Do you suffer from passive-aggressive neatness?

I seem to go through these phases: One day I’m a lazy, disorganized slob; the next I’m a super-charged neatnik who absolutely must control his environment—at least that small bit of space I call my home office.

Now that’s a messy office!

When I worked at my last association job, I would periodically get into these uber-cleaning frenzies. The piles on my desk would disappear. Layers of dust would vanish. Junk hidden behind my desk would get tossed. Swag from conferences would be given away. There was such a transformation in my space that my staff would ask if I was feeling okay or had found a new job.

During those short periods when I obsessively kept my office spotless, I would make a conscious effort not to start new piles, to distribute periodicals on a timely basis (not three months later) and keep paper OFF the mirror-like surface of my polished desk.

But that lasted, what, two weeks? There would be a crisis to manage, a conference to attend, a major project due, and I was right back to my slovenly ways.

Since returning from Mozambique, I am in the aggressive phase of my neatness cycle. Will it last? Well, I’m not taking any bets.

So here are some thoughts on how to sustain the neatness. Lessons that I’ve learned (but not been very good at executing) from my many cleanliness binges.

  1. Follow the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm to your work space! Don’t start a new pile. Don’t put the paper you just read back in your inbox. Eliminate clutter by not starting clutter.
  2. Make a habit of leaving each night with your desk cleared off. At my very first job out of college, I encountered a man who was the ultimate neatnik. I worked for a small community newspaper whose owner was obsessed with keeping his newsroom neat. He had a rule that we couldn’t go home until our desk was completely cleared off. Some nights I just opened the drawers to my desk and tossed everything in. But at least my desk was clean.
  3. Delegate. If you are fortunate enough to have staff, don’t be afraid to give them all of the stuff you don’t know what to do with! Chances are they will end up with it anyway, once you get off your butt and give them the project.
  4. Create a system for reviewing and tossing. You don’t have to hold onto everything forever. It’s okay to toss. Make a tickler system that forces you to go through files/piles every so often.
  5. Encourage your staff and colleagues to keep their OWN files. I often was the “answer man” because, believe it or not, I could usually find all those things I squirreled away. So people would make a beeline to my office when they couldn’t find the e-mail or file they needed. I spent way too much of my own time finding other people’s stuff. Don’t let it happen to you.
  6. Use mobile devices and computer time judiciously. Emails probably eat up most of my workday, but only when I let them. Too many books have been written about time management. Suffice it to say, you need to prioritize and take control of what occupies your time—or it will take control of you. Come up with a system that works for you and then follow it.

Finally, a word of caution: Don’t be too neat. There are two extremes that make people uneasy when they visit an office: too much junk or too little junk. Just as it’s not cool to have an office so cluttered that even the guest chairs are covered with boxes and files, it’s also not too cool to be overly neat. Don’t make your office so clean that it becomes sterile. It’s okay to have some personal items on the credenza and desk. You can be human, just not a slob like me.

Photo by Scott Lituchy
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One Response to Do you suffer from passive-aggressive neatness?

  1. Alan Hahn says:

    Always a challenge for me. Thanks for the reminders.

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