thinking and planning here, not a lot of purchasing of supplies or even messing around with the paper. By thinking about the messes I make, I’ve come to realize that certain tasks (usually ones I’m not fond of doing) have to be made very, very simple and easy for me to do, or I just don’t do them. I need to get the roadblocks out of my way.

    That’s why I questioned where your filing cabinet is. Mine is right by my desk. Easy-peasy to put stuff in or get stuff out. Except for the top drawer, I don’t even have to get out of my chair. Other ways of making things simple are to store supplies where they are used–empty file folders, labels and a pen in a file cabinet drawer, not a desk drawer or supply closet, for example.

    Run a typical scene dealing with paper through your head. Do you mentally wince at some points? Try to avoid thinking about one aspect? Get a feeling of dread at some point? Those are the places where there are issues for you. Look at them carefully and think about, and research, what you can do to make those spots easier to deal with.
    (As an example, using something from home: I store my oatmeal in a container with a 1/2 cup measuring cup inside, in the cabinet over my sink. This means the oatmeal is in the cabinet with my dishes. But this allows me to stagger into the kitchen in the morning, open the cabinet, pull out a bowl, pull out the oatmeal, measure 1/2 cup of oatmeal in to the bowl, measure 1/2 cup of water into the bowl, and slide three steps down the counter to the microwave.
    (If I stored the oatmeal in the pantry cabinet, I’d be getting out a bowl, walking to the left for the measuring cup, then around the island to the right to the oatmeal, then back to the sink, and then to the microwave. Way to inefficient for a workday morning. )

    Getting organized doesn’t mean you have to do a lot of work. Getting organized means you do *less* work over all, after you’ve worked out systems that work for *you*, because you have simplified things as much as possible.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      Pls re-read this post–such great advice.

      Love the idea of storing things right where you use them.

      An example from my world: I currently am looking for a container to go in the back of my file drawer so we can chuck the binder clips in there when we pull them off of the files. (The way it works is, for each sub-project, we have a bunch of paper in a binder clip. When we do the very last step on each, we mega-staple the bundle of paper and pull the clip off for reuse. That’s because the bundles will go in a box to be held for 6 months in case something arises that we need to see the documentation for, and then straight into the garbage once the half-year-later project needs that space. I hate to throw the clips away, and at that end stage, i don’t want to pull them off.)

      Part of what’s happening also is the TIMING of when I do some of these tasks; I do them at times that are “beginning,” not “cleaning up afterward” (more energy then), and I do them at a time when I’m already doing something (I’m already filing the bundles away, so stapling is only a small motion, since I keep the stapler right there).

      Also, yes, make things really simple. I don’t make file folders for these projects; we binder-clip and staples, and then I just throw them in a box.

      The stuff that’s sitting around is probably not that needed by you, since you aren’t struggling. So consider making the “putting it out of sight” be something really simple.
      Maybe a wide-bottom hanging file folder for big categories, or put some boxes inside your filing drawers.

      Make sure your trash can is where you can get to it.
      And give yourself some time to think about what papers you can throw away, so you can be more confident in saying, “I can toss this” earlier–maybe even right away.

      I mention below that I keep a pile of “Might Need Soon, Not Sure Yet” stuff. And I go through it every few days.

      Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      And re: the “less work” idea–spot on!

      One of my mantras at work is: “I’m lazy.” I do things in the simplest way possible, as long as I’m getting an outcome that isn’t more work.

      So I stopped making file folders and settled for keeping stuff in a binder-clipped bundle; or I put stuff in clearly designated piles, or inside a filing cabinet.

      Reply
      1. Xarcady

        Frank Galbraith, the efficiency expert, used to ask to be pointed towards the laziest man in a factory. He figured that was the person who had worked out the best/fastest/easiest way to get something done.

        Reply
        1. TootsNYC

          My husband says that Clauswitz said something like, “there are smart generals and stupid generals. And there are lazy generals and energetic ones. The best is a smart, lazy general. And the worst is an energetic, stupid one.”

          I’m on a huge mania lately. It’s almost pathological, even if it is positive.
          I have to click on a link to file for a visitor to the building, and I need a password. It’s printed on my building pass. I keep having to dig out my purse, dig out my pass, get the number, and put everything back.
          Suddenly I realized: I can rename the link in my favorites bar to include my password. So now I just look up at the top of the browser window and copy my password from there.
          I was so incredibly excited; it was more than a little pathetic.

          Reply
        2. Not So NewReader

          The one who finds the best/fastest/easiest way to get things done then gets assigned all the new projects so that everything gets done the cheapest/less labor intensive way possible.
          That lazy person just made himself a ton more work.

