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Don’t Work in a Goat’s Stomach

When I was working in the nine-to-five world, there was a gentleman down the hall whose office inevitably looked like it had been stirred up with a stick; a desk loaded with piles of paper, dirty cups, takeout containers, a magic eight ball, and a keyboard that looked like you’d be better offer wearing a hazmat suit when you touched it, more piles of papers on the desk, on the floor, on the chairs … shelving that was loaded with books, photos and (bizarrely) pieces of sporting equipment, various items of clothing tossed hither and yon: jackets, sweaters, socks, shoes, hats etc. One day, our boss walked by and said, “That office looks like the inside of a goat’s stomach.”

Not surprisingly, he wasn’t with the company much longer.

What I’ve learned since then is that my colleague had created a Petri dish of the three kinds of recognized office clutter: these are (as identified by psychologist Sam Gosling) “identity clutter” including photos of family, friends, pets, etc. which are designed to remind us we have a life outside the office. “Thought and feeling regulators,” which are chosen to change our mood; squeezable stress balls, miniature Zen gardens, daily affirmation calendars. And then “behavior residues” including old coffee cups, food wrappers, post-its stuck to the keyboard, etc.

The trouble with having a disproportionate number of these items in and around your office sends a message to those around you that you are out of control. As one of my clients said to me after we walked past a disastrously messy office on the way to her conference room, “Don’t they realize I notice—and care?”

Now I’m not saying you can’t have a few personal items. I am certainly not going to mandate, as one of my clients did, what kinds of flowers you are allowed to receive (in their office, you can have your loved ones send you a white orchid—that’s it.) but I am saying there are a number of items I would prefer never to see again.

For example, I would happily forego having grooming products left in plain sight, piles of alternate shoes under the desk, stuffed animals (should you, indeed, have sixty Beanie Babies, best to keep them at home) or bouquets of old, or dead roses sent to you by your significant other last Valentine’s Day. Old Coke cans, food wrappers, dirty coffee cups, etc., should be dealt with immediately, and any food that’s going to smell up the vicinity should be thrown out in a garbage can down the hall where it has a limited potential for offending the noses of others. (This includes banana peels.) I’m also not a fan of the personal coffee cup warmer. It makes me worry your crock-pot isn’t far behind.

In all this, I recognize that people respond differently to different stimuli; that there are those among us who are sparked by visual reminders and that putting everything in drawers is, in fact, disastrous for them as it’s “out of sight, out of mind.” If this is the case for you, I would recommend buying two wire rack step files for your desk: one for current projects and one for “to do” items. This keeps the things you need in plain sight but ensures the top of your desk isn’t chaotic. You might also organize two rows of items on one side of your desk, with those that are most time sensitive at the front.

I also know that an office has to be worked in and that worrying about keeping it pristine can, ultimately, detract from focusing on what you need to accomplish. For this reason, it can also help to set aside fifteen minutes at the middle and end of your day to clear your desk/chairs/floor of any accumulated clutter. A principle applied by airlines and luxury bus lines, these intermittent sweeps help keep things from piling up.

Ultimately, your desk/office is an extension of who you are and if you’re presenting a chaotic, dirty shop front to the world, it’s hard for those around you to believe in the quality of the work you can, or will, produce.