Finding benefits in a messy desk

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

I have a cluttered desk at work. Some people would call it messy.

I prefer to think of it as testimony to the fact I'm hard at work.

I've always been suspicious of people with clean desks. If they have time to clean off their desks, doesn't that mean they don't have enough to do?

Some of my bosses view a clean desk as a major achievement.

Unfortunately, it's an achievement I'll never master.

But maybe that's a good thing. According to the authors of the book "A Perfect Mess," a messy desk can be the product of an effective worker. Authors Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman say there's a price to being neat in terms of staff, time and computer system costs.

"Neatness and organization can exact a high price, and it's widely unaccounted for," they argue in a news report that I was only too glad to read on my work computer surrounded by piles of paperwork.

The general assumption is that an organized person is a successful person.

But Albert Einstein never fit that rule. By all accounts, his desk at Princeton University was in constant disarray. I'm no Einstein, but I like to think that my college education taught me something.

The "Perfect Mess" authors claim that messiness tends to increase sharply with increased education, salary and experience. Now that's high praise.

And Abrahamson and Freedman say there's no research that clearly shows any benefits from neatness. That's not surprising. How can you find any benefits if they're filed away in some drawer?

The authors say a messy desk has its benefits. "In general, on a messy desk the more important, urgent work tends to stay close by and near the top of the clutter while the safely ignorable stuff tends to get buried to the bottom or near the back, which makes perfect sense," the authors say.

They refer to a messy desk as an informal filing system that can be more efficient than putting all that paperwork in a filing cabinet.

I'm going to have to read this book as soon as I get to the bottom of all the junk on my desk. Of course, that may take years.

At times, I wish I had a bigger desk. That way, I could pile more stuff on top of it.

Fortunately, I do have a chair beside my desk. I share it with another reporter. But I often use it for the overflow of press releases, newspapers, reporter's notebooks and other items that come my way.

Recently, I became a little neater. I've started piling the excess items back on my desk at night.

In the morning, they return to their favorite spot on the chair. But at least it's a start.

Naturally, I don't want to go overboard with tidying up. I don't have time for it.

Cleaning up my desk would take valuable time away from my reporting duties, although I admit that all that clutter can lead me to wrestle with a lot of sheets of paper and countless notebooks to find just the right information that I need for a particular story.

At the same time, I know that the items I need are on the desk somewhere.

That can be reassuring. It's kind of like having a cluttered car. You know you can find a change of clothes and extra shoes and even jackets in the vehicle when you need them. You can find assorted pens, paper and even an extra pair of earrings stashed in the vehicle.

All that clutter can help you in an emergency.

At work, a little clutter also means you don't have to worry about dusting off your desk.

Just sorting through the pile of stuff keeps dust bunnies from making a permanent home atop your work space.

I'm feeling better just writing about the appearance of my desk. I increasingly have a more organized view of my disorganization.

If these authors are right, a little contagious clutter can be a good thing.

Mark Bliss is a staff writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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