I have a confession to make. I’m a Christian. Hey, don’t go, it will be alright. Being a Christian and having a confession to make is a good combination because Christians are a confessing bunch. Confession is good for the soul and for life, so I have another confession to make. My desk is a mess! My desk is always a mess. My desk has always been a mess. I confess I don’t see this changing. I guess that’s 4 confessions – ooh I feel much better now. A great weight has been lifted.
I am a fairly organized fellow. I tend to think logically but not necessarily linearly. If I am involved in doing something I like to plan the steps. It doesn’t always work out as planned, as some of my posts will attest, but there is always a plan in my head. I was a good project manager and seeing the steps in a process comes naturally to me. You’d think this tidy approach to things would spill over into other aspects of my behaviour. Well you would have thought wrongly.
Take my desk, please! (Thanks to the King of one-liners, Henny Youngman).
My desk is littered with clutter, it isn’t cluttered with litter though, I don’t like litter. There are disorganized looking piles of books, papers, notes, spare ink cartridges and a few pens and pencils. This is my home office. When I was employed my desk was the same. Before becoming a priest I had worked in several offices – some small and some large corner offices. For many of my last years in Government I had a personal secretary. I always thought personal secretary meant someone who looked after you personally. No! I discovered it is someone who get’s personal with you, making personal remarks, like “Your desk is a mess”, or “How can you find anything on that desk”, or “I don’t have that file, I gave it to you last week and you’ve buried it somewhere in here”.
I even had one crazy woman secretary who actually tried to sort out my desk while I was away at a meeting! I couldn’t find anything for a week. My desk may have looked messy and disorganized to other people, but I knew roughly where everything was. I think I have a graphic imagination – not the lurid kind – the kind that sees things in spacial reference. Unfortunately as I get older I find my spacial recognition software not quite as accurate as it used to be. There is a little more seek and find and worse, seek and not be able to find action than there used to be.
I remember a colleague from IBM complaining about the company’s clean desk policy. Every desk had to be perfectly clear of papers before its owner left for the day. My friend had a very large top drawer and would just sweep the contents of his desktop into the drawer, lock it up and go home. Take that, policy making police.
I must admit I detest filing. Always did. I would tend to make up a new file name for each piece of paper I had and then couldn’t remember the name of the file to retrieve it from. Another colleague had a simple filing system. It had two files – in-coming and outgoing, each was filed in chronological order.
I preferred to give the papers to my secretary and say “please file this”, and then she could find it when I asked for it back. This worked well with most of my secretaries, particularly the last one – she was extremely well-organized and life was good. Except for the raised eyebrows when she looked at my desk, credenza, coffee table, or any other horizontal surface within my spacial domain.
It didn’t work well with Camille. Camille had been working for me for about a year. She was a lovely person and very helpful. She never once mentioned my desk. However, she went on vacation and I borrowed another secretary for a while. I asked for a document from the file on a project. Half an hour later she came back and said she couldn’t find it. I thought that was strange as it was a current project and should be easy to retrieve. I went into my secretary’s office to help find the document. The temporary helper looked embarrassed as I opened the file drawers. They were lateral files and inside were heaps of documents. Nothing had been filed for a year! I couldn’t believe it. Camille and I had a few words when she returned and Camille took some document management training. How she had been able to get me documents when I needed them is still a mystery to me. It also explained the wide-eyed look she would make when I asked for something from several months back.
I have met some brilliant people who had exceptionally messy offices and some people with immaculate offices who seemed, well, pretty useless (some had PhD’s). And the reverse was true too. I expect the psychologists and behaviourists can explain the ins and outs of the various ways of desk-keeping, but I don’t really care. I confess I have a messy desk and that’s the way it is.
Yet, when I transfer to another field of endeavour – cooking – I can’t stand disorganization or mess. I want anything unrelated to the particular task removed, put away. I start by organizing my kitchen space so I know where I will do each task. I know where I will chop and prepare, I know where I will mix and stir, I know where I will put the hot things that come out of the oven. I like to know there will be space for items that will need refrigerating before I take them to the fridge.
I like to get all my ingredients out before I start, and placed in the order I will need them. If I measure out some olive oil, I immediately replace the bottle. If I use measuring spoons I prefer to wash them out so they are ready for the next ingredient. If I chop something up with the chef’s knife I like to wash it off and put it back in its place. I find it frustrating when someone else leaves stuff all over the kitchen while cooking, no names will be revealed here.
It’s like I am a Dr. Jekyll in the kitchen and My Hyde in the office – or the other way round depending upon your disposition. I wonder about this at times. Why can’t I be like I am in the kitchen in my office/study? Is there a different process involved here? I enjoy cooking and Susan and I share the cooking duties and work well together, but we do tend to have a different approach to organizing and preparing.
One last remembrance about messy desks in business. I was working for a data processing organization that had adopted the IBM system for performance reviews. I remember that the supervisor and employee would agree on the main requirements of the employee’s position. The supervisor and employee would each rate the employees performance on a scale from 1 – 5 with 5 being just about perfect. I had had a good year and a boss who really appreciated me. When we sat down for my review he said he had a problem. He had rated me a 5 in each category. Personally I couldn’t see the problem here. He didn’t think it would go over well with HR, they thought everyone had room for improvement (I tend to agree with HR on this). I decided to help out my boss (I must have been nuts). I reminded him that he had often complained about my messy desk. Not that I really consider desk tidiness as a performance issue, but I had to give the guy something. Well, he jumped on this. “Yes, that b—-y desk of yours. I don’t know how you find anything or get anything done, it’s a disgrace”. He then wrote up a ‘plan’ for how I would improve and how we would monitor this change. He set a goal for the time of next review! That was the last time I ever helped a supervisor with their task of reviewing my performance.
Many years later I worked for the Executive Director of an organization as the managing partner. My boss suddenly got the performance review bug and we sat down to discuss my performance – also using a 1-5 scale with 5 being almost perfect. I decided to take charge of things. I told my boss that I would never argue with any rating he gave me as it was his assessment. However, if he rated me less than a 5 in any area, I would want him to help me by telling me exactly what I would need to do to be a 5 in his eyes. We looked at each anther across his desk. I received all 5s and we never had another performance review 🙂 and I still had a messy desk.
I confess I’m a mess!