Let’s Not Get Messy

If you are one of those people who doesn’t care what others think about you, you might want to reconsider when it comes to your desk. Adecco did a survey several years ago which showed that 57% of those surveyed admit they judge their coworkers by how clean or messy their workspace is. If you are a neat freak, you might equate a messy desk with a lack of organizational skill, or worse, to laziness. This, of course, can impact employee evaluation results if workplace cleanliness is a factor in the company’s appraisal system.
On the flip side, the owner of a messy desk doesn’t have time to consider the neat person’s desk too much, as he or she is simply too busy with other things, like keeping up with a deluge of new ideas and assignments, and likely admires the tidy desk for the lack of work waiting visibly for its owner.

Entertainingly, there are some studies that address workspace maintenance; one study conducted at the University of Minnesota in 2013 shows that people who work at a tidy desk are more prone to healthy eating, generosity and conventionality, while people who work at a messy desk are more likely to come up with new ideas and creative thinking. Another study from MIT further reviews disorderliness stating that “messiness is often associated with [not only] artistic, creative and scientific or mathematical genius, spontaneity, but also with carelessness, eccentricity, madness and unreliability.” Someone tell that to Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain – all known for having cluttered desks!

Notable exceptions aside, to the average worker like myself, a messy workspace might lead one to feel overwhelmed, overworked and disorganized. You might not know where to start your day when you see the heap of files stacked on your desk, or you might forget to fullfill a promise because your post-it note got buried under a stack of mail. Maybe you lost time looking for an important piece of information; apparently executives lose up to six weeks per year looking for lost items and information.

One of the main reasons a clean desk leads to higher productivity is by the sense of control and self-regulation. Two years ago, UBC PhD students Boyoun Chae and Rui Zhu wanted to find out what impact messiness would have on an employee. After conducting multiple experiments involving focused tasks in either tidy or untidy environments, they came to the conclusion that an orderly environment contributed to increased determination and perseverance in the completion of a task, either simple, challenging or impossible. The researchers then applied the following theory: the mess threatened a student’s sense of personal control, dealing with that threat caused their mental resources to go down, which in turn led to a failure of their self-regulation. One way of measuring self-regulation, which is your ability to direct yourself to do something you know you should do, is persistance.

You might be one of those people who can focus and work successfully in an ‘organized’ mess, but if you feel overwhelmed every time you walk into your office, consider tidying things up for a day or a month. If you already have a neat desk and want to know how to keep it that way, go directly to step 2.

Step 1 – Clean your desk and office:
● Go through all the papers on your desk and in your office and digitize as many of them as you can. Make sure you have a good scanner, or use a scanning app on your phone to get the best results.
● Give everything in your office or personal work area a space: have a filing cabinet for archived papers, have an inbox for papers to take care of that day… Walk through a store such as Staples or the Container Store and look for items that can help you in your quest, such as folders, filing cabinets and even pencil holders.
● Clear everything on the floor and make sure to have a place to hang your coat and bag. If you have a locker or closet, it is best to put everything in there instead of on the floor. Clutter like this will only distract you as you are working.
● Create a flow of actions: if this happens, then do this; if that happens, then do that. There is a a website called IFTTT which allows you to create applets (=chains of conditional statements) to automate certain tasks. For example, if you receive an email with a meeting date and time, it can automatically create a calendar entry. While this will not help to keep your office or desk clean, it will keep your desktop clean, and you should set up the same flow of automation for physical papers that come into your office or desk area.
● Having a clean desktop is just as important as having a clean desk. Make sure to create folders for each type of file instead of cluttering everything on your desktop. If you store a lot of files, and digitized the ones from your desk, download Evernote to keep all your files and ideas organized.

Once you get through step 1, things will get a lot easier. If you stay on top of everything, you will never have to spent hours on cleaning up again. Just think about how it used to be, and use it to motivate yourself to keep up the neatness, and keep these simple tips in mind.

Step 2 – Keeping it clean:
● Never let your mess get out of hand, so choose a specific time each week you will go through every stack of papers to clean them up. All you will need are about ten or fifteen minutes a week to keep on top of things.
● Having a neat desk also means keeping it clean, so make sure to wipe your desk, computer and keyboard at least once a week to take care of germs.
● Use your desk for useful items, not to store things. Your desk should only have on it what it needs: computer, mouse, keyboard, pen and paper. Everything else should be stored in drawers and taken out when needed only.

For optimum functionality of a desk, keeping a clean workspace goes a long way to not only maintaining the wellbeing of your office and the appreciation and respect for your employers, but also that of your own and your colleagues’ health. Cleaners aren’t necessarily allowed to touch desks to give them a deep clean, so users can make a big difference in helping to maintain a sanitary work environment. If you don’t stay on top of things, some extreme, but rare, situations can ensue:

“Since our traditional clientele base has consisted of trading outfits, we understand how tough our desks have to be in order to withstand multiple relocations, refits, reconfigurations, and roughhousing of the desks. Over the years of responding to service orders, we have learned that undesirable situations can be prevented by simple cleanliness and tidiness, especially when it comes to eating at your desk.
The most outrageous service call we ever received was to help find rats that had gotten into the room. Many traders seemed to have a penchant for Chinese food, and they often left it in and around the desks. A thorough cleaning of the desk structure helped, but this service visit could have easily been avoided by cleaning up after eating, or refraining from eating at the desk. In other cases, sometimes lift systems have gotten damaged by someone’s excited dance movements on top of the desk. Someone just closed a great deal, gets on top of the desk for a celebratory dance and knocks over a soda which runs into the working mechanisms of the desk, and in some cases, seizes one leg.”

There are other things to keep in mind when organizing your desk, and these relate to ergonomics. Defined as the study of the relationship between workers and their environment (especially as it relates to the equipment they use), ergonomics will have more of an impact on your physical health, which in turn will affect your productivity. Don’t forget to check back soon as we dive into this fascinating world.

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