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

Many of us, even though we have that wonderful thing called technology, pile our desks with hard copies of everything. Will that ever change? Perhaps with the newest generations it will.

Jenny Grendel, 24, stores everything electronically. "If I lost my e-mail folders, I would just die," she said. Sometimes she will print something if she needs to proofread it. But Grendel, who works in public relations in New York, is definitely not a piler. Her desk holds a computer, a keyboard, a pen holder, lotion and hand sanitizer. And get this: flowers. Her desk is so organized and clean, she has enough room to put flowers on it. Flowers would be nice. I will never have flowers on my desk. I will have piles of folders, even as I trust my computer more and more.

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"Technology has helped and hindered," said Judith Kirk, founder of Organizing Resources in Plainville, Conn. "It has helped in the fact that we don't have to print out as much paper. . . . But we keep a paper hard copy of everything in our computer. It has made our jobs easier, and yet it has created a lot more paper."

Even Jeff Beardsley, who writes software for a living, sits among piles of papers. "Right now, for me, it's relatively clean," Beardsley, director of product development at Herndon's WebSurveyor Corp., said of his desk. But for him, clean means a collection of papers and CDs, books and notebooks, printouts and leftover Christmas candy.

He may look disorganized, but perhaps that's because all of his paper has to share an L-shaped desk with three computers. His method of organization? "I just try to keep everything out of the way. I shuffle it around when it gets in the way," he said.

When his piles get too high to just shift around, it's time to clean. This happens about once a month. "At work, I generally know where everything is," he said. He can't really say the same thing for his desk at home.

According to a survey recently done by Steelcase Inc., the big office furniture company, most workers describe themselves as "neat freaks." Only 15 percent say they are "pilers," and 26 percent consider themselves "filers." Just 2 percent of the workforce consider themselves "slobs."

All those neat freaks out there may be of younger generations, used to keeping most of their information on a computer, said Pamela Hamp, a market developer with Steelcase. Many people, no matter their age, also keep their space neat because they like their privacy. In today's open workplace environment, "if you leave it out, someone sees it," she said.

Jerome McDonnell piles his desk with manila folders. But the trademark analyst at Interbrand Corp., a brand consulting company in New York, is -- and looks -- organized. The half-dozen folders on his desk relate to his current projects. "I know where everything is," he said. That seems to be a common claim no matter how neat or disorganized a person's desk. But I really believe him. Granted, his file drawer is completely full, he said.

McDonnell's co-worker, Diana Nasello, a marketing analyst, does not share his minimalist approach. Her first problem, she said, is she has two computers. She gets the mice mixed up.

She has tried to keep herself neat and organized, she said. But it gets away from her. She has a file holder next to her computer, which she intended to use just for her current work. The papers on the holder are thick right now, though.

She keeps a pile of the company's old address labels on her desk to use as lint brushes. Her desk is a tangle of cell phone and iPod attachments. The Post-it notes lining her computer are all old, except for the one that has her computer password on it. And she just realized that she still has a picture of her ex-boyfriend on her desk.

She has tried different methods of organization, but each time the files end up full of old magazines and useless papers. Her small piles become big ones. "What I really try to do is keep everything electronically. . . . It would be pretty easy for someone to find something on my computer," she said. (Especially because her password is hanging right there.)

She knows her co-workers would likely not be able to find anything on her desk. But Nasello can. "I know where things are. I'm fine with my system."

Count me in on the Nasello theory. I know what is in my piles of papers. It's a mess, it's mine, and I love it.

Big Changes

Have you ever taken time off from the working world to do something completely different? Travel the world? Raise a child? How did you get back on the career track? E-mail lifeatwork@washpost.comfor an upcoming column.

Join Amy Joyce from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday at washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work.


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