          Reply
          1. LQ

            I’m ok with this. I always try to work lazier. I work as lazy as possible and then I get given more work and find the lazy way to do that and then I get more work and I’m still only working the same amount of time as my Super Hard Working Coworker who makes everything seem like a strain, but I’m getting 3 times as much done as she is (despite me showing her tricks). So I get a raise and a promotion. I’m still going home at 4:30, I’m still lazy, and I’m getting paid more for it. Sounds like success to me!

            Reply
  44. Veronica

    Right or wrong, employees with messy desks are seen as less effective. And taking an entire day to clean an office does seem excessive. If you have a decent manager, I would suggest you check in with him/her about the state of your office. If he thinks it’s a problem, you have your answer.

    Reply
  45. LSP

    I just moved to a new office. Literally, Day 2.

    I promised myself it wouldn’t look like my previous tornado ravaged desk.

    *Stares at new desk already covered in papers and clutter. Sigh*

    Reply
  46. DeskBird

    I keep my desk and my kitchen obsessively neat and organized. Everything else in my life… not so much. I can live in a messy space, but I cannot work in one. My big rule is one project is out at a time. If I stop working on one thing – even if it’s not done – and go to work on another I will put the first project away. It usually will go in my stack-able treys for ongoing projects – and then I pull my new project out.

    I would recommend conquering your space piece by piece. Create a mental grid of your desk and/or office. On day 1: Clean off the first space on the grid at the end of the day – say ten minutes before you plan to leave. Make sure you don’t just move that stuff somewhere else – but actually organize it somewhere where it can live. Day 2: Make sure the first grid space is still clean – organize anything that ended up there during the day. Then move on to the next grid space and put away all the clutter there. If you keep moving forward with a grid space every day and maintaining the spaces you’ve already cleared you should make steady progress with cleaning and hopefully get yourself into the habit of maintaining the spaces you’ve cleaned.

    The only time I’m ever really annoyed with a coworkers desk is if there isn’t a clear inbox area that I can be sure they will see something in. If a desk is covered in paperwork and the inbox is overflowing or not present or clear – then i’ll be afraid that if I leave something for them it will get lost. As long as someone’s desk isn’t the Bermuda triangle – i’m pretty much fine with it.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      I like that grid system!

      Also, as you go through a section of the grid, look at what’s there. What sort of stuff is it? Why did it end up there and not “put away”? What can you create (in terms of infrastructure, habit, automated decisions, etc.) that will keep the same sort of thing from ending up there again?

      I have types of things in different zones. I think I can do some of this myself. Thank-you notes and birthday cards wind up in certain places.

      Reply
  47. De Minimis

    I am cluttered to the point where it is turning into a problem–it wasn’t such an issue at previous jobs because they were less paper-based, but everything at this job requires some kind of printed paper backup [sometimes multiple things] and I’ve had a hard time getting a handle on it. My boss has noticed and I know it’s going to be an issue unless something changes. I do try to reorganized/neaten up at the end of the day, but as I work I shuffle and move things around to where it’s a mess, because I always need multiple things from multiple piles.

    Going to see about UFYH [though not on the work computer!] I’ve tried to enact multiple systems and none have worked.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      Infrastructure!

      There’s a reason that the old adage “a place for everything and everything in its place” starts with “a place for…”

      People often forget that part.

      Look at the paper you have, and make some categories. By project? by date? from person?
      Then set up some sort of “basket” to “catch’ the paper, based on those categories. Maybe it’s a box, a box-bottom hanging-file folder, a basket, a slot in a paper sorter (my friend called those “tidy desks”).
      Label them, so you don’t have to remember.

      One organizing tenet I love and live by is this one:
      Make it easy to put stuff away, even if that means getting it out later is a little harder.
      So if it’s easier to just stick the paper documentation in the hanging file folder (new stuff in the back always, maybe), but it means someone will have to flip through the whole pile to find the invoice–that’s actually effective.
      As you go along, you might find that you’re always needing to find the invoices, and they’re buried among the other stuff. So you add a manila folder for invoices only, and all the other “just in case” stuff goes loose in the larger hanging folder. (It’s OK to evolve.)
      Ask yourself: “If I need to find this later, where would I think to look?” And put it there. In that file folder, with that colleague, under that label, in this corner of the desk.

      If the file drawers aren’t near you, create a “holding” file cabinet or box. So you can file them temporarily, and then move the whole thing down to the big filing cabinets.

