SURVEY SAYS: How Neat is Your Desk?

July 28, 2011 ( - Earlier this week we reported on a recent CareerBuilder survey.

That survey said nearly three-in-ten (28%) employers say they are less likely to promote someone who has a disorganized or messy work space (see Careers Could be Lost in the Clutter).  So this week I asked readers to rate their desk’s cleanliness – and to comment on how, if at all, that impacted their productivity – as well as what they thought of those who are/aren’t in the same condition.  Get out the white gloves…

 First, let’s turn to the question of whether such things factor into your productivity – a question to which the responses broke down as follows:

40.6% – depends on how messy it gets

25.3% – yes, and that’s why mine is (neat).

10.4% – yes, and if it WAS neat, I couldn’t find a thing!

9.4% – no

7.3% – no, but I still like it neat

7.1% – a clean desk is the sign of a sick mind (or someone who doesn’t have enough to do)!


So next, I asked readers if you thought more/less of those who have a messy desk – a question that was answered this way:

39.5% - depends on how messy it gets

33.3% - not usually

15.6% - no

11.5% - yes


So – how about YOUR desk?  I asked readers to rank your desk(s), on a scale of 1-10 – and that broke down as follows:

10: cleanliness is next to godliness – 5.2%

9:  10.4%

8:  21.9%

7:  11.5%

6:  10.4%

5:  8.3%

4:  12.5%

3:  8.3%

2”  9.4%

1:  a clean desk is the sign of a sick mind. – 2.1%

But, as always, the verbatim comments were…well, read for yourself…


If the desk is always clean, then the person is not working or has little work to do.  But if the desk is in total disarray, then the person may have work to do, but is unorganized and probably can't find it.

I truly can't work in utter chaos, so my desk may be "busy" with lots of items on it, but it's in objectively neat stacks that I can direct anyone to find something in, if needed.  I do think others judge your professionalism by your neatness, right or wrong.

I was told at a young age by my mom that I was very "organized" ("neat" for all intents and purposes) but not very "clean" since I never dust or polish or any of that stuff. That stayed with me through my career where everything is very organized which does make me work better and more efficiently, but not very "clean". I sure wish someone would dust my desk for me...just make sure not to move anything!

I'm a neat-desk advocate married to a guy who couldn't keep his desk neat if you promised him a million dollars.  Needless to say, we have separate offices at home.

Let's face it - everyone has a preferred and optimal way to organize their work.  I work better when I have the papers associated with a current project available to me on my actual desktop.  I also like working with paper versus completely electronic.  This is my preference and everyone is not like me.  Viva la difference!

My desk is usually well-covered, but organized.  When the organization erodes into tornadic rubble I have to stop everything I'm doing to clean it off and get organized or I cannot function.  As for others' desks, provided it does not impact their productivity I really don't care much.

My work area is full of files and stacks of papers but that doesn't mean I don't know what needs to be done with each one.  I work with people who have clean desks and I wonder why they don't get everything done - sometimes out of sight is out of mind.  Completely.


I am a person who gets distracted easily if there is too much stuff on my desk.  Instead of concentrating on the thing I am supposed to be working on, my attention will drift and the next thing you know I am working on something else.  In addition, not being a morning person by nature...if I come in and my desk is messy, I get flustered and don't know where to start.  Of course, in my personal life, I am married with children, all of whom operate under the principal that if the area is must be storage space!  Sigh....

If a boss is looking at your desk organization instead of the amount of work & the accuracy of your work, then he / she isn't qualified to be your boss.   Also, if they take time to evaluate your desk - then they don't have enough work on their desk...

My former co-worker is extremely knowledgeable but her messy desk coupled with her constant shuffling of paperwork in meetings gives the impression that she doesn't know what she's doing.  While unfair, it is hard for people to get a good impression of her work due to the chaos that surrounds her.

"I have a copy of a quote from Albert Einstein on my desk:  If a clutter desk signs a cluttered mind, of what , then, is an empty desk a sign?"

I'm always amazed by those people who are able to function at a high level even with an extremely messy desk/cube/office (in one case, multiple offices).

Don't think it is a predictor of productivity.  Those that need to have truly have unsightly messes to function need to be assigned to offices not in the public eye however due to the impression it creates that their file will be forever at the bottom of the landfill on the desk.

A cluttered office /  desk is distracting...I can't find  peace amongst mess!

I like to keep a neat, organized desk, and it doesn't take me long to keep it so.  However, because of that, I've been accused of "not having enough do to" by some which is an unfair observation that being cluttered means you're busy.  However, I've also been complimented by those who keep cluttered desks that say they feel relaxed in my cubicle because it is nicely organized, and that they love how I can quickly find files when they ask for them.  I try not to make judgments on those who keep a cluttered desk.  I just realize that if I ask for something from them, to not expect it right away...


This depends upon their role within the structure.  I expect the business department to be orderly and organized.  In the departments where we are expecting creative things the expectation is not as great.

My desk has stacks of papers. As long as no one mess with the stacks, I am fine and can find things.  I have a tipping point at which time I have trouble locating documents, then I pick them up, decide what to keep longer and pitch the rest.

