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Friday, December 26, 2014
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Published: Friday, 1/17/2003

At day's end, desk is clean (reluctantly)

You know the old saying: A clean desk is the sign of an orderly mind.

Perhaps you've heard the response: A clean desk is the first sign of an embezzler.

Call me an embezzler. My desk is as clean as a hound's tooth.

Monday was “National Clean Off Your Desk Day,” according to the National Association of Professional Organizers. The group's web site proclaimed it “a good time to put New Year's resolutions into practice.”

Ordinarily I don't fool with trash like that, but it seemed so appropriate - I was in the midst of clearing off my messy desk. Not because of any national observance but because of a sternly worded memo from the boss commanding that office clutter be eliminated.

We've been down this road before. The clean-desk vs. messy-desk battle has been waged for decades, perhaps centuries.

You'd think it would be self-evident that among the inalienable rights are life, liberty, and the choice of whether to have a clean or messy desk. It's rather like the choice between pickup trucks or cars. Or the preference of redheads instead of blondes. Different styles for different files.

But, no, apparently clean desks are something of a national priority, very akin to solving the crisis in Iraq and the need to revitalize the American economy.

Cleaning out a desk is really an easy thing. Stuff you haven't needed in a year or so you probably won't ever need - throw it away. Take the vertical piles of paper and turn them into linear piles, packed away in file drawers. Turn organized clutter into spic-and-span chaos (a messy-desk person often can't find things that are stored too neatly).

There are, of course, some good arguments for cleaning off desks - fire prevention, for example. There's also the argument of increased efficiency. “Studies have shown that a person working with a messy desk will spend, on average, one and a half hours per day either being distracted by things in their view or looking for things,” smugly proclaimed an outfit called Time Management Seminars on its Web site. “That's seven and a half hours per week. Keep the clutter before you at a minimum and you will have a more accurate focus on what you need to do to increase your daily productivity.”

Horsefeathers! And I'm sure the legendary Lee Iacocca would say the same thing, but probably in stronger language. He's a stellar representative of the messy-desk guys. But, in fairness, it must be pointed out that the clean-desk crowd is ably represented, too, by the likes of Gen. Alexander Haig, former secretary of state.

There are some benefits to cleaning a desk. There are buried treasures that can be dusted off, savored, and buried again. But there are also reminders of the past - it's amazing how urgent memos from a decade ago seem so unimportant now.

At the bottom of one pile on my desk was a quotation from an old book, Managing, written by the late Harold Geneen, the legendary workaholic who built ITT Corp., a powerhouse conglomerate in its day.

“When I come upon a man who has a gleaming, empty, clean desktop, I am dealing with a fellow who is so far removed from the realities of his business that someone else is running it for him,” wrote Mr. Geneen, who died in 1997.

“... It is practically impossible for a top manager, or even a middle manager, to be doing the work that he should be doing and at the same time have a clean desk.

“... If you are on the firing line with the leadership of several projects, you are going to have 89 things on your desk, ten others on the floor beside you, and eight others on the credenza behind you.

“... You don't want to have to stop and describe to your secretary the reports or memorandums you need. Your own filing system is right on top of your desk: Acquisitions are at the far right corner, budget figures in the near left corner, compensation and personnel recommendations to the right of the budget figures, and so on. It's not scientific, but it works.”

I feel I have let Mr. Geneen down.



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