A Messy Desk is the Sign of a Messy Desk

Did you know that major office supply stores now carry supplies to help you ‘pile’? They now provide you with items that allow you to gather items for one project and ‘pile’ them all together in an envelope or folder for easier access. I know a lot about being too busy. I also know a lot about busy work, and the latter, for many people, often includes trying to keep a spotless desk. I personally think it all comes down to our priorities and what they are. I was amused recently to see that one of the major office supply stores now carries not only filing supplies but also, believe it or not, “piling” supplies. These consist mainly of plastic envelopes and folders where you can put everything regarding one project together and leave them on your desk. I haven’t talked to anyone who uses them, but I find it interesting that someone is finally noticing that we don’t always even want to keep our desks clear.

On the surface, this is a recognition that some people like to stack things on their desks where they can find them more easily. Some people are more visual and don’t work well with file drawers because they don’t know what they have.

But what’s really going on here is that maybe, and just maybe, we’re getting away from the notion that in order to have a “healthy,” balanced life, we have to have a spotless desk, because if we’re too busy to clear off our desks, we’re too busy.

I know a lot about being too busy. I also know a lot about busy work, and the latter, for many people, often includes trying to keep a spotless desk.


It all comes down to what our priorities are. If we’re really interested in living a balanced life, in taking care of the important things in our lives and letting other things go, then we have a choice about our desk.

Let’s say I work best when the only thing on my desk is a notepad and a pen. I don’t, but let’s say for a moment that I do. Then spending a few minutes each day to organize and straighten my desk is time spent in keeping my life in balance and reaching my desired state of cleanliness on my desk.

On the other hand, if I work best with files on one corner of my desk, books on another, and papers I’m working with right in front of me, then spending a lot of time trying to keep my desk “clean” are misguided. What I need to do is keep my desk in the condition I want it, and realize what I want.

Realizing what I want is a major part of having a balanced, fulfilling life, because if I’m spending a lot of time chasing someone else’s goals, like a clean desk, then I’m not actively pursuing my own goals and living my own life.

You always hear that a messy desk is a sign of a disorganized mind, or something to that effect. I recently read in a time management book that “a messy desk is a sign of a messy desk,” and I found that so reassuring. I have long thought the emphasis on a clean desk was overdone, but the more I see people worrying about their desks and letting that determine how they live, the more I realize that a messy desk is not a sign of anything.

How can you let go of trying to keep a clean desk, and focus on a balanced life?

  • Decide how you want your desk to look.
  • Spend a little time now arranging your desk.
  • Do a ten-second tidy of your desk a couple of times a day, just quickly putting things back the way you like them or putting things away.

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Thanks to Millionaire Mommy Next Door for including this post in the Carnival of Personal Finance, to Working at Home on the Internet for inclusion in the Working at Home Blog Carnival, to Bootstrapper for featuring this post in the Carnival of Business and Entrepreneurship, to Declutter It! for including this in the Organize Your Life Carnival, and to Efficient Va for inclusion in the Carnival of Business and Entrepreneurship.

21 Replies to “A Messy Desk is the Sign of a Messy Desk

  1. Hayden,

    Thank for your comments.

    My thoughts are extremely well organized. I can be a very linear thinker when I have to be.

    My desk and office space would not appear well-organized to an outsider, but I know exactly where everything is.

    The same holds true of my computer. I can find almost anything instantly because of how I’ve organized things.

    Have you ever looked at someone else’s computer desktop? It looks foreign to me when I do, and proves that organization is in the eyes and hands of the beholder.


  2. Haaa… I love this post, and the one about the coffee and sugar addictions. You’re on fire! My desk typically holds whatever paperwork I need to attend to in the immediate future, and a legal pad containing a perpetual list of 22 to 30 items that will be checked off one by one as the week goes on. I clean my desk when I need to clear my mind, and that’s about the extent of it. Bravo for telling it like it is.

  3. Buried under a pile next to my desk (I’m not kidding!) is a book I haven’t gotten to yet: “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder,” by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman. I look forward to reading what it has to say. In the meantime, I too have a desk that is — er — open to interpretation. 😉

  4. I’m from the messy desk camp. Though it looks like a mess, I pretty much know where everything is. I’ll admit I could be a bit more organized but honestly my brain just doesn’t work that way. I try to keep a happy balance of organized clutter.

  5. Liz,

    Thanks for taking the time to share.

    I agree with you.

    If a messy desk is the sign of a disorganized mind, is a clean desk the sign of an empty mind? Neither are true. A messy desk is simply the sign of a messy desk!


  6. I’m a stacker. And I’ve used those clear plastic envelopes… lol. For me they’re great because I am engaged in multiple projects at one time and it keeps all the stacks from blending into each other. Unfortunately… the stacks turn into boxes… and the unsorted stack is always the toughest one to deal with. I worked for an amazing writer who used the floor for all her stacks. Usually whatever was on the floor nearest to where she was working, was the most important one. I have to say I’ve picked up that habit. And as of today my floor is very organized. lol.

  7. John,

    Thanks for weighing in.

    Your timing is impeccable! I spent the day today, with a little help, organizing the mini-piles surrounding my desk and around my office.

    I understand the ‘no-touchy,’ unsorted pile wearing on you as you fight to get to it. I’ve disciplined myself to place my toughest and least desired tasks in front of me on my desk. That way I cannot put them off in a corner and pretend to forget about them.


  8. I am probably a piler for projects I am working on right now, and a filer for things that need to be kept long term. The key for me to feeling organized is not to have an empty desk, but to only have what I am working on this week covering my desk. The biggest help is to make sure to throw away paper as I go.

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  11. Personally, i think having a clean desk hampers productivity. I find it hard to stay focused when I sit on a desk with nothing to look at: The plain ‘nothingness’ space of a clear desk distracts me from coming up ideas that an otherwise cluttered desk would have helped me. This is true since you can easily draw inspiration and concepts from the objects around the table. ^_^.

  12. Oh, that completely resonates for me.

    My personal “filing system” is that I know where I put things. Anybody else is completely lost in it, but it works for me. (I had to explain several times to a very organised friend who helped me move that my filing cabinet was not in alphabetical order. She just didn’t get that.)

    Occasionally this results in frantic and frustrated searching, but not often.

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