Untidy and organized

I can’t believe it! There she goes again! She’s tidied up and I can’t find anything! — Thomas Dolby

Things organized neatly is not me. While I appreciate looking at images of precisely organized spaces, I’ve discovered feeling ashamed of my workspace is detrimental to my work. My office is a living thing, not an exhibit. I’m a stacker. About a year ago, I abandoned the guilt I generated by not maintaining a white glove-ready workspace. In doing so, I’ve relieved some stress, became more productive, and realized that untidy and organized are not mutually exclusive.

The Tidal Wave

Every few months I would succumb to an urge to transform my home office into a museum exhibit. I spent hours arranging my office and finding a home for everything. I called my self a neat person. Neat people are highly organized and productive. They’re intellectual and competent. I am one of those people.

Within a week, the piles returned, as did the guilt. Clearly, I’m not one of those tidy, on-top-of-things people.

Evidence, Not Enemy

When I finish a day’s work, I look at my Mac’s desktop. Screenshots, photos, snippets of text, emails and so forth fill the screen, strewn here and there. Before I throw it all way, I consider the jumble. That’s the evidence of a day’s work.

So is the stuff in my office.

I pulled ideas or reference material from those books. The photos reminded me of something or someone I love (like my kitchen from my childhood home in Scranton). The papers hold all sorts of goodies — contracts I’ve signed, drawings from the kids, numbers I’ve called, arrangements I’ve made.

This is the evidence of my work. Some would put the book on a shelf after reading. I’d rather simply put it down and start writing. I like the photos where they are so I can reference them anytime. I work hard, and this stuff is a part of the result.

Untidy and Organized

There’s a very important distinction to make here. Namely, the huge difference between processed and unprocessed stacks. A random pile of stuff that contains items you can’t even identify is not acceptable. I’m not condoning an amorphous heap of who-knows-what, nor should your office become a huge inbox.

Everything in my office has been processed and assigned an appropriate home. That is to say, I look at every item and ask myself:

  1. What is it? A task? A project? Trash or reference material?
  2. What must be done? File it? Toss it? Add to a project or task list?
  3. Where does it live? A folder, cabinet, desk, etc?

Once I’ve determined the answer to each question, I act accordingly. That way, everything is where it ought to be. Even if its home is a small pile on the corner of my desk.

Well Enough

How precisely organized should I be? Enough to pass a white glove test? No. That’s not going to happen, and imposing that ideal on myself is actually counter-productive. So, I stay organized enough to achieve my goals. Today, I achieve what I’m after, stacks and all. I’m okay with it. I have things I love around me, like photos, drawings and Disney Vinylmations. It’s working and, more importantly, I am.

When I was younger, my grandmother’s house was kept like a museum. It was gorgeous and sterile. My office is a working space. Stuff gets done, and dust is raised. Detritus is strewn about. Like a potter who goes home with clay on his jeans, I get messy when I work.

But the result is beautiful.

18 Comments for “Untidy and organized”

  1. posted by Alex on

    Amen! For visual people, out of sight is out of mind.

    The key to any “system” of organization is that it must work for YOU. If I can find what I’m looking for, and have space in which to work with it once I’ve found it, I’m organized.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. posted by Dave on

    Thanks, Alex!

  3. posted by Aleisha on

    “Like a potter who goes home with clay on his jeans, I get messy when I work.” I LOVE that sentence!

  4. posted by Dave on

    Thanks, Aleisha!

  5. posted by E. on

    GOD I can so relate to this!!! Periodic attempts to tame the tiger, then unable to find anything! Let’s give it up!

    One kicker: If you’re NOT a one-person operation, ya might have to think a little beyond, “Well, I know where it is and that is all that matters!”

  6. posted by Jeannette on

    The key here is “untidy AND organized.”

    I agree that you don’t need a museum-perfect workspace to get things done. And it is great that you are not guilting yourself about having an “untidy” (a relative term) workspace.

    That said, I’ve found that I personally can only stand so much visual clutter around me without it affecting my concentration. Because my work requires a lot of reference material (on and offline), there comes a point where I have to put some stuff elsewhere.

    I, too, am a “piles” person and as long as I can maintain those piles correctly, all works well.

    I’ll never be a fan of those totally pristine places (seriously, what kind of work is is that doesn’t require some other physical paraphernalia? Lucky folks.) but I do like a tidy and orderly general workspace.

    In the end, however, it is about how well an individual functions and if it works for them, yippee.

    The only caveat: If someone’s workspace is either shared or needed to be accessed by others who cannot find things in one’s personal system, then some form of adaptation has to be considered.

    I worked with a woman whose desk was always a mess with papers strewn everywhere. However, she could, in an instant, find anything. I’ve also worked with folks whose desks and offices and workspaces were immaculate. Yet, they could not find stuff.

    So…it’s about function, not looks. (And yes, it means being clean and hygenic, too, which is often hard to maintain with a lot of stuff.)

  7. posted by Jessiejack on

    OK – let’s see some pictures!!

  8. posted by Michael Tannery on

    Even as a professional organizer, my desk at home can have periods of “need-to-sort” days. There is a huge difference between unorganized, and disorganized, and it’s easy to identify which type my clients are. As long as there are no stacks of doom, it’s easy to keep things under control.

  9. posted by Leslie Sorenson on

    Well said. Many years ago I came to the same conclusion. I still occasionally go on a cleaning spree and put everything back in its assigned place. But my day to day existence is what I like to call organized clutter.

  10. posted by Anna on

    So with you! Have all of you other untidy but organized folks read “A Perfect Mess”? I swear that book is how I dropped my guilt about my writing process. (Thankfully) I live alone, so when I write I make piles of notes for sections and leave them throughout a room or the apartment. Every now and then one of my friends will come over and try to “help” by combining side by side piles and be utterly shocked at my shouts of horror! It’s a weird system, but it’s like navigating an article by walking from idea to idea. Every time I have tried a tactic like outlining (recommended by the organized friends), I’ve ended up happily back with my piles! I love it.

  11. posted by [email protected] on

    The key is what you said: “I stay organized enough to achieve my goals.”

  12. posted by LoriBeth on

    I guess I’m an inbetweener. When I’m in the middle of a project, I have things scattered everywhere. But when I’m finished, it all gets cleaned up nicely, tools put away where they belong, all to await the chaos that happens the next time inspiration strikes!

  13. posted by Debbie P on

    One of the best-written and practical articles yet. Thanks, Dave!

  14. posted by Dave on

    Thanks, Debbie!

  15. posted by MelD on

    You oughta love this…
    Swiss artist Urs Wehrli at TED

  16. posted by Dave on

    MelD that was great, thanks!

  17. posted by neuro on

    This is the first unclutterer post that I adore. I am a messy but very organized person. At times, I need to decrease the mess.
    My major peroblem is how to keep my piles with an inquisitive and agile little kid around. He wants to do what I do: move papers.. I’m going to try piles on high shelves.. Any suggestion?

  18. posted by Vicki B on

    Hey Neuro,

    If I am not careful my adult son (who is developmentally delayed) will “file” my papers for me. “File” translates to “I will never find them again.” Over the years I have helped him find papers that are important to him. His papers include pictures of boats and trucks and cars and horses – his interests. I put his papers in boxes and folders so he can keep them organized. I don’t know what he is thinking when he “plays papers,” but he is happy and my papers are generally safe.

    I do still need to be careful that my papers are only on MY desk. We have had conversations about the meaning of “my” and he gets it. I still don’t dare leave stray papers on any other surfaces.

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