I have a very organized mess on my desk and credenza!  It works for me and that's all that counts.

I'm much more productive than the person who also stays late but is cleaning and filing; the piles are there for the next morning.  My desk is 1/2 messy, half is spotless.  I usually know where everything is.  but when I can't find a document, I hate myself and am embarrassed if people are waiting.

I believe neatness is a reflection of organization and organization is a key factor to being successful and productive.  However, if your desk is too neat, my first thought is you don't have enough to do!

A messy desk may suggest the occupant is disorganized but my experience suggests that withholding judgement until they prove it one way or the other is the best long term course.  This is especially true if the observer is an occasional visitor instead of a co-worker, boss etc.  It could just be a bad or approaching deadline.

Different people have different methods that work for them.  For me it is out of sight out of mind.  If my desk weren't "messy" I wouldn't remember what I had to do.  I think that people who think their way of organizing is best for everyone are either arrogant or ignorant.  Either way this type of person should not be in charge of deciding who gets promoted.


Organization is the key, not neatness.  According to "neat people" my desk would probably be a 2, but I know where everything is, because I have a system.  People with "neat" workspaces come to me for information.  Twenty five years ago, before technology changed expectations, I had a lot more paper to track and yet a much neater workspace for two reasons, 1) management expectations were different, and 2) there were more people to get the work done.

Years ago I had a boss who had a clean desk rule.  He was a lousy boss in every other respect, but the clean desk rule was a good thing . . . at least for me.

I once worked for a man whose entire office was so cluttered that it was a hazard to walk into. He was brilliant and very good at what he did. He had developed a very effective support system to compensate for his lack of personal organization and had a great sense of humor about it. He was my favorite boss of all time.

If the person is productive with a messy desk, it  should not  matter.  If they have a messy desk and are not productive then the goal should be to figure out why they are not productive and offer suggestions  so they can become more productive.  The messy desk may not be the issue . People who make judgments about people who work at messy desks should go back to their desks and work.  Could be that the messy desk people complain that those who complain  are never at their desks so that is why they are neat.  If three is nothing growing and no bad smells and they are getting their work done  efficiently and accurately then it is just an eyesore to those of us who are neat.


I've never met someone with a messy desk who WASN'T extremely organized.  Different styles work for different people, and anyone who judges someone else on anything other than the person's actual performance and results is missing the boat.  I'd hate to work in a place where you are judged on superficial nonsense that has nothing to do with your performance, productivity or results.

Neat v. Messy is a personal choice.  Just like the Miracle Whip v. Mayo decision.

Business files lying around lead me to think they are likely to lose things (and they are a data risk, since you can't lock a desk top).  But the most disgusting sight is when folks let their empty ( or almost empty) soda and coffee cups stack up around their desk.  That creates a bug and rodent hazard for the rest of us who must work with and around them.

If I see someone's desk covered in mounds and mounds of paper I cannot help but think: how is this person getting any work done?  Their mind must be as cluttered as their desk.

I try not to make judgements on the status of the desk, but or the quality of work that comes from that person.  I am a ver visual person, and having stacks, representing the status of a project help me.  I have noticed that those with the cleanest desk, very really organize their email.  I wonder why.

I've given up on having a neat desk.  With several projects going at the same time, it is easier to have the information in front of me so when the phone rings or the email comes in, I have the information I need or the questions right at my finger tips.  Besides, isn't a neat desk a sign of not enough work to do? And since I really do not want to volunteer for anything else, I keep it messy!

"Individuals are just that individuals and as long as we have a view to ""one size fits all"" we have a problem.


The focus on a clean desk is usually form those who have no idea what th other person is doing in the first place. There are extremely wonderful and productive people with a clean desk and the same wiht a mess. At the same time there are those who should be looking for work elsewhere."

My desk gets messy as the day wears on but it's always clean at the end of the day when I go home so does it really matter???

I wish my desk was neat.  However, with priorities changing every day, I currently have about seven projects that I must touch every day.  Also, I have another problem - out of sight is out of mind.

In all honesty, mine has only been this clean for about 2 months - normally it's a disaster.  I cleaned it because an obsessive CEO was coming to visit that does judge by a desk's appearance - now I can't find anything I need so I waste time looking for everything.  The worth of an employee should be based on the quality and effectiveness of work produced, not on how neat things "look" in the office - how childish (and self-defeating to a business) to judge on the appearance of a desk.

The person who had the job before me had piles and piles on her desk.  In fact, the desk was pretty much invisible, and that's what it looked like when I got here.  First order of business was to get things cleared off the desk and get all her filing from the past 10 months done.  I'm constantly getting comments on how clean my desk is, how organized I am, how quick I am with getting answers to people, etc.  Right now I could walk on water, and they wouldn't be surprised.

I've found that people who have empty "minimalist" desktops tend to be the most boring people you'll ever meet. No to say there aren't a few dullard slobs out there.

