A Place for Everything

A place for everything, everything in its place.
Benjamin Franklin

My bosses at various jobs over the years have made subtle hints about my messy office desks. (For example, “How can you find anything on this desk?”)

Messy desk

This is not my desk.


This is my desk. Some writers, like Jill Weatherholt, Sharon Van Zandt, and Kate Sparkes have lovely work spaces. Welcome to your worst nightmare, kids.

Yet whenever I worked in-house, every time a boss requested a file or a book, he or she was always surprised when I plucked it instantly from beneath a pile of papers or other books, rather than having to search for it at least an hour. I’m messy, but I have my own weird storage/filing system. If you like, I’ll give you a window into that system via a little quiz. Answers are at the end if you want to skip the quiz and go eat gelato or something. (I would.)

1. You’re in my apartment and want a cup of coffee with sugar. Where would you look for the sugar?
A. In a canister on the counter
B. In the refrigerator
C. That was a trick question. I ran out of sugar.

2. You want to watch the blu-ray of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, because there’s a song in it you’re dying to hear again. Where would you expect to find it?
A. In the DVD/blu-ray case in the living room
B. In the refrigerator
C. In a Christmas box on the floor


3. For some reason, you need a clean, but mate-less gray sock. Where would you look for it?
A. On top of the dresser
B. In the refrigerator
C. In the garbage where it belongs

4. A freezing wind kicks up (you’re in the Midwest after all) and you want a scarf (or muffler, if you prefer) to wear. Where you would you look for one?
A. In this basket in the living room closet, bearing this label

006B. In the refrigerator
C. On top of some DVDs

There. Welcome to my world. I’m one of those people for whom the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” was coined. For some items, if I can’t see it, I forget I have it (hence the piles of books in my living room at eye level). For others—reference books for example—if I’m working on a project, I need to have them in a pile nearby for immediate access, instead of having to hunt them up in a bookcase.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m glad I don’t live with her. You wouldn’t be the first person to think that. Some people are good at keeping their environments neat and clutter free. I worked with people with pristine desks—desks so clean you could eat off them. But looking at their lovely, clean desks made my head hurt. No books, no strewn papers—not even a single hand puppet for that lived-in look!


A hand puppet on my computer desk

Or one of these babies:


The robot doin’ the robot. Work it. Work it.

Who could resist a robot??? But having a clean desk, my coworkers told me, gave them a sense of accomplishment, like marking something off on a checklist. I can respect that. And I tried to live like that, especially when guests were due for a big meeting and all of the cubicles needed to look ship-shape and uniform. But usually that resolve lasted for only a day or so, and then I was back to the strewn papers and hand puppets.

I used to drive my mother absolutely crazy when I was a kid. She’s very neat and organized and greatly despaired at the thought of having to use a machete just to enter my room. My locker in high school was pretty much the same as my room at home. And don’t get me started on my undergraduate dorm rooms. This aspect didn’t change in grad school either. Yet I could always find whatever I needed.

Right now, I need to find a library book that will be overdue unless I turn it in soon. I think I remember where I left it: somewhere near the refrigerator . . . or in it.

Clean or messy—which are you? How does this work for you?

In case you’re wondering about the answers to the quiz, they’re here: 1. B; 2. C; 3. A; 4. C.

If you comment below, I’ll tell you the why behind some of the answers.

Messy desk (first photo) from theguardian.com.

24 thoughts on “A Place for Everything

  1. Linda, you and I are soul sisters. You may also be MTM’s soul sister. We share a partners’ desk, and we’re both messy pilers of crap. Our entire shared office is always, always a disaster. I’ve given up trying to clean when people come over. I tell them not to look that way. It’s just easier. When I put stuff away, I can’t find anything. MTM absolutely FORBIDS my touching anything on his side of the desk. Every wadded up piece of paper is the seed of an amazing building that will never be fully designed or built but nonetheless exists in a wad to be good for something. Kind of like my drafts and rejected scenes, I guess……only mine live on the computer. 🙂

    • Ha! Twins separated at birth!!! I’m picturing you and MTM with a screen like the Battleship game between you, each of you daring the other to make a move.

      I also can’t find anything when I put things away, which is why I keep winding up with multiple boxes of pasta and no spaghetti sauce.

