Is a messy office hazardous to your career?
Some believe a cluttered desk makes a bad impression, others feel that it's a sign of a creative mind. What do bosses think?
By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Dear Annie: Please settle an argument. A co-worker (and friend) of mine says that my messy cubicle makes a bad impression on our boss. I say, who cares whether my office looks as if a hurricane blew through it, as long as I get my work done? Who is right? --Pigpen

Dear Pigpen: Well, personally, I've always subscribed to the old maxim, "A clean desk is the sign of an empty mind." But according to Christine Reiter, a productivity specialist at Corporate Coaching International in Pasadena, Calif., I am wrong, and your friend has a point.

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"People often don't realize that piles of paper, boxes in corners, and stacks of stuff behind the office door can affect one's upward mobility," she says. "Appearances are important."

Why? "Your office is a reflection of your capabilities," Reiter says. "Even though a messy desk isn't a sign of a character flaw, it does tend to give your managers and peers the impression that the job is too much for you to handle, you can't make decisions, you are not doing the job, or all of the above."

Okay, then. Time to tidy up.

If your cubicle is truly a disaster area and you're at a loss as to where to get started, consider these tips:

  • Store the information and materials you use most often within easy reach -- perhaps in your right-hand desk drawer.
  • Put things away as soon as you stop working on them. If you're working on something and get interrupted, try posting a sticky note on the page, jot your thoughts on it, and then file it, Reiter suggests. That will help you pick up your train of thought more quickly when you get back to it again.
  • Keep a to-do list close at hand, preferably sorted by category (Do, Call, Write, etc.). Update it at the end of each day.
  • Set up a filing system. Many people feel more secure when all their active projects are in sight, Reiter notes, but that doesn't mean everything has to be strewn across your desk (or okay, in my case, the floor).

"If any projects are visible, they should only be the four or five that need your immediate attention on any given day, stacked in a vertical file," says Reiter. "Put them away as you go. Your day is complete when all the files are off your desk." Noting each project on your to-do list, she adds, "keeps everything within view and alleviates 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' anxiety."

  • Plan your day. "A short daily session to review each day's accomplishments, and a weekly plan to track your goals a week or two ahead of time, are a must," Reiter says. "Planning helps to prevent many of the fires that cause our days to spin out of control. If you do it carefully, it will also eliminate most of the paper from your desk."

Taking the time to get organized, Reiter says, "will reward you with a greater sense of control." It may also encourage your friend to stop fretting over the impression you're making on your boss.


Friends, to follow up on three recent columns: First, for everyone who has written me asking how to get more details on the federal government's new guidelines regarding Internet job applicants (February 6), there is a ton of information available on the Department of Labor's web site. Go to and enter the words "Internet applicant" in the Search field. You get more than 1,000 results, but the top 5 -- including an FAQ section -- are plenty for most purposes.

And, for people who want to work from home (March 6), yet another great resource has come to my attention. It's a web site,, started by long-time career coach Nancy Collamer, with a job board that specializes in work-at-home positions, as well as flexible jobs with family-friendly companies.

Last but not least, reader Matt Ulmer points out that anyone who wants to pursue a degree online (March 6) should first check out the school they're considering with the nonprofit University Continuing Education Association (, which keeps an up-to-date directory of accredited distance-learning programs. Thanks, Matt!


See 6 ways to make your cubicle feel like a corner office: Chic cube decor. Top of page

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