Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire’s Family Research Laboratory and a fellow of the American Psychological Association. But before she got inside people’s heads, she got into their trash -- literally. While in graduate school, she cleaned houses to support herself. She saw firsthand how disorganization can adversely affect people’s lives.
Her book, “The Well-Ordered Office: How to Create an Efficient and Serene Workspace,” explores why people become disorganized at work and how to reclaim their offices — and their work lives — from clutter.Q:Why do people get disorganized? It’s more than just being lazy, isn’t it?A: Yes, it is. We’re all so busy, things tend to stack up. I think there are a number of reasons. First, we have way too much to do on the job. Also, we, as a culture, don’t tend to value organization. Either you are or you aren’t. And many of us have unrealistic ideas about what it means to be organized.
Q:If a little mess isn’t resolved, it sounds like it can compound into a really significant issue.A: Definitely. Paper is a great example. In less than a week, our desks can be buried in paper. A lot of times, we’re handling multiple priorities at once. I know when I go to a lot of meetings, my desk can get cluttered because there’s no time in-between to organize it. The thing is to make a pledge to yourself to get back to it as soon as you can.
Q:What about the folks that have a horror of an office, yet they say they can find everything? Are they truly disorganized or are they just “organized” in a way that would drive most of us crazy?A: That can indeed be the case, but I usually ask them, “Is that really true? Are you really that well organized?” If it is, the system is working for them. It just may not be as aesthetically pleasing as the rest of us might like. If they’re in an open area in the office, they may need to make some compromises, however.
The reverse is also true. I know people who have nothing on their desks and are very disorganized. Everything is stuffed haphazardly in file folders.
Piles can be organized, but is that really true? Maybe we can make it a little better.
Q:How do you help people find their “inner neatnik”?A: I encourage you to find a system that makes sense for you, not the person in the next cube. Take a look at how you work, what do you do during the day. We just have to realize some of us are messy workers. I am, especially when I’m in middle of something. And that’s OK. But there’s a flow. I’m still getting a lot done.
Get good underlying structure, but still leave room for a little flexibility. I did four books last year, and my office started looking a little pathetic. People would say, “And you wrote a book on organization?” Well, yes, because even though it might look a little messy, there is structure here. I managed to do all those books, so I must be doing something right. There are times, however, to regroup, and I’m doing that now.
Q:How do you organize?A: I put the things I use a lot within arm’s reach. My reference books are right above my computer. If they’re not there, I’m less likely to look something up if they’re across the room from me.
Q:That’s a good point. Because your references are near you, you’ll spend less time fact-finding, and your project will be stronger for it.A: Absolutely. So that’s one thing. I do a lot of speaking engagements and I plan several months out. I have a folder for each month and put everything for that lecture in there.
Q:My Rolodex is organized alphabetically by company. I have a hard time with names, which is a horrible thing for a reporter, but I’m very visual; I never forget a face. I’m more apt to associate a company logo with a face, and then the name.A: See? That’s your system and it has an underlying structure that works well for you.
Q:So how do you take back your office from all the clutter?A: Start on what you use every day, whether that’s a file drawer or your desk surface. Try to make one area very neat. That will give you some immediate reinforcement. Then work in outward circles.
Many of us see the whole project, and it’s so huge, we just pick a pile, but it doesn’t make a difference in the day-to-day. Deal first with the things that are more urgent. If they’re flowing better, the rest will, too.
It’s a parallel to home organization. We say we’re going to get organized and we hit basement. But we never see it. Start with the dreaded kitchen drawer.
Q:Start with areas that are a priority for you and they will remain pertinent, and therefore you’re more likely to stay organized.A: Exactly. Start small. The area that can make the biggest impact is handling paper more efficiently. There is a study that says we handle 600 pounds per year. Triage your mail. Have a designated spot where you open your mail. Have the recycling bin right there. Maybe have a calendar. Many times, all you need to do is jot down a date. Open all envelopes. Some look like junk mail, but aren’t. Create a “read” pile.
As your work changes, be flexible and rearrange your system as necessary.
Always be tweaking your system and asking yourself, “Is this working?” If it is, fine. If not, why? This makes us more proactive and we’re less likely to be victimized by our office.
This article appears in the February 18 2005 issue of New Hampshire Business Review