Let's see, I report to the Dir HR who is an 8 (but a closet 5 you should see his credenza drawers). I work mostly with the CIO and CFO who are 0 & 0.5, respectively (dis-environmentalists and ticker-tape parade suppliers). I'm responsible for the welfare & pension plans updates, notices & reforms, SPDs, plan documents/amendments, 404(c), PPA, HCRA, COBRA, HIPAA, the rest of the alphabet soup, the lawyers associated therewith and the proofs beyond a reasonable doubt. Did I mention on-demand hard copy for everyone & on-going notices? Oh yeah, and your 3-word revision to a 40 page report. Yep, it's all here (somewhere) and at the ready, but please don't sneeze! Let me reiterate, however, I love my job!


I'm fine with a little clutter.  (I have a couple of stacks on my desk that are put away each night.)  However, there are people who work in my department who have desks that are waaayyyy beyond cluttered.  They are just downright nasty.  That definitely affects my opinion of them.  In almost all cases, the state of their workspace is reflective of the way they handle their business.

Out of sight, out of mind works for me. Everything I'm working on should be OUT where I can see it staring back at me.

A messy desk to me shows lack of organizational skills.

I was hounded to clean my desk for a couple of years.  Finally, my manager told me that he realized I was productive in spite of the messy desk.  As long as my performance was good, my desk was acceptable.  But if my performance slipped, the desk would be one of the first thing that needed to be cleaned up.  It's been 5 years since that conversation and my desk still looks a mess.

I really think it's a bit much to judge someone on the appearance of their desk.  Frankly, I could keep my desk neater but then I would be spending more time each day taking things out to work on and putting them away.  This way, I just go to the stack because I know where everything is, and get what I need.  That being said, I wish I could figure out a way to have less paper and more space. If we save too much on the computer, we run into space problems.  If we don't save it, we could run into regulations issues, and on and on.  Darned if you do...darned if you don't.  That being said, I hate walking into my office sometimes and seeing all there is to do right there in my face.

People make fun of me because I tend to put projects, general client info, etc. in separate manila folders (or separate folders on my computer).  But I'm always the one they come to when they are looking for information!


Being able to find things (documents, files, etc.) on or in the desk is more important than neatness.  I like to keep all open items in files on my desk and I know where things are.  Once they are out of sight (filed somewhere) they are out of mind - either forgotten or difficult to locate. However, I have worked with individuals who needed a search party to find things on their desks.  Not so good.

"I have a neat desk in a messy desk department.  I get a lot of comments along the line of ""I must not have a lot to do.""  I sent your the article on the messy desk survey to my co-worker.

I have a neat desk because a messy desk affects my productivity - I feel overwhelmed and that I'm not accomplishing anything."

My desk is organized chaos. If I put my active files away, the projects don't move forward--out of site, out of mind.

It depends on what it is messy with.  I can handle messy with files but messy with empty soda cans or McDonalds french fries that are older than the ones under the seat in my car, that's another story

I don't think there is a direct correlation to neat desk/ productive worker.  I have known people with piles of paper who could lay their hand on anything at a moments notice.  I have known people with terrible clean desks who accomplish nothing.  And I have known the opposites.  My only comment about a messy desk is in regards to the person who has piles, complains they have too much to do, but won't delegate any work to their staff or accept any offer of help.  Really?  good luck with that!

There are times my desk will be messy; however, there comes a point when it begins to affect my productivity.  At that point, I have to "clear the decks" and get reorganized to become productive again.


"My desk might not be neat (it's cluttered with papers), but I know where EVERYTHING is.  In a former job, I was having to organize a huge pile of foils (transparencies...did I just date myself) that we periodically used for dog and pony shows.  There must have been 1000 or so of the things, and I was indexing them, titling them, and filing them away for future use.  There was one that always seemed to get pulled out for every other barn dance that we called the ""Spaghetti Chart"" as it showed how all of our mainframe systems connected, interacted, and we hodgepodged together. 

Anyway, I have my desk covered with papers, foils, notebooks, etc., and the EVP over our division, who had told me on several occasions that my desk was messy, stopped by and asked for the Spaghetti Chart.  Without missing a beat, I moved one pile, picked up a book, pulled out a ruler, and slid the foil out from under another pile of stuff.  He said, ""Well, I'll be!  I'm never saying anything about your desk again.  You do know where everything is."" 

I have a messy desk so I judge those that don't.  Just as I know if I had a clean desk, I would judge those that don't.

Sometimes a messy desk isn't the sign of someone being disorganized.  It's just simply that they don't have time to file things away.  In this day and age, as work loads get heavier, it's hard to find the time to file things.  But there are those people who dress sloppy and their desk is sloppy.  I wouldn't want to have the office they are living in now!!



But my favorites were:

I like to think of the ""clutter"" as merely another means of organization.  Now when it's in my kids' rooms, it IS clutter."

But this week’s Editor’s Choice goes to the reader who noted, “I grew up in a very very very cluttered home, so if my desk gets cluttered I literally feel like I'm being smothered. I have CDO. It's like OCD, but the letters are in the correct order as they should be ;-)”

Thanks to everyone who participated in our survey!  And stay away from my desk!