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Amy Joyce: Life at Work

Finding Meaning -- Wait, It's Right Here! -- in the Mess

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page F05

Do people gasp when they look at your desk? Do you have a hard time finding your mouse to open your e-mail? Do your phone conversations sound a little like this: "Um, hold on just one minute. I know it's right here. One second. I think it's . . . yep. I knew it. Here it is."

Organization is in the eye of the beholder.

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Whether you work at a technology company, in a construction trailer or in an advertising agency, your desk is probably home to more than just a computer and a keyboard. It may look like a mess to your co-workers, but you likely think differently. Most of us have a method to our madness. And it's probably safe to say that everyone's madness is a little different.

I'm surrounded by a neat freak, a sometimes neat freak, a piler and a filer. Me? I'm a bit of a piler/slob. And anyone who knows me well could have told you that without wandering near my little daytime oasis. But, except for one time that I can remember, I know where everything is. (And even that once, I found it eventually.)

We are an organized world in disguise.

We love paper. We like to pile our work on our desks, near our computers, at our fingertips. So things may look a little disorganized, but ask almost anyone whose office or cubicle looks scattered, and they will tell you just give them one second. They know exactly where everything is.

Martha Silver is a piler. She is a director of public relations at the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies and editor of the association's magazine. With so much work to do, she admits her desk looks like a mess all the time. Well, it may look a mess only to the untrained eye.

"I'm a piler, and my piles at times will merge," she said from her office in Dupont Circle. "Yet it's very rare that if someone asks for something I don't have it at my fingertips."

On the whiteboard near her desk, "Burn office" was added to her to-do list by someone a while ago.

Although a lot of her work is on a computer, she prints almost everything out, she said. And then she keeps it until she needs it. "I'm loath to throw anything out until I'm sure I'm not going to use it," she said. After that, it goes into the recycling bin.

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