Clean desk is important value

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In the successful organization, no detail is too small to escape close attention.

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– Lou Holtz

I hadn’t been out of college long before it dawned on me that my bosses seemed to prize one employee trait above all others.

It beat out punctuality; it whipped good phone manners. It surpassed working late, which I suspect they saw as a scheme to steal office supplies.

No, what they all loved most was a clean desk.

Maybe it’s a military thing left over from those inspections their generation remembers during World War II.

I used to work for a guy who actually roamed the building on the last workday of each month, clipboard in hand taking notes. The result was a photocopied certificate notifying the recipient that he or she had won the monthly Clean Desk Award.

I thought it was a joke at first, even though I started winning with some frequency. Then it was mentioned in my annual review. Next it was cited as I was promoted.

Years later, I ran into him at a professional meeting and he asked, ”Still keeping that desk clean?” in a clipped, but commanding tone.

Of course, a clean desktop in itself is not that big a deal.

You could be stuffing all your papers into drawers, files or trash cans and no one would know. But I think the idea of expecting a clean workspace is a subtle way to force you to organize, and that is important because one day you’re going to be looking for that document.

The experts warn against what they call “pile management,” stacking your paperwork in various piles on the top of your desk, then working your way through them. They say you end up adding to the piles, not eliminating them.

Well, it’s tough to throw documents away because we all think we might one day need them. We rarely do, but we fear it.

Get over it, say the experts, recommending regular purging sessions to toss away what you don’t think you’ll use.

“Take no prisoners,” they insist. Throw out everything that isn’t vital.

The reason is simple. It takes more time to manage clutter.

A friend in Atlanta tipped me off to this years ago. He was a former newspaper reporter who had joined the phone company and quickly moved up its ranks in successful publication relations.

Unlike me, he had an expensive car, a secretary who did much of his work and a comfortable corner office featuring a desk with not a scrap of paper on top of it.

“Where do you keep your paperwork?” I asked one day when I dropped by for lunch (because he always paid.)

“In my Screamer File,” he said triumphantly.

He opened the large bottom drawer of his clean-topped desk and pulled out a fat folder.

“When I get something that I suspect I’m supposed to keep, I put it in here.” he said. “If a month passes and no one’s screamed for it, I throw it away.”

To prove his point, he deftly sorted through a few pieces of paper, checked the dates, then gleefully pitched them into a trash can.

Months later he was promoted again.

His clean record was no doubt cited.


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