Rules For A Messy Desk: Toss! Toss! Toss!

May 16, 1994|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

The Neatness Expert, with perfect combed-back hair and a pressed gray suit, marched into Laura Isenstein's office at the Towson branch of the Baltimore County Library and threw up his arms in exasperation.

There were three desks covered several inches thick with paper, books, unwashed coffee cups, greeting cards, paper plates, soda pop and even a pair of pliers. Pliers?

Ms. Isenstein, coordinator of resource delivery for the library, dressed in comfortable cotton slacks and blouse, sat smiling in the only one of six chairs that wasn't piled high with papers.

But the Neatness Expert was not amused by the winner of The Sun's "Messiest Desk in Baltimore" contest. He was not amused at all.

Why, oh, why do so many people have such messy desks? Why don't they listen to him -- Jeffrey Mayer, office organizing consultant and author of two books on desk-cleaning?

As library co-workers gathered at the doorway and insisted "She really is incredibly efficient. She's a wonderful administrator," Mr. Mayer waved away the compliments.

He grabbed a fist-full of paper from the bottom of one of her desks and thrust it into Ms. Isenstein's surprised hands.

"Toss! Toss! Toss!" he barked.

And slowly at first -- she read each piece of paper before assigning it to a chair or to a waste basket -- toss she did.

As she picked up tossing speed, he wandered around her well-lighted office, prospecting for useless clutter.

Like an archaeologist digging for an ancient find, he pulled out deeply buried papers and read the dates:

"Here's a note from Jan. 10."

He shuddered at the unidentifiable grime inside a coffee cup. "She could probably toss everything on this desk," he said.

Standing with his arms crossed, the Neatness Expert nodded approvingly as Ms. Isenstein sifted through her mess.

"She's learning a very important lesson right now," he said.

The No. 1 Rule of Neatness according to Mr. Mayer: Develop the courage to toss. Messy people aren't brave enough to throw stuff away. If you don't need it, get rid of it, Mr. Mayer says.

When he gets called in to rescue some messy person from drowning in an ocean of clutter -- at a fee he says is $1,000 a day or $300 an hour -- Mr. Mayer says he often makes the person tear each piece of useless paper in half, to reinforce the tossing lesson.

Rule No. 2: Organize. Put papers that belong together in a folder. And label and date the folder. Sure, it takes a little time to begin with. "But the time spent organizing an office is repaid many times over," he insists.

Suddenly, the telephone rang. Ms. Isenstein hugged the telephone in the crook of her neck and discussed her recent computer troubles while her hands mechanically dumped papers into the trash.

With a hint of moral superiority in his voice, Mr. Mayer pointed out Ms. Isenstein's failure to obey Neatness Rule No. 3: Scheduling.

Make a date with yourself to finish projects and file everything. Close the door, work uninterrupted.

"Make your time your own," he said.

And within a few minutes, he demonstrated Rule No. 3, declaring his time in Baltimore up. The Neatness Expert departed for a flight back to his Chicago home.

And Ms. Isenstein, who had managed to clear off just one small corner of one desk in about 45 minutes of tossing, rushed to prepare for a meeting for which she was already late.

That's the flaw with the neatness system, Ms. Isenstein said. "My time is not my own."

"I know why I'm messy," she said. "I have back-to-back meetings and crises."

And the clutter has gotten worse lately. Her office was neater when she had a secretary who helped her to organize things, she said. But now, with budget cuts, she shares one secretary with two other administrators.

Ms. Isenstein, a single mother, said she used to come in on Sunday afternoons to clean up her office, but decided she should instead spend the time with her family.

"It is a conscious decision," she said.

And judging from the telephone calls to The Sun nominating messy desk practitioners, there are plenty of people like Ms. Isenstein: overwhelmed by work and paper, wishing they were organized, but also secretly proud of a desk that shows the world how busy they are.

Susan Adami, a fourth-grade teacher at Hampstead Elementary School, says that her messy classroom desk isn't really messy, it's just "differently organized."

Important papers stay on the top. Less important papers eventually slip to the bottom.

That argument doesn't carry much weight with her bosses, she admits, though.

"My desk is right in the classroom, and it doesn't look good. I get that written on observations. My administration tells me that it doesn't set a good example.

David Ensor, assistant director of the Carroll County Department of Social Services, says he cleans up his desk about once a year when the clutter finally overwhelms him.

The mess has caused problems for him. He has lost projects on his desk and forgotten them until the last moment.

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