      Basically, sit down and think. Sort of psychoanalyze yourself: “It crossed my mind that I could do something with this piece of paper that I’m done with. What was it I thought I should do? Why didn’t I do it? How can I overcome that, or maybe just avoid it?”
      Maybe you’re thinking you should do something involved, and the true answer is that you don’t really need to do it at all, or don’t need to do it in the complicated way. Maybe you put the paper down on the desk instead of in the file because you’re not sure you need to keep it. But…does it hurt anything to keep it? Maybe not–just shove it in the file anyway, what’s one more piece of paper? At least you’ve kept the “file the paper!” instinct in working order.
      You might find yourself challenging some of the assumptions you’re operating under (that’s it’s bad to file unneeded documentation; or that it’ll be so hard to get the paper back out of the file), or rethinking your infrastructure (like, if your file is closer, and you have a rule that new and recently access stuff goes in the back of the file, you might find that paper in a shorter time than you think–maybe less effort than rummaging around on the desk!)

      Or you might invent new infrastructure, or use uncommon infrastructure. Maybe spikes will actually work better, or a paper sorter, or a row of banker’s boxes under your desk.

      Reply
      1. De Minimis

        I will definitely need something to just better organize what I have on my desk. There is really no “away” to put things until I’m 100% done with them, and my small file cabinet is already dedicated to other things [basically a de facto safe.) The only real progress I’ve been able to make is to file the things I’m finished with at the end of the day. But that doesn’t help with work in process. I do have a “working on” folder, but things don’t go in there unless I’m not going to be working on them for a while. My concern is the short term filing for stuff I might need in an hour or so.

        Reply
        1. TootsNYC

          Add another “working on” paper-holder of some sort. Staples & other places have desktop file boxes that are only about 6 inches front-to-back. Some of them are even pretty!

          Reply
        2. Not So NewReader

          If you take an old box that printer paper came in you could use that as a little filing cabinet under your desk.
          I do this with projects in progress.

          Reply
  48. TootsNYC

    I’m messy. It absolutely has affected how people see me. Especially how Big Boss type people see me.

    I used to work for a very famous person who owns a company. She would recognize my name. And the first thing she would say, if you mentioned me to her, is, “Oh, yes, she had that messy office!”

    Now, it didn’t affect my raises that I could tell, and I was generally respected. But it dinged my rep.

    So try to keep it down to a dull roar. I know how much work it is–but spend some of that time now and then.

    And in the meantime, try to make sure things seem organized to an untutored eye.
    -have a clear area for working
    -have a clear “in box” area, or an in box that gets emptied regularly
    -if you’re using “stack” filing, keep it off to the side.

    Also, try to develop some systems that aren’t too fiddly, so you can keep them up.

    Don’t try to too-granular of a filing system. I get resumes and tests for job candidates. I keep them in one drawer, and I don’t bother to do anything but dump them in there. Now, nothing ELSE goes in that drawer…
    Ditto budget stuff. i don’t try to separate it out, I just stuff it in there.

    I have a corner of my desk that I put stuff that could be labeled “Papers I Might Need Pretty Soon or I Could Toss But I Won’t Know for a Little While.” And about once a month, I go through it. Some stuff goes back in that corner; but some of it goes away.

    Build in a time that you file stuff, even if it’s only a little bit.

    And spend some time creating some infrastructure that -works-.

    The time that my office got so bad that the Famous Woman sent other people down to see it (like, the CEO of her company), I had a whole bunch of stuff to file that was just in piles. That was really all it was–two projects’ worth of big files.
    I didn’t have an easy filing system. And I was doing all the filing instead of having the people who worked under me do it as we went along. Because I didn’t have a filing system set up.

    Since then, this sort of thing doesn’t happen. Bcs I learned that the FIRST step is to create the “place for everything.” to think about what I need to keep, and what type of space it needs. And to create that space before the project even begins.
    I find it easier (in terms of motivation) to do that in a “preparation” mindset, before we start, than to do it in “mop up” mindset, when it’s all done.

    Reply
  49. Graciosa

    So far, there has been a lot of focus on identifying when a “messy” desk becomes a problem, and at least a part of the test proposed is frequently whether or not the OP can find something when needed.

    In my mind, that doesn’t cover it.

    I care about whether *someone else* can find something on the desk when needed.

    People get sick. They’re in car accidents. Family members die (resulting in bereavement leave). It’s not enough to leave your work in a condition where someone can cover for you on vacation – not everything is anticipated. You need to leave your work in a condition where someone can easily cover for you *at any time* without notice.

