The paper chase ends here

You may call it `organised chaos' but, face it, there's nothing organised about it. In the latest in our series on dejunking your life, Celia Dodd reveals how cleaning up your desk can also help to clear your mind
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Indy Lifestyle Online
My working week is full of moments when I would much rather search for my stapler than get my head down or make a difficult phone call. A messy desk offers infinite possibilities for the kind of fruitless displacement activity which sadly few of us can afford in the face of ever-tightening deadlines.

Yet, despite technology, offices are full of people like me, clinging against all the evidence to the notion that chaos is somehow creative. Emily, 26, is one of those people who says, "I'm incredibly messy but I know exactly where everything is, even if it's under 15 other bits of paper. Once, there was so much stuff on my desk that I spilt water all over my keyboard and broke it. But I'm really aware that mess bothers other people, so I try to confine it to my personal space and make sure nobody else suffers from my chaos."

Far from being creative, clutter is often a sign that things aren't as they should be. "I used to let my in-tray go for months and create a huge mound of paper - it was my way of not dealing with things," says former production manager Karen, 35. "My line was that if you left things for long enough they would go away. But, of course, they didn't. Every six months or so, someone would start screaming and shouting at me about something and I'd have to first find it and then deal with it and in the process I'd usually have to deal with a load of other crises as well. It was the same with work relationships - if I had a problem I would just ignore it."

But is it possible to change the habits of a lifetime? Surely messy people are just born so. Declan Treacey, a reformed paperholic who founded International Clear Your Desk Day (yes, really - it's this Friday) insists that it's easy to change. "There are four things to do with paper: act on it, pass it on, file it or bin it. The problems arise when we don't make a definite decision about what to do with a document, so it goes back on the desk and we end up handling it again and again. Be decisive and systematic. You're not only clearing out your past sins but motivating yourself to keep on top of things in future."

And don't stop at the desk. Revamp the way you organise the stuff you do decide to keep. File memos and letters in order of deadlines for action. Every time you put a document away, check that it isn't duplicating something already in the file (most people keep several drafts of the same document, which even I can see is pointless). And put new phone numbers and other information straight into an address book or database, not on the back of an envelope.

Of course, the big worry is that among all the stuff that finds its rightful home in the bin will be some crucial bit of information that you'll need the very next day. In fact, this is highly unlikely: 75 per cent of the information we keep will never be looked at again; 45 per cent is already stored somewhere else close by. Gabriella, 39, a writer, has to be ultra- neat because she works on her kitchen table. She says, "The only big mistake I ever made was throwing away a long-lost friend's address when I was transferring one address book to another. I love throwing things out; keeping stuff really goes against the grain - which is just as well, because I've got so little space."

Messy work relationships can muddle the mental waters just as much as physical clutter. "For the past week I've been sulking over a problem with my boss," says Emily, manager of a mail-order company. "Of course, he didn't notice that I'd gone all, quiet and miserable - in fact, he probably just thought I wasn't doing my job properly."

Judi James, an associate advisor with the Industrial Society and author of The Office Jungle, says, "The main thing that puts up barriers is all the trivial junk that goes through your head. It dilutes some of the more intelligent thought that should be used on direct action. There are people who carry around grievances for years and I'm sure it makes them lower achievers. I think you should make a decision: either do something about it, but if not, trash it - put up and shut up. It's not easy, but it saves so much time and effort."

The same goes for dreams of a different career. It is possible to spend years wishing you were somewhere else or allowing a vague sense of dissatisfaction to dilute your sense of direction. Management consultant Sally Garratt, author of a book on women managers, points out that many women in particular take a roundabout route to success. "It is crucial to be in the right job, to be focused," she says. "People need to look at their skills and talents and ask whether they're being used properly in their current job, and whether it's really what they want to be doing." If it's not practical to make an immediate change, it should be possible to take steps in the right direction. Even making a decision to stay put for the time being will stop the distracting internal debate.

But what about the emotional junk that keeps the workplace human, like the colleague (there's always one) who keeps dumping all her grief on you? Judi James has stern advice: "First you have to decide whether you want to keep that person as a friend. If you do, you've got to be more wary than if it's the office whinge, when you can be fairly assertive. The best thing is to go for a drink or lunch - say `I want to give this my full attention, I can't do it while I'm working', and put a time limit on how long you can listen."

The universal impression of office life in the Nineties is that there aren't enough hours in the day. Emily reckons she has no alternative but to blast on from one crisis to the next. "Last week, I made a colossal mistake in some crucial number-work because I was tired and muddle-headed and I slipped a key on my keyboard. When I realised, it took me about three hours to go back through all my sums."

Andrew Maggs of the Macmillan Partnership, which specialises in performance training, has a simple solution. "If you take regular 10-minute breaks your ability to take on board, process and retain information increases. People need buffer time." He teaches relaxation techniques to unclutter the mind: concentrate on breathing out slowly and visualise pushing everything out of a room. He also advises taking 10 minutes every morning to plan your day. Ignore the stack of e-mails, make a list of top priorities and do the most demanding things when you're at your best: "People are inclined to dash at everything 100 miles an hour and not take account of the times when they think more creatively," says management consultant Sally Garratt. "Vary the pace: don't try to do something important when you're at your lowest ebb. People should be doing a lot more thinking and a lot less doing."


1 Think about how often you use different objects and store them accordingly. Keep the desktop free for intrays containing urgent paperwork, a pot of pens and the phone, with a list of most-used numbers and a book for messages to yourself.

2 Take time out once a week to sort the paper on your desk into four piles: stuff to act on, stuff to bin, stuff to file and stuff to pass on. It shouldn't take you more than a few seconds to make each decision.

3 Revamp your filing system. Keep files lean and bin

anything that is duplicated before you put it away.

4 Take 10 minutes every morning to organise your day. Make a list of priorities and tackle the most challenging tasks first. Mornings are your most creative time.

5 Get grievances with colleagues sorted or make a decision to forget them, and stop whingeing. Don't waste time sulking - no-one will notice and resentments are a drain on your vital energy.

6 Are you in the right job? If you're not convinced, take a realistic look at alternatives that might suit your skills. If you don't feel in control of your destiny, it's hard to be focused on the day-to-day.