So if I have a messy desk, I'm a genius like Steve Jobs? Mission accomplished!

So if I have a messy desk, I’m a genius like Steve Jobs? Mission accomplished!

Messy? That’s a strong word for my desk. Let’s just call it dynamic.

In other words, I am not a squeaky-clean, every-paper-in-its-place kind of worker. Instead, my horizontal surfaces are home to a variety of paper-based projects, ranging from mild-mannered hillocks to cloud-scraping mountains. It’s almost always in control, but it may be approaching cry-for-help time.

That’s what led me to chuckle about a few items this week. First, there was a feature story flying around the Internet discussing the value of a messy desk. And then on Friday, a fellow colleague over at the American Bar Association, Elizabeth Derrico, offered up her own photo of her desk as the first of many Thursday shares. Nearly all the desks displayed were messy. Here’s Elizabeth’s:

Messiness a la Elizabeth Derrico, American Bar Association

Messiness a la Elizabeth Derrico, American Bar Association

Here is my own desktop, which I shared in panoramic form (click to enlarge).

My current desk view (yes, there's a desk under there.) Here's my challenge: I'll post a clean one next week.

My current desk view (yes, there’s a desk under there.) Here’s my challenge: I’ll post a clean one next week.

I will offer some of the other displayed desks throughout this post. They are: (1) almost uniformly a disaster, and (2) the workplaces of some of the most productive and imaginative people I know. (Yeah, yeah, correlation not causation. Whatevah!)

Here is the desk of Ann Murphy of the Bar Association of San Francisco (pretty neat, right? She insists she just cleaned it):

Neat, right? This is where Ann Murphy toils for the members of the Bar Association of San Francisco. (And look closely; a special detail will emerge later on).

Neat, right? This is where Ann Murphy toils for the members of the Bar Association of San Francisco. (And look closely; a special detail will emerge later on).

Seeing that stream of desk photos online evinced some predictable responses in me. “I’m not so bad,” I thought, as I compared someone else’s chaos to my own desktop scramble. Here, for example, is the desk of Jenna Grubb, with the Toledo Bar Association. She posted it in sympathy for the train-wreck that is my desk, so she offered her own “equally depressing panorama”!

Jenna Grubb from the Toledo Bar posted this so I wouldn't feel bad about my own paper mill. We both need help.

Jenna Grubb from the Toledo Bar posted this so I wouldn’t feel bad about my own paper mill. We both need help.

But then I would spy someone who managed to work at a tabletop that was actually visible through the detritus, and I was plunged back into self-loathing.

After that, all that I really decided was that I must come into the office this weekend to excavate my desk from beneath the papers. I’ll carry an avalanche transceiver.

Messy desk? Don't attempt a cleanup without an avalanche transceiver.

Messy desk? Don’t attempt a cleanup without an avalanche transceiver.

Here is one other shared desk image. It also hails from the San Francisco Bar, and it is a double-your-fun picture, combining the workspaces of Sayre Ribera and her daughter Audrey. And before you ask: Uh-huh, uh-huh! Sayre’s darling daughter can come to work with her on occasion, where she sets up with her own workspace. They really do do things different in the Bay. (And yes, Audrey, you’re right: I said do-do.)

Sayre Ribera's desk (top) is almost a mirror image of mine (though, oddly, mine likes a tangerine and toilet rolls). At the bottom is the considerably neater workspace of Audrey, her daughter.

Sayre Ribera’s desk (top) is almost a mirror image of mine (though, oddly, mine lacks a tangerine and toilet rolls). At the bottom is the considerably neater workspace of Audrey, her daughter.

That whole encounter helped me see something even deeper about the differences that separate us in our desktop choices: It takes a village to get judgy about other people’s desks.

I must admit I have my own prejudices in that regard. A clean desk kind of freaks me out, and I can’t help but think uncharitably about the owner’s workload or complexity.

I just read a story about the messiness of desks, and my own self-interest demanded I cheer its message. Titled “Why You Should Have a Messy Desk,” the essay was thoughtful, but it trotted out a predictable cast of characters. Did you know Albert Einstein had a messy desk? How about Steve Jobs? Mark Twain?

And so on. With every accumulating example, I was urged to feel better about my own office-space paper mill. After all, if it’s good enough for Einstein, it’s certainly good enough for me. Right?

Except (and it pains me to say this to you readers who may not yet know me): I am not Albert Einstein. Or Mark Twain. Et cetera.

So I cannot jump on the bandwagon that critiques my officemates for their clean desktops. Understand, I think it is freakishly odd, perhaps even the sign of deep, deep emotional issues, issues that may take years to overcome. But I won’t judge them.

Instead, I’ll be in this weekend reducing (if not eliminating) the paper stacks that surround me. And all you Einsteins, enjoy your time at home.

P.S. Hey, didn’t I promise you an extra somethin’ from the photo of Ann Murphy’s desk (above)? Well, here you go. It’s a special addition to Ann’s dry-erase board by Audrey Ribera:

Yes, that is  a unicorn, courtesy of "Unicorn Hour" in Ann Murphy's office, where Audrey Ribera went all painterly on her whiteboard.

Yes, that is a unicorn, courtesy of “Unicorn Hour” in Ann Murphy’s office, where Audrey Ribera went all painterly on her whiteboard.

CORRECTIONS IN COPY: A wise bar communicator (is there any other kind?) notes that I had said a photo “hales from the San Francisco Bar.” Of course, that’s hella wrong. I’ve changed it to “hails from,” and I’ll strive to stop writing these posts during cocktail hour. Thanks! I also was informed that the desk photo that kicked all this off is that of Elizabeth Derrico at the ABA, not of Marilyn Cavicchia (no, the ABA people don’t all look alike; don’t be rude), so I’ve changed that caption.

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He calls that messy? A submission from @jwswrites of his messy desk (on http://spjdesklove.tumblr.com/).

He calls that messy? A submission from @jwswrites of his messy desk (on http://spjdesklove.tumblr.com/).

I’d wager the following: Anyone who has a cluttered workspace will claim that they really really really do have a system, and that it works for them. They may even go so far as to say that clutter is the sign of an active mind.

Residing among my own stacks in the cluttered category, I’ve tried floating those old canards myself. The truth is, of course, that efficient and effective people land all up and down that continuum from “hoarder” to “frighteningly neat.” Whatever works for you, works.

This month, the Society of Professional Journalists launched a fun contest in which people could send in photos of their workspace clutter. They then posted those pics on their own Tumblr page (which is worth bookmarking), and some lucky (and cluttered) person won a prize (office supplies, I think). Here’s how they put it:

“Featuring your stellar work space, courtesy of the Society of Professional Journalists. Post a picture to Twitter with the hashtag #spjdesklove and we will give your desk some Tumblr love.”

I did not submit my space for consideration, but on Change of Venue Friday, I thought I’d share it with you (see below). The image in this post represents a relatively neat period in my own pendulum swing. Don’t judge.

And how about you? Are your stacks and your clutter an ongoing challenge? Have you tamed them? If so, how? (And I really mean it: HOW? I want to know!).

Have a great weekend.

messy desk my work space

A portion of my own work area: I’m actually kind of surprised how neat my “messy desk” looks on this Friday. Things are looking up! (Full disclosure: I’ve omitted my overflowing bookshelves and various other flat surfaces.)