    I don’t really care how you do this, and I’m not rigid with my team about everyone using the same method. People do this with paper or electronically, with lists, with post-it notes, with files, with binders, or with color coding. It doesn’t matter to me.

    I do care about whether it works, so I test this with occasional (unannounced) drills. Team members audit and give feedback to each other about whether or not they could find what they need, and discuss what might make it easier all around. Passing is determined by whether or not your colleagues can find what they need.

    For me, unlabeled piles of assorted work on a desk wouldn’t pass – even if the person to whom that desk was assigned could have found what they needed *if they were there.*

    Reply
    1. OP Messy One

      Good point. Since most of my clutter involves personal projects that other people don’t really need, I think I”m good there. We share workspace in the cloud, however. I try to do more traditional “filing” in our shared virtual folders. This is again a matter of paper not being very important. If I had computer files that weren’t important and cluttered up my computer desktop nobody would know.

      Reply
    2. Callie

      I once had to fill in for someone who had a sudden, dire health emergency and was out on medical leave for six months. I had zero training on how to do this job, but I was able to do an acceptable job because she was so meticulously organized. Her email system was a thing of beauty. Any question that had ever been asked by students was labeled and archived, so if another student came in to ask a question, I just had to look in the appropriate topic label to see how to handle it. Her student database was flawless, student files were chronologically organized, and I could find EVERYTHING. it was amazing.

      Reply
  50. Student

    I have a messy desk.

    I want to clean my desk!

    Why have I not cleaned my desk? I spend too much of my “free time” at work already. I have a pile of (non-physical) to-do items that is suffocating me. at work. I already work long hours to try to keep from falling further behind, coming in regularly on days off or weekends to do the things that absolutely have to happen. I’m overloaded with work. I cannot bring myself to care enough about my desk to spend one extra hour per month on cleaning my desk, let alone one extra hour per week cleaning my desk.

    If I had more breathing room, I’d be a lot more willing to come in some weekend or stay late one night to fix my desk up. But now? While my husband is getting upset about the hours I work? While I’m spending time working on weekends and vacations regularly? No, I’d rather have a messy desk and see my husband more often.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      See, I think there’s a misapprehension that it takes time to clean your desk.

      It doesn’t actually take more time to KEEP your desk clean. “Don’t put it down, put it away,” my mother used to say. It’s actually only the tiniest bit more effort, and actually less effort than putting it down and moving it around seven or eight times.

      True, getting through a backlog would take time, because you’re doing things twice. But you can do it in small pieces.
      If you start putting the paper “away” instead of “down,” you keep it from getting worse.
      Once you’re doing that, then you can simply deal w/ one extra piece of paper every hour. It’ll be faster than you realize.

      And then you start to realize that lots of the paper on your desk is probably not important, because it’s still there. So you can probably toss a lot.

      also, you may be overloaded, but the time thinking about how to create your infrastructure and habits is time that will come back to you in small efficiencies later. (The key is to not create a fussy infrastructure–the bare minimum.) “Sharpening the saw,” they call it.

      Reply
      1. Cassie

        I’ve been trying to follow the “don’t put it down, put it away” mantra lately. My mom tends to put stuff down in whatever room she walks in to, and is constantly looking for her things.

        I try to keep my cubicle tidy and sparse – I like the minimalist look anyway and clutter makes me a bit anxious. There are times where I’m working on deadlines and I have piles of paper spread out, but I try when I can.

        I don’t judge people on their cubicles/offices (many of my coworkers are pilers) – I hate how everyone feels free to comment on my cubicle being clean or tidy.

        Reply
  51. yasmara

    When I actually worked in an office, this problem was solved because our high security protocols meant that even if you locked your door, you could not leave a single shred of paper on your desk when you left for the day. If you did (and were caught in a security check) your manager would be notified. Multiple security violations were grounds for firing. Fortunately, I work at home now and my security protocols are…not so robust.

    Reply
  52. CM

    Whether you’ll be judged depends on the people around you. But I think if you’re not defensive about it, and it’s not affecting your work, then you’re fine. If you actually want to clean up, you could ask your manager if it would be okay for you to spend a half-day on housecleaning, especially at a slow time, explaining that it will make you more productive.

    Reply
  53. Nick

    A messy desk is the sign of a creative and intelligent person a lot of the time. There have been times where my desk is many layers deep, but I know exactly where everything is.

    Look up Jim Williams. His lab bench was famously messy and it is now a shrine.