      I try to do the deflect their action thing with cleverly used throws. A nice, big throw can easily hide the clutter at one end of the couch. Another throw camouflages the clutter behind the couch.

      I hear you about the paper. I have trouble throwing out receipts because sometimes I use those as notes when I forget to put a notebook in my purse.

  2. I tend to be neat because I’ve had past bosses that would search my area for things when I wasn’t at my desk. Like I’d go to make copies and comes back to find someone searching for a file. So I had to go clean at the office with minimal to no fun stuff around. Being the guy in the office with tiny Evangelions came with some grief. There was one job my wife almost took where they said you couldn’t put more than 4 personal items in your cubicle or you would get written up.

    Anyway, at home I simply have my stuff in piles on a shelf. I guess I keep my desk (a.k.a. my bed) neat and made.

    • Wow. I wouldn’t have lasted in that office. I’m more productive with clutter. I need posters up and fun books on my desk.

      At one job, we had to clean our work spaces at least once a month. That meant my having to return all of the books I’d taken out of the office library and recycle photocopies of emails and such. Needless to say, those were my least favorite days.

  3. Thank you for this giggle first thing in the morning! While some order in my workspace gives me comfort, I’m like you in a very important way: “Out of sight, out of mind” was also coined for me! My boss (most organized woman I know) always wondered how I could work with papers all over my desk. I wondered how I could work if I didn’t. If the papers were put away, I’d assume that I had no work to do. Don’t even get me started on my email Inbox…

    • That’s me, Laura. The email inbox is cluttered and my desk drawers usually are. I finally looked in a drawer and found a bunch of extension cords that I had forgotten I had!! Woooooot!

  4. This is hilarious, L. Marie! Thanks for mentioning my work space, but remember, you didn’t see inside the drawers. 🙂 I do apologize if my photos made your head hurt. I’m the opposite, I get a headache when things are cluttered. I really can’t function when things aren’t in there proper place. I don’t allow piles, especially junk mail, to take form…it drives me crazy. 🙂 I’ve worked with many people like you, so I get it when you say you know where everything is. Great post! xo

    • Thanks, Jill. Actually, I thought your work space was very beautiful. It didn’t make my head hurt. A completely empty desk devoid of flowers, paper, or anything else makes my head hurt. I don’t know why it has that effect on me, but it does.

  5. I guessed “B” for all four questions. :mrgreen:

    When I’m in the middle of a project (or procrastinating because I don’t want to get started), I like having the components out and about in plain sight as a visual reminder . . . but I like things that I’m not working on to be “out of sight AND out of mind.”

    • You were correct for the first one. I’ll tell you the gross truth about the sugar. One day, I headed to the sugar bowl (or in my case, the sugar Tupperware), and lifted the lid to find a slug. A. Slug. I didn’t scream, but I was pretty grossed out!

  6. I’ve always thought I was a ‘messy’ desk person, but it turns out I’m not. It’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older too…not sure why. 🙂 But your way of working reminds me of my dad’s garage. It’s dangerous to walk around there, because who knows what you may run into or what might come clattering down on your head. But he knows EXACTLY where something is when he needs it.

    • That’s my dad too, Phillip. In the house we used to live in, he had all kinds of things in his workshop. He always knew where every tool and nail happened to be. 🙂

  7. Great post! My desk at work tends to be neat–but the mess is hidden behind the above desk cubby doors. And home–well, the public spaces aren’t too bad, but the “office” is where things go when I don’t know what else to do with them.

    • I have the same tactic at my house. When I clean up, there are always a hundred things that I’m not sure what to do with and they all end up in my bedroom (the place other people are least likely to go). If it’s paper, it goes in the office and I have to purge it every now and then when it’s deep enough to start sliding off the desk.

  8. This was fun. I’m an in-betweener. I like to keep the public parts of the house neat just in case someone comes over. Then I won’t be mortified. Not that people come over often, but if they do, it’s guaranteed that the living room is buried in laundry, shoes and Tinker Toys. When we built our house, the first thing I demanded of the design was that the kitchen could not be seen from the living room or front door. That room is never clean. My desk is often an in-between space too. If I’m procrastinating, I clean it. If I’m working, it’s gradually getting messier.

    • There are some places in my home that stay messy unfortunately. My closet is one of them. It is a catch-all place. But I’m trying to get the living room in some semblance of order.

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