Clean Your Messy Desk, Lest Ye Be Judged

Illustration by Andrew Joyner

Matt Lucas works at a desk that’s covered with origami paper cranes made out of Black Jack gum wrappers. There are probably over 150 of them, collecting under his computer monitor and spilling out all over the place. “I chew gum compulsively at work,” Lucas says, “I don’t know why. I am obviously extremely nervous at work, or I wouldn’t be doing this. I’ve glued some of them into a chain.” Lucas works in a small, windowless room with two other people at Portland State University’s student health center. The cranes compete for desk space among piles of paper, coffee cups, and a Vincent Price doll. He has received complaints.

“If I’m gone for a day, I’ll come back and my desk will be mysteriously cleaner,” he says. One of his co-workers is extremely “finicky” about cleanliness, he says, and although she’s never said anything to Lucas directly, he knows that the origami pile bothers her. One time he came to work and found all of his paper cranes stuffed in a drawer.

I’ve always been fascinated by people like Lucas, and not just because of his unwavering commitment to his neuroses. When I see people with cluttered desks, I think: But how do you get any work done? Don’t the old food containers gross you out? Don’t the stuffed animals artfully arranged on top of your cubicle distract you? Doesn’t the pile of papers make you feel too disorganized to accomplish anything?

“Oh, very definitely,” says Lucas.

Workplace clutter is “a tremendous waste of productivity,” says Katherine Trezise, president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization—and a woman whose desk, I imagine, is spotless. Trezise says that a little mess is OK, but that “the problem comes in when it affects other people. Can you do your job? Maintain relationships with colleagues?” If the answer is no, you might need to rethink your habits.

“I used to work with a woman who simply would not put any paperwork away,” says Stephanie Stump, in Smyrna, Tenn. “We worked in accounts receivable, and she had like 16 banker’s boxes stacked up in a tower beside her desk—just stacks and stacks of paper—until management made her put them in storage.” Stump says that she judged the woman more harshly because of the mess. “It makes you wonder if they have some sort of security hang-up that they can’t toss a check from two years ago,” she explains.

Stump’s reaction to her co-worker’s clutter is fairly typical; according to a survey of U.S. workers by hiring firm Adecco, 57 percent of people have judged a co-worker based on the state of his or her workspace. A clean desk sends the message that you’re organized and accomplished, while a disheveled one implies that the rest of your life is in a similar state.

But when I asked self-admittedly messy people about their own desks, everyone but Lucas claimed that the rules didn’t apply to them. Their mess was different. It was “organized chaos,” said one person. “I have a system,” said another. And while Stump took issue with her co-worker’s boxes, she saw nothing weird about the dozens of toy ducks that used to line three of her four cubicle walls.

“I need this mess,” says Jeff Rodgers, who runs a photography studio with his wife in Collierville, Tenn. “I put stuff on my desk because I like to be able to see everything I have to work on.” Right now, that “everything” includes: paperwork, photos, an iPad, design magazines, and bulky camera equipment—all of which are fighting for space between his two computer monitors. “I can scoot the mess to the left or right so I have a few inches of space for my tablet and keyboard,” he says, as if that makes things better. His wife’s desk is even worse; at one point she abandoned it completely and moved to the office’s kitchen table.

People like Rodgers, says Trezise, “feel like they have to have visual cues or they won’t get anything done. But if you have everything sitting out, it eventually becomes like wallpaper.” Trezise suggests you create a system—a to-do list, electronic reminders, whatever works for you—and take 10 minutes out of every day to clean your office. There are also endless tricks you can use to stop the clutter before it starts: employing a system of folders, using digital files instead of paper copies, opening mail over the trash can so you keep only the important items. There’s also my favorite trick: randomly throwing everything on your desk away, even if you still need it. These tips work if you adhere to them, but messy people rarely do. Personal organizing campaigns are the color-coded OCD version of going on a diet.

Rodgers knows all of these tricks. He’s purchased 10 books about office organization—and placed them, barely read, on a bookshelf above his desk. To make himself feel better, he’s also researched other people’s messy desks. He’ll happily tell you that Albert Einstein was a known slob (that’s obvious, just look at his hair). Abraham Lincoln worked among piles of papers; he even reportedly kept a note on one stack that read, “When you can’t find it anywhere else, look into this.” And Alexander Fleming’s desk was so dirty that one day he discovered penicillin on a forgotten petri dish. “I’m not saying I’m like Einstein or anything,” Rodgers says. “I’m just saying that his desk was cluttered.” Fair enough. And the next time someone discovers a theory that fundamentally reshapes the way we view the universe, I’ll hire them a maid.