    Reply
  54. B

    I am a neat desk person, hate having clutter and such, especially at the end of the day. In fact, I work faster and am more diligent about the details if I am clean and no I do not have a neat freak secretary. Some people are made that way, as my house looks the same, and some people are made messy. However, first impressions are key and if you judge me most likely I will also be judging you.

    Reply
    1. OP Messy One

      I don’t get the same amount of work every day, but I get the same 24 hours! I wouldn’t stay late just to deal with a little paperwork that somebody dumped on me.

      Reply
  55. Joanna

    Spot on advice from Alison. A little clutter might make you look busy, but there is no social advantage to be gained by being very messy. And yep, it is TMI to say you grew up with a hoarder. If you have to mention hoarding, say it about yourself so people will think you’re being self-deprecating. Saying it about a parent makes it instantly credible, clearly not said in jest, so some people will be a little weirded out since that isn’t an everyday topic of conversation.

    Reply
  56. Abby

    My work desk is pretty austere, but my desk at home is A LOT messier with piles of statements, receipts, and papers to read. That said, I really don’t notice desks that are messy with a lot of paperwork/office supplies. My husband’s cube was a small city of papers, test products, and manuals. He was super apologetic about it, but I didn’t care at all.

    The only thing that bothers me are people who leave perishables sitting around for waaaay too long. Things like dirty dishes, half-eaten snacks, crumbs, and take-out containers– those gotta go.

    Reply
  57. De Minimis

    The big thing for me is interruptions. I’ll be working with one set of papers and then something else happens and I have to drop that and go to the next set of papers. This generally repeats several times each day. My workspace is also limited and that doesn’t help. Generally, nothing should be filed unless I won’t need it again that day, though there are some things that have to be filed ASAP [I learned when I don’t do this I get in trouble.]

    I think a lot of it is just a compatibility problem, but I will have to find a way to adapt. But I know my boss already sees me as disorganized, and I don’t know if that can be overcome.

    Reply
    1. OP Messy One

      Some of my temporary clutter is from someone dropping something off just as I’m heading off to a meeting. I attend to these things fairly quickly but they look bad piled on my desk. Fortunately I don’t have to file many papers. I get by with just one file drawer.

      Reply
      1. De Minimis

        My file drawer is not really suitable for use, it’s used mainly for petty cash and things like that.

        What I do these days is have a couple of file folders for things I’m not currently working on but need to keep in one place and easily accessible. That doesn’t work for a lot of my ongoing projects, though.

        Reply
        1. TootsNYC

          Maybe you need to figure out how to move that other stuff out of your file drawer. Or get another filing solution. You need tools.
          “A place for everything” is the first part of that formula. You can’t neglect it if you’re going to succeed.

          Reply
      2. Jaydee

        Get an inbox that you can either put on the corner of your desk or hang on the wall or your door. Anything someone brings to you goes in the inbox until you are able to properly attend to it. Then set aside time during the day to attend to the things in the inbox. Make sure it is empty when you leave each night.

        You’ve mentioned before that much of your “mess” is piles of things related to projects and that you are a very visual person. I am also very visual and used the use the pile “organizational system” but am trying to move away from that. Things that might work, depending on exactly what your piles consist of include:
        – Vertical file sorters (I have one friend who kept all her files out on shelves and other surfaces in vertical sorters rather than in a cabinet. It worked amazingly for her and her office was always very neat and orderly.)
        – Bookshelves divided into sections for each project. You can then either simply have neat piles of materials for two or three projects on each shelf or you can add in other organizational features like magazine files to hold loose papers or stacking trays to sort things within a project. Also, label each section or divide them visually with colored tape. Something that is a visual cue to yourself and others that this is a system and each project is contained to its place.
        – Visual proxies. If filing things away leads to “out of sight, out of mind” for you, then use a visual proxy to remember the thing that has been filed away. So if you need to work on files X, Y, and Z tomorrow, don’t put the whole file on your desk. Put the one thing you need to work on from each file on your desk. Or write “call Mr. X” on a post-it note, “send lid design ideas to Ms. Y” on another post-it, and “finish spout cost estimates for the Z gala teapots” on a third post-it and stick those on your desk. Then you have the visual reminder without the clutter. For a project that you need to do in the future, pick a date, write it on your calendar in a bright color, and file it away. Label your file drawers so it’s easy to see from the outside what’s in there.

        Reply
  58. FiveWheels

    My workspace often descends into chaos and taking a day to fix it is the only thing that helps. If I just cleared for an hour, by the end of the day I’d have filled it with more clutter. Short cleaning breaks just end up wasting the hour, but a whole half day or day can really help.

