Is Your Messy Desk Messing Up Your Career?

Last Updated Jul 22, 2011 9:42 AM EDT

I recently started working out of a new office. When I arrived in late June, my desk was spotless. Less than a month later, it is completely covered with papers, books, magazines, notebooks, stamps and other office flotsam.
I'm not alone in this regard. A new CareerBuilder.com survey finds that 16% of workers say their desks are 75% or more covered with work and other materials. Some 38% say more than half of their desktop is covered. At least I know my clutter is of recent vintage; the CareerBuilder.com survey said 13% of people have files that date back 5 years or more.

According to CareerBuilder.com, this messiness is bad news for us, as nearly 2 in 5 employers say that a messy desk gives them a negative perception of a person, and 28% say they are less likely to promote someone with a messy work space. Of course, statistics being what they are, this could mean that 72% of employers are more likely to promote a person with a messy desk, but probably not. We tend to believe, as a culture, that cleanliness is next to godliness.

Maybe it's just that I'm naturally messy, but I've never really understood this impulse -- either at work or at home. A spotless desk (or living room) can be a sign of godliness and organization. Or it can be a sign that someone spends a lot of time focusing on metrics that just don't matter.

Over the years, I've seen hundreds of time logs. Many contain long stretches of time in the evening or early mornings devoted to housework. When I ask why, people look at me like I'm crazy. Of course the house has to be picked up! Of course you can't leave the office when your desk is messy. But these are learned behaviors. And they are learned behaviors with a cost. Because the house -- and your desk -- will just get messy again. Whereas you will never get those hours back. Perhaps they'd be better redeployed to advancing your career, interacting with your family, pursuing a personal passion like volunteering or a hobby, or even catching up on sleep.

This doesn't extend to the issue of chronic disorganization. If you cannot find things in a mess, that's a problem. But if you know that a certain item you need is in a certain place, why does it matter if that place is in a pile on a desk, or filed neatly in a drawer?

I'd say that it doesn't. When you talk through your year-end performance review, you're unlikely to list "a spotless desk” as a big win. Better to take that energy that wants to accomplish things, and focus it on the wins that will actually get you somewhere.

Unless, of course, your boss is a total neat freak. But then, maybe you need to start hunting for a different supervisor...

Are you a "messy desk” person or a "neat desk” person?

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Photo courtesy flickr user, indi.ca

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