I have visited two different businesses in town on numerous occasions, and each to my eyes has one thing in common: the offices or work spaces are messy as hell.

As in can’t-see-desktop-wall-or-floor messy. I couldn’t even think, let alone function in either of them. But they differ in one key aspect: I no longer frequent one of the businesses, even though I sincerely like the owners, because I got tired of always waiting while they fished around for my transaction records, a promised estimate, clarification on an outstanding order, or whatever. This was often while they were on the phone with someone else and hunting down two other something-or-others. I’d finally hear, “We’ll find it and call you!” And then I’d leave, the last time permanently.

The second business has an office even more chaotic-looking to me, but when the owner is looking to answer a question or find some particular information, they seem to know exactly how far to reach down into which topsy-turvy Dr. Seuss pile of tablets, envelopes or catalogs and pull out exactly the thing I’m concerned with. There is not a computer in sight. I continue to do satisfying business there, partly for the simple delight and amazement in observing this behavior.

The point I’d like to paraphrase is one I’ll credit to Stephanie Culp, one of the first “professional organizers” way back before the title was even coined. She said, “It’s not how it looks to someone else; it’s whether it works for you. If you can find what you need when you need it, then it’s organized enough.” I would only add that this should also hold true for the other people working with you when they need to find the same thing. Aesthetics aside, everyone has their own functionality meter, as well as their own bane of organization.

For me, that bane is my desk. I don’t care what sorry state the rest of the homestead is in; if my desk is submerged, I can’t function. And by now it’s so skilled at burying itself that even if I hide on the other side of the door, I still have never caught it in the act.

I recently returned from two weeks away, and could swear I left that desk acceptably clear. But lo and behold, after a late night return, and most of the next day unpacking, my desk resembled Mt. Rainier.

But by now I have learned a thing or two, and one of them is how to fight back. I am not telling anyone else how to handle their own major dumping spot, but I’ll share how I generally bring my desk back into OSHA safety compliance, in case it might spark any fresh ideas. Here’s my own 3x20-minute shakedown process.

First 20 minutes

I set the timer and (this is important) STAND UP. No sitting on butt yet. I’m going after the biggest impact first. With recycling bin, trashcan, and two large baskets nearby, I start excavating and shoveling, either into trashcan or recycling (duh), somewhere-else-in-the-house (first basket) or studio-or-outside (second basket.)

Second 20 minutes

Put on tea water. Take the baskets around and deliver to the right room. No further action required. “Remember, it’s the desk, Stupid.”My second 20 minutes actually stretched to 30 minutes, after I made the tea, sat down with a leftover cookie, jotted down a few brief notes for this article on a 3x5-inch piece of scrap paper, looked at top section of newspaper on the table and started to read it, then remembered …

Third 20 minutes

Sitting now, I’m finally down to the stuff I actually deal with at the desk. Again I go for biggest impact first: the mail stack. Mostly junk into recycling — but careful! Sometimes there’s a credit card statement in there. Or money. I always stop for money.

I also stop to check my bank balances online, but NO CHECKING EMAIL!

I know I’m an anomaly, but first I need some clear space in my peripheral vision. So I pretty much separate what’s left into four smaller piles: Take care of immediately (example: credit card payment); do soon (example: research or respond to, etc. Good luck there.); to file (examples: owner’s manual, maps from trip, reusable list for dog-sitter); and finally, little scraps and notes to consolidate on my calendar and/or my tried-and-true single page clipboard organizer, otherwise known as “Brain.”

My paper brain is a whole other column. Which I’m sure you’re not interested in, if like most people, you carry your brain around in your pocket when it’s not in your hand. My clipboard is bigger, so I don’t lose it quite as often. And like Stephanie said, “Whatever works for you is organized enough.”

My thirrd 20 minutes is up. I still have four little stacks to take care of and a handful of “errand” items in the chair behind me. But at least I can see what’s next.

Correction: I guess I need to check my email next.

Leffingwell continues her quest to downsize without moving or dying. .

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