    The other half is that despite my natural inclination to clutter, I work a lot better when I’m in tidiness. So spending all Monday tidying can make the next four days more productive than five messy days.

    Reply
  59. Solidus Pilcrow

    A former co-worker had the neatest cluttered desk and cubicle you could imagine.

    How can it be both neat and cluttered at the same time, you ask? Read below!

    The clutter:
    He had lots of decorative items like calendars and souvenir beer coasters pinned to his cube walls and taped to the filing cabinets. He had stacks of papers on his desk and on the floor (he printed out pretty much everything). He had all sorts of knick-knacks and office supply items on his desk. Visually it was a lot of stuff. I don’t think there was more than a few square inches of clear space on the walls and desk.

    The neat:
    Each item on the cube walls and cabinets was hung perfectly straight with an even amount of spacing in between (items did not overlap). All the items on the desk where lined up at neat 90° angles with an even amount of spacing in between. The papers were neatly collected every night and stacked with projects alternating at a neat 90°. If you put a casual note on his desk it looked so out of place to the point of being sacrilege to the organization.

    This just illustrates that “clutter” and “organized” are not necessarily opposite terms just like “minimal” and “organized” are not necessarily synonyms.

    Reply
  60. Sara M

    OP, if Alison is willing–send her a photo. She can help you see if you’re panicking because of childhood stuff, or if you genuinely have a problem right now.

    Reply
  61. CF

    Child of a hoarder here. You don’t inherit hoarding tendencies, you can choose NOT to. I’m a minimalist. It’s obviously bothering OP and worth resolving. There’s a woman in my office whose desk is notoriously messy (spilling out of her cube) with the occasional pile of dirty dishes and, because of it, she has a reputation for not being organized or trustworthy. She’s a fine person but perception is reality.

    Reply
    1. Bookworm

      Yes. My partner’s mother has hoarding tendencies, and he too is pretty minimalist now. In fact, much like OP attributes her clutter to her mother, he attributes his minimalism as a response to his mother.

      I agree with pretty much everyone else. A spotless desk isn’t necessary, but people’s perception of you does matter and if you let things slide too far, is going to impact how people view you.

      Reply
    2. OP Messy One

      Growing up, my room was the cleanest room in the house. Since leaving home many years ago I have been less worried about things looking neat as functioning right. Even that is a struggle for me. I just never learned the daily habits that translate to neatness, and I don’t feel comfortable without stuff around me.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        You may not need to be really neat. You might just need to be a little neater. Please don’t assume that this is all or nothing- there are plenty of stages in between.

        I will tell you how much stuff I had here after I emptied out my father’s house. I went to my cousin’s house. Her family room was a very large open area- probably greater than 20 x30.
        My old dog could not walk through that open space, he was too used to the clutter I had. We had to help him walk across my cousin’s open room. I did eventually get my father’s stuff sorted, but it was in that moment I understood a bit about me. We get used to the stuff and in an odd way it comforts us and embarrasses us all in the same stroke. If I had the stuff then I still had part of my father with me.

        Again, an odd thing. I let go of some of the stuff and I found that my memories of my father were CLEARER. I had less of my father but I remembered him better.

        Start with know your “why” as in “why is this thing near me right now, why is it practical for me to have it here right now?”

        Reply
        1. TootsNYC

          Wow, poor dog! And what a powerful story to explain how we build our comfort zones.

          I have stuff in piles in my home, and when I clean them out, the place feels weird.

          Reply
          1. Not So NewReader

            He got maybe a third of the way into her family room and he shrunk right down, like cowering. Of course, we ran right over to him and let him know everything was okay. Then I walked with him across the room. After that he did much better.
            He was about 18 months old and he came into my life as I was finishing The Big Clean up.
            I never once thought about it impacting even my dog. It opened my eyes, for sure.

            Reply
  62. Afiendishthingy

    I have ADHD. Honestly, my brain is fairly disorganized. So is my desk. I tidy up if a) I glance at the desks of my two messiest coworkers and realize mine is messiest, and/or b) the clutter on my desk starts to really negatively impact my own frame of mind. I’ve found standing file holders to work much better for me than drawers or stacks, because things I can’t see are things I will forget exist.

    I also cleaned up a fair bit the night before the senior VP visited, on the off chance she would need to walk into my corner. (I’m pretty sure she didn’t.)

    Reply
  63. Anon scientist

    Part of it is the overall impression. My desk is fairly messy (paper only, a few tchochkes in a corner) but I dress up slightly. So even if I’m losing the paper fight, at least I’m professional.

