A reader in Philadelphia sent me a newspaper article about Arthur Shostak, a Drexel University sociology professor and charter member of the World Futurist Society, with the accompanying note: "I thought you might enjoy the chaos in the futurist’s office."
In the article, Shostak was predicting job trends for the 21st century, but the photo of his office showed a distinctly 20th-Century air of disarray . . . books to the ceiling, boxes of papers and more books on the floor and on the desktop, the file cabinets, the spare table and chair – all covered.
That scene reminded me of what I’ve said in the past about messy offices: They all look alike. It also reminded me of two former winners of a Messy Office contest. So I checked back with Warren Thomas of Ft. Lauderdale, and Peter Dawson of St. Clair Shores to see if they were now living lives of sleek, uncluttered serenity.
Well, not exactly. After working with a professional organizer (his award in the contest), Dawson, an attorney, reported, "The main part of the desk is pretty clutter-free." Dawson also says he’s now splitting some of his mail into ‘junk’ and ‘keep’ piles and "making quicker decisions about whether I want to read something." So there is progress.
But he looks back nostalgically at his messy old days. "There was an organization scheme behind the mess. Now that it’s filed away, I either have to tell people I’ll call them back or find where it was filed."
As for steel company owner Warren Thomas, "I’m embarrassed," he says. "You should see my desk. But it’s nothing that can’t be remedied in about half an hour." During his session with an organizer, Thomas threw away three garbage cans full of paperwork and freed up work space behind his desk, where he now stores work that formerly clogged his desk.
So, a little backsliding. It happens.
Change Bad Habits, One at a Time. Just because you’re a backslider doesn’t mean you’re incurable. One way you can still improve your messiness quotient is by changing habits incrementally, if not totally.
For example, let’s say you always tend to keep a certain type of junk mail, then find yourself throwing it out, unopened, months later. Starting now, just throw it out. Don’t wait months to make the same decision. You’ll feel better, having made a decision on the spot. And your junk mail pile will be that much smaller.
Pick one fault at a time and attack it. It’s the theory of gradualism. Not so dramatic as getting organized cold turkey, but few of us have the willpower for that.
Here are some more tips for getting a more organized grip on your mess.
Be brutally honest. The reason piles develop is a benign one: optimism. We really really want to believe we’re going to get around to reading something or writing someone back or using the information on all those pieces of paper. If you don’t file that stuff or throw it out, it allows you to maintain the illusion that you are going to get to it.
But that’s not an illusion covering every surface in your office. That’s a mess! So practice being brutally honest as you clean up: "I’m not writing back (toss). . . I’m not ever going to read this (toss)." Aaah! Doesn’t it feel great to toss away those illusions, those obligations you will never meet?
Pretend you’re leaving tomorrow. Each day, treat your work space as if you were leaving tomorrow, forever. Clear your decks; keep those memos moving; do what absolutely must be done (that’s all most of us are able to do anyway). Toss the rest.