Don't let a cluttered work desk mess up your career

THE words "decluttering" and "spring-cleaning" have got to be some of the unsexiest phrases that ever existed - well, to me, anyway. When it comes to office desks in particular, my philosophy has always been as long as there are no bugs and I can (more or less) find what I need, all is well.

While my more zealous neighbours endeavour to keep their workspaces tidy and homely with decorations such as photos and even teddy bears, mine can be basically described as piles of papers with a bit of space in the middle for my laptop and coffee mug. Well, I tried to spruce up the place with a terrarium (minimal effort!) and some flowers which were alive when I brought them in - they're now in various states of decay and still sitting on my desk. But hey, it's not like I'm intruding into my office neighbour's territory or anything. I have always kept to the partition in our workspace like the DMZ - all the mess is very carefully contained up to one centimetre on my side. You're welcome, neighbour. But my faith in my ability to locate the necessary on my desk is apparently quite … misplaced. Recently, a colleague had asked for a contact's name-card, but after scouring the piles of documents for at least 15 minutes, I had to sheepishly tell him I couldn't find it. This episode left me to conclude that what I deem an organised mess, is really not that organised after all.

Of late, a few people have sent me video links on Japanese minimalist living spaces (wait - is that a hint?) where everything is perfectly placed and organised. I have watched them most wistfully and resigned myself to just not being that type of person. One minor celebrity that caught my attention was Marie Kondo, a Japanese organising extraordinaire and bestselling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Believe it or not, her approach - also known as the KonMari method - consists of keeping only things that "spark joy" and literally saying thank you to items that no longer serve you. No, seriously, Ms Kondo believes that all items are alive and have a spirit that should be respected. While it may be easy to dismiss Ms Kondo as a crackpot with an OCD problem, there must be some kind of reason why this woman has a cult following. I mean, she was even listed on Time's 100 Most Influential People in 2015.

I began to do a bit more research out of curiosity, and to my surprise, I found that there are professional organisers in Singapore whose goals are to educate and help people master the art of decluttering.

Nathalie Ricaud, professional organiser and founder of Get Organised & Beyond, says that although it's not a character flaw to be disorganised, people tend to judge colleagues based on it. "People with messy and disorganised desks are typically perceived as less career-driven than their organised counterparts. Too many personal items also tend to affect your professional image." But, surely it doesn't mean that one's work quality is affected. Right? Ms Ricaud is matter-of-fact. A cluttered or disorganised desk, she believes, affects productivity as we end up taking up more time to find things, making it difficult to concentrate on tasks at hand. "A cluttered space goes hand in hand with a cluttered mind. It brings feelings of being overwhelmed and stress, weighs us down and steals our energy."

According to Haw-San Au-Yong, professional organiser at Edits Inc, a messy work area can give the impression that an employee lacks self-control and discipline. She has seen extreme cases where employees end up tripping over someone's overflowing mess, or someone ending up being ostracised because staff actively avoid that person's work area. She added that a messy desk affects the whole environment and atmosphere in the office. "If you sit right in the centre of the office with heavy traffic, imagine people teasing you about your desk whenever they walk by. It affects social relationships and even the energy in the room even if it is said in jest."

And there's a practical side to it too. A messy desk can trap a lot of dust, and this leads people to fall sick easily, Ms Au-Yong points out. Okay, while I don't think my desk has reached that stage of being a hazard yet, it might possibly be headed in that direction. So I asked, rather hopefully, is spring cleaning once a year enough? Ms Ricaud said: "An annual purging exercise is certainly a good idea as paper tends to accumulate very quickly. However, you also need to practise a regular maintenance of your desk to keep the organisation under control."

To sum up, both professional organisers tell me that the more important thing is to upkeep it daily. Ms Au-Yong explains: "The secret to keeping things tidy is not taking out, but the act of putting back. If it's just about putting in the elbow grease to clean up, anyone can do it. But people get demotivated on decluttering after a few tries because they can't maintain it." This is where the three-minute rule comes in. Essentially, it means taking some time at the end of each work day to put everything back to its original place. Any more than that, Ms Au-Yong says, it means that the structure of your desk is flawed as it fails to accommodate your unique workflow.

To the layman, the art of decluttering sounds positively fluffy, but there's a science to it. While Marie Kondo's approach verges on the spiritual, Ms Au-Yong says that her approach is aligned with warehouse methodology, which is engineering and efficiency driven. Specifically, Toyota's 5S methodology used to manage their manufacturing plant to keep their inventory to a minimum and save operating costs is the foundation behind it.

There are also behavioural psychology principles to back it up too.

Ms Au-Yong quips: "When a particular action is hard to do, then the likelihood of the person doing it is less. The easier it is to put something back, the easier it is to maintain." Other tips that both Ms Au-Yong and Ms Ricaud offered for workspace organisation are somewhat similar: invest in compartments to keep loose items together, keep papers upright in folders instead of in stacks, and keep only workplace essentials at hand.

Once the ideal setup is in place, minimal maintenance is needed to start and end each day with a fresh slate. I suppose, kind of like a shower.

If it's any comfort to people whose work areas have gone to the dogs, Ms Au-Yong was quick to reassure me that being organised is very much a teachable skill, and not a talent someone is born with. Well, at least now we know there's hope for mere mortals like us with Domestic Goddess aspirations. So, for those who are now inspired to declutter in time for Chinese New Year: Hang in there, you Kondo it. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

This article was first published on Jan 21, 2017.
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