I approach national Clean Off Your Desk Day in a newsroom where someone in authority once tried to ban just about anything personal hanging in our cubicles. Food was a no-no, too, as was displaying anything on top of the cubicle dividers.
In a newsroom, that kind of order is laughable. Compliance was short-lived.
I offer my desk as Exhibit A. On it are scattered: 32 business cards of people I've met or interviewed; a nearly empty tin of breath mints; a pack of chewing gum; half a chocolate bar; five paper clips; two sticks of lip balm; a compact mirror; a pair of earplugs; and an orange Tootsie Roll Pop that's missing a stick. Plus: four mugs; a water glass; two water bottles; a dictionary and a thesaurus (yes, I know, there are online versions); a row of folders mostly containing papers that should be thrown out; and framed pictures of bison, a bear, two elephants, a hummingbird, and colleagues.
In similar messes, Janet Taylor saw opportunity 23 years ago, leaving retail to become a professional organizer. That she's still in business doesn't speak much to our collective improvement in fighting inertia when it comes to orderliness at work and home. The Philadelphia Home Show has booked her to give three workshops during its coming expo at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Jan. 13 to 22.
Blame paper, said Taylor, 53, president of Totally Organized LLC, a company of one. She works from a tidy — naturally — home office near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, handling about 100 jobs a year.
"There are people who are still not comfortable with technology and feel there will be some type of computer crash and they will lose all of their paperwork," Taylor said. "Those individuals will continue to be surrounded by mountains of paper and files in their home and offices."
That makes an ugly situation even worse, from a health perspective. A 2002 study by the University of Arizona found that the typical desk has more bacteria per square inch — more than 400 times more — than an office toilet seat. It also found that desks and the phones on them are breeding grounds for viruses that cause the very colds currently sweeping through the newsroom of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.
Then there's the inefficiency and stress of it all. A desire to eliminate that is generally behind the calls for help Taylor gets from business and residential clients.
"People are stressed when they can't find information," said Taylor, whose hourly fees range from $50 to more than $100. A typical job for a business costs $1,000; a residential treatment, $550 to $750. A more economical option, she said, is virtual organizing, where she will advise clients over the phone after gauging their needs through emailed photos.
Sometimes, there's even appreciable monetary gain for a client, sort of like finding coins under the couch cushions, but bigger. Taylor helped a company recover $32,000 by developing processes and procedures to help it keep better track of delivered services that had not been paid for, she said, declining to name the client — most of them aren't proud of their disarray.
Her most satisfying experience was a home-office job that morphed into organizing an entire house. In the client's bedroom, Taylor found a mountain of clothes and books that she restored to a usable bed.
"That was the first time she was sleeping in the bed in two years," Taylor said of the end result.
Like a weight-loss coach with a client who puts pounds back on, Taylor's work involves disappointment over recidivism.
"I realize in those situations I've done all I can," she said, estimating that 5 percent to 10 percent of clients relapse. "I rarely get angry. I just try to be understanding of their life."
Overall, Taylor said, she is professionally sated "by creating order." To her, a clean desk "means that the person has control over their work and the information they have to manage."