    I have a coworker with a super messy desk who also tends to leave snacks/open containers around. So, possibly an attracting bugs issue. More importantly, he dresses right at the bottom of the dress code – the minimum amount that he can get away with. Because of the combination of “less professional” clothing and his office mess, it’s a real issue for his reputation. He wants to move to management, but the higher-ups are concerned that he won’t “clean up” for clients.

    Reply
    1. OP Messy One

      I do dress a notch up from a lot of my coworkers, including my boss. They may think of me as messy, but never slovenly!

      Reply
  64. newreader

    One important aspect is where your office/desk is. If you have an individual office with primarily internal visitors, a little bit messy might be okay, subject to company culture. But if your desk/office is in a public area, being messy could be a problem. The front office person whose desk is in the reception area where I work prefers a messy, cluttered workspace, which is a combination of personal knick-knacks and piles of work. I personally find the impression that gives to office visitors isn’t necessarily the most positive.

    For my coworkers that have non-public offices that are messy, I only view that as negative if they miss deadlines or can’t easily find materials that are hidden in piles or the office smells. Some jobs are more prone to the accumulation of piles of paper.

    Reply
  65. Ms. Elizabeth

    I had a previous manager who thought if desks were clean or not messy, then the person doesn’t have enough work to do.

    Reply
  66. AcademiaNut

    It’s really hard to say without seeing what the space actually looks at. I know people who would describe their space as “a bit messy, but I know where things are” when in reality it’s a disaster area that makes people uncomfortable to be around.

    For an office, I can think of a few specific guidelines. I think it’s very important that the space be clean – no food crumbs, empty food containers, dishes, utensils, wadded up bits of paper, empty packages, old cups, or visible food stains or dust. Excessively personal items should be tucked out of sight (cosmetics, medications, grooming tools, etc). And personal decorations should be reasonably restrained (some photos or a poster, a few knick-knacks, a potted plant, but not your 200 item Hello Kitty (or Star Wars) collection covering every available surface.

    For the rest – it’s probably a good idea to ask a colleague or two for an honest opinion. If you’re at the point where you need a day off to clean it, I’d say you probably need to contain the mess more. A set of stacking document holders could work to keep your current project-piles contained, and avoid the exploded recycling bin effect – the pile you’re actively working on can get lifted out, and the individual piles can be tucked into their slot at the end of the day, but still be visible.

    Reply
  67. Callie

    Messy desks are my pet peeve. I’m sorry, they just are. One year when I was a graduate assistant, I had to share an office with the professor I worked for because there was a severe shortage of office space. We shared a desk. Or rather, I had one tiny corner of this enormous desk, just big enough to put my laptop on, and the rest was covered in piles of paper. I mean piles of paper so tall that I could not see the DOOR when I was sitting at the desk. A literal paper fortress. There were desk copies of texts published five years ago, never read; five+ years’ worth of unread journals lying around, and degree plans for degrees we don’t even offer anymore. She said “I know where everything is.” Okay, great. Just do something with it. Every pile collected an enormous amount of dust and… you know what else likes paper and the glue from book bindings and cardboard boxes? ROACHES. And those roaches don’t just stay in your office, oh no. They go wandering through the building into other people’s offices. One whole bookcase was filled with paper xerox copies of journal articles. Nearly every journal one could possibly want in our field is online these days. How in the hell would one ever find anything in massive piles of copies of journal articles?

    Then we had another professor who died during the school year and a couple of his colleagues cleaned out his office a few months later. It took them F O R E V E R because of all of the junk everywhere. Another professor has an enormous office full of stacks of paper and all kinds of junk. He doesn’t even have room for his laptop on his desk because there is so much crap on it. There’s a couch in his office that I don’t think has ever been sat on since I’ve been here because… it’s covered in stacks of paper. There is no excuse for a professional workplace to look like that. If you want to live like that at home, that’s one thing (as long as you aren’t causing a health hazard for any children you might be raising) but your workplace is not your private property so have a little respect for your co workers, customers, clients, students, whoever.

    Reply
  68. Honeybee

    Unless, of course, you are an academic. In which case having a messy desk will be a sign of your obvious brilliance; clearly you are too busy thinking deep scientific thoughts to be bothered with mundane things like putting books on shelves.

    Reply
  69. OP Messy One

    Thanks for the comments Allison & everybody.

