A Fine Mess, Indeed

Digging out from clutter can mean rethinking who you are

By Lisa Bergson

A placard in my father's office announced: "A messy desk is a sign of genius." He worked at the third in a trail of desks scattered around the front room of his small manufacturing company, each one abandoned when it became too cluttered to negotiate. It has been two decades since I inherited not just my father's business but also his untidy ways. I'm buried under stacks of papers, miscellaneous missives, and mementos. One lopsided pile, dedicated to new-business development, is 12 inches high and rests precariously on the sideboard of my father's old desk, now mine.

"You know where it all is," my employees say. I'm loath to correct them, but half the time I have no idea where "it" is. I tell myself this is a matter of priorities, that I deal with urgent matters while moving along product development, marketing, investor relations, and so forth. And like most messy people, I harbor a sense of superiority over neatniks; I'm simply too busy to waste time shuffling papers.

Lately, though, I've started to feel embarrassed by the turmoil and immaturity the mess reflects. It doesn't help when a major customer visiting from Germany winks at me and says: "I saw your desk." Meanwhile, my employees have to stand -- the short ones on tiptoe -- to see me over the piles. I may have an open door, but it's not exactly hospitable.

The truth is, I waste more time searching for papers than I would spend filing them in the first place. I've delayed product introductions by misplacing brochure copy and practically forfeited patent deadlines when the instructions for filing got lost in the compost heap.

So when a friend and fellow pack rat raves about her professional organizer, I beg for her number. "She's demanding," my friend warns me. "It can be emotional."

The problems begin when the organizer refuses to communicate by e-mail. We set a time to talk that unfortunately coincides with a late landing at a Philadelphia airport. Her spiel follows me through the airport and into the parking lot. I'm being hit with the corporate rate -- higher than my friend's rate -- and will need to start by seeing the organizer for five hours at a time, twice a month.

She deigns to accept my case, but I'm reluctant to hire her. I try to convince myself that I need to be bullied into changing my messy ways. Still, a gentler touch would be welcome. "I can help you," offers Evelyn, my soft-spoken, efficient assistant. Relieved, I tell the organizer goodbye.

Evelyn and I start by attacking the far corner of my desk, a cornucopia of restaurant clippings, publicity about a long-ago trade show, and dated minutes from monthly Occupational Safety & Health Administration meetings.

We manage to scrap or file most of it. I keep excavating, trying not to let the daily flow of papers and mail compound the problem. It's actually exciting to see brown wood appear.

And then a funny thing happens: Once I can see my father's scratched-up old desk, I start to dislike it. The more of it that comes into view, the more irritated I become. For years I treasured the legacy it embodied, but now the big boxy desk begins to feel like a tomb. Instead, I envision a delicate antique desk with flowers in a pretty vase. Best of all, it would be free of clutter.

Lisa Bergson is president and CEO of both MEECO Inc., a 35-person manufacturer of trace analytical equipment, and its spin-off, Tiger Optics LLC.

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