When it comes to neatness, there are two kinds of people: those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who think there are many kinds of people, laid out along a spectrum.
I myself am the latter type. To my way of thinking, some people are on the extremes. There are some who are absolutely neat, with ascetically bare desks and aesthetically organized filing cabinets – offices so sterile, you could perform open-heart surgery there in a pinch. There are others who are incomprehensibly messy: their desks barely visible beneath mounds of stained paper; their floors and chairs largely inaccessible under pyramids of binders, folders, maybe a ceiling tile or two. These offices look hostile and wasted, like the target of a bomb blast.
But in between those dead extremes – that’s where office life really takes place. People like me, whose offices don’t remain static, but whose neatness waxes and wanes like a capricious moon – we’re the ones who fill up the middle of the spectrum. When things get busy, or we get preoccupied, then, sure, our offices can start to become increasingly disordered. Papers remain piled, not filed; Post-It notes form a fringe along the bottom of our computer monitors; we might even leave an unwashed coffee mug or two sitting on our desks. Things begin to flourish in our offices, as in fallow fields. But this is only temporary. Unlike those who reign over perpetual disaster areas, we are perfectly capable of cleaning up. We even like having a neat office. So, as soon as we feel we can grab the time, we roll up our sleeves and get our offices back in shape. Papers in their place, desktop clear (though still not up to operating-room standards), calendar up to date. Maybe this happens every week, or maybe a month of steadily increasing disorder can go by first; it depends where you fall in the spectrum. The point is: people like me, we’re not like those lost souls on the far end who revel in their sties. We can be neat when we need to be.
Which is fine . . . so long as we’re dealing with others, like us, who think there are many kinds of people, laid out along a spectrum. But it’s a problem when we’re dealing with those who think there are two kinds of people, because those people are invariably the rigorously neat, and the two kinds of people they see are “people like them” and “hapless slobs”. Not every super-neat person sees the world this way, of course, but to those who do, Order is a pass/fail course, and we fail if we leave our desks messy for even one day.
There’s an asymmetry here that those of us in the middle of the spectrum have to accept: we can tolerate the super-neat, but some of them cannot tolerate us. We feel like we can be neat when we need to be, but they see us as being messy when we don’t need to be.
And this matters – maybe not every time, but often enough to need to pay attention to it. Sooner or later you will have a boss, or a co-worker whose opinion of you matters, who will judge you in part on the neatness of your office. So if you are in the middle of the spectrum, start trying to think a little bit like them. Instead of asking yourself every day, Do I have time to clean up around here?, try asking, Is there any reason I can’t put these where they belong? You might find that spending a few minutes every day is more efficient than setting aside an hour each week; and after all, being organized is an inherently good thing anyway. You don’t need to turn your office into a sanitarium; you just want to make sure it’s not making other people sick.