    My improvements thus far in life include dealing with vendor catalogs & professional trade mags right away… except for one trade mag that I need to READ rather than skim for rare actionable content. Those things used to pile up quickly. One of my piles includes old ones from before my change of habits, and I am now resolved to plow through it during my next slow day. (It’s not a big enough pile to occupy more than a few hours, probably)

    I had a shelf of stuff I’d pulled from various sources for tossing out then after assembling it all I had a change of heart (that’s a hoarder characteristic, I think). After a few months (not years!) I decided I really could pitch it since none of it had called to me in that time. Only one thing went back to where it had come from. Another pile of stuff to throw out has taken its place though.

    My desk looks more like Einstein’s than a hoarder’s, fortunately. I print out very few pages, so when I do it’s IMPORTANT STUFF!!! After considering the suggestions here, I’ve decided to label the piles after making sure everything in them really does relate to a future project and not a past one.

    re: filing. I hate to do it, and after doing it whatever’s in the files are dead to me. Since many of papers come from the computer in the first place, I’ll just make sure that the computer files are organized & titled well enough to find them when I need them (Generally they already are, though I recently spent a half day organizing my files & deleting back-up files which had started cluttering up my computer)

    Last takeaway: paper sorting trays or something horizontal since that would give me that visibility and would give minimalists who visit a sense of order. Fortunately, my area isn’t in public view and I don’t have customers coming in so I can make incremental changes.

    Thanks everybody

    Reply
    1. Aunt Helen

      This sounds like a great management plan. One little tip that works for me: I have slight hoarding tendencies myself, and before I take on a housecleaning project or a larger purge, I actually watch an episode or two of Hoarders first! Seeing the extreme levels of clutter allows me to be more ruthless when it comes to deciding what stays and what goes. This might work for you, since you said a visit to your mother’s house kickstarts your cleaning drive! Good luck!

      Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      You’re doing great.
      I totally get it about files, they can be a black hole.
      At home here, I arranged my files by the generic name. So my Ford Escort goes under A for “auto”, not F for Ford or E for Escort. When ever I get a new car the file stays in the same spot under “auto”. A family member filed the snow thrower under T for Toro, in their own file system. No one could find the paper work. This inspired me to use the generic name for everything, snow thrower goes under S for… snow thrower. sigh.

      The next thing I did was create a set of rules for my own file cabinet. I made a master list of all files, in alphabetical order. I typed the name of the file and what is allowed in that file. Some files are self-explanatory such as “air conditioner”. Some things are not obvious so I make a note in the rules. For example, “Large Kitchen Appliances” means the stove and fridge. “Small kitchen appliances” means every thing else. I have to write that out because on a day I am rushing about, I will not remember my goal for each of those files.

      Last thing is something I read in Taming the Paper Tiger. The author said to clean files as you go, as opposed to sitting down and doing the whole drawer or cabinet. How this works, is I happen to be looking for the instruction manual for my dvd player. I stumble across the instruction manual for my Beta VCR, which got tossed years ago. Since I am 100% certain the VCR is gone, I toss the manual out. Then I continue looking for the dvd player manual. I am not cleaning the whole file, I just happened to realize I did not need this one particular thing so I tossed it. And that is cleaning as you go. You don’t move mountains in one day with this approach because you are only tossing the things that you are 100% certain you do not need. But if it becomes your habit, you keep the piles down over the long term.

      Reply
      1. Dr. Johnny Fever

        If you want to make these changes, schedule them. Don’t leave them to “someday” or they won’t happen.

        I’m concerned that you may not want to change. You’ve spent a good deal of time comparing yourself to Einstein over your desk habits, defending yourself about your mess and why it works for you, judge neater people as mentally challenged and unworthy of respect, and even ask Alison outright to justify your POV.

        It’s a good sign that you are thinking about changing your habits as part of your personal journey, but comments indicate you may have some additional introspection to do on how you feel about your habits and how your experience has shaped your perceptions of people different from you.

        Reply
  70. Bea W

    People’s brains work differently when organizing. I can’t function with a minimal/bare desk. The saying “out of sight out of mind” applies there.

    There’s a difference between hording, in which you keep everything and collect things that aren’t actually needed for your work, and keeping things out that are relevant to your job. You can have a bunch of stuff on your desk or visible without either being a horder or related to one. I actually keep very little paper but things I do have that I need to access are all out because that is how I work best.

    Are you able to find things? Do your work? If so, your organizational style is working enough there’s probably not a problem that needs serious fixing.

    Reply
  71. Polka dot bird

    I also lose track of tasks over time, but I manage that by keeping to do lists. To me, maintaining visual contact is a poor way of managing your work, and I would think poorly of a coworker in that case.

    Overall I think you just need to project that you are in control of your space and that there is space for visitors. It doesn’t have to be minimalist but it should look deliberate.

    Reply

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