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photo of messy files

That White Paper Guy’s messy office

I’ve always had trouble keeping my office neat.

As a kid, I never wanted to put away my toys.

There was always something more interesting to do.

And now that I’m busy working for clients, I prefer to start working on a fresh deliverable instead of cleaning up after the last project.

The result? My office sometimes looks like a disaster zone, as you can see below.

GGs office before

About that photo…

That photo was taken just after we adopted our second daughter. We had less than a week between hearing about her and bringing her home to stay.

That meant we had to child-proof our whole house. The fastest way to do that was to dump every offending object into a room with a door that shut: my office!

Somewhere in there is my office chair. But I could barely wade in to reach it.

There might have been a cat in there, or even two. But I can’t spot them.

I kept on producing good work on the screen, but it was stressful and exhausting to sit in that kind of mess, with absolutely no desk to spread out on.

Lots of misguided advice

How could I descend so far into messiness?

Well, over the years I got lots of misguided messages about tidying up.

Newspaper reporters? Most of their desks are mountains of paper. Some even have old plates with food buried in there, attracting bugs and rodents.

I once worked for a publisher in Toronto who kept a little card on his terrifically cluttered desk that said, “A clean desk is the sign of a sick mind!”

That card would appear and disappear in the chaos of his desk, like an object surfacing in a tar pit and then getting pulled back under.

photo of Tarpit villain emerging in TV show The Flash

A few years later, when I asked one magazine editor why his office was so cluttered, he got quite huffy.

“I get paid to put out the magazine, not clean my office!” he snorted. “We have janitors for that.”

Whenever I visited marketers, I noticed their offices were cluttered with boxes of trade show swag and product literature and their desks were buried under magazines, reports, and lunch wrappers.

“There’s nowhere else to put this stuff,” one told me.

Even family members gave me misguided advice.

My uncle ran a busy garage full of cars being fixed and antique Studebakers being restored. No one ever called it “tidy.”

He once told me how he sized up a mechanic:

“A busy mechanic has no time to clean up,” he declared. “If all their tools are neatly put away, and the shop is all swept up, they’re probably not very busy. That means they’re probably not very good.”

Reporters, editors, publishers, marketers, and even family members all encouraged me not to bother organizing my workspace.

Who was I to argue?

The life-changing magic of tidying up

After my office hit an all-time low, I heard about an amazing little book that really has changed my mind.


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was written by a Japanese woman who specializes in organizing people’s homes and offices.

Her book created a sensation when it came out in English in 2014. It’s been called a “how-to-heave-ho.”

In fact, author Marie Kondo has been called “the most organized woman in the world.”



Here’s a 4-minute video showing her helping a magazine writer tidy up her workstation.

For a longer intro to her methods, here’s a 42-minute talk she gave at Google.

Kondo makes the point that most First World homes are filled with excess material goods that bring us no joy, but only add stress to our lives.

This includes “bargains” picked up on impulse, unwanted “gifts” from family and friends, and clutter that piles up higher every day.

We have clothes we never wear, books we never read, knick-knacks we never enjoy.

You can extend that to offices stuffed with e-mail we never get to, files we never look at, and clutter we have nowhere to store.

How do you deal with all that?

Simple, says Kondo.

Gather together everything in your house or office in a certain category. Clothes. Books. Magazines. CDs. Papers. Kick-knacks. Put it all into a big pile.

Then work through an entire category at once. Hold each item in your hands and ask yourself one simple question: “Does this bring me joy?”

If yes, keep it. Preferably in an accessible spot where you can easily get at it.

If no, say “thank you” and get rid of it.

How crazy is that? Who says everything in life has to bring us joy?

But then again, why not?

It’s your house or your office. Why not surround yourself with things that make you happy and productive?

In my case, I realized my clutter was giving me an illusion of security. Any time I wasn’t busy for a client, I could always shuffle around my clutter.

But my mess was stopping me from moving ahead with some big plans, like writing more books, developing more courses, even taking more time off work.

What I did after reading the book

I went through my clothes and got rid of anything I never wear. Of course, that wasn’t very hard. I work at home and don’t need to keep many different outfits.

I went through my books and got rid of two carloads of titles I’ll never look at again.

I went through my DVDs and gave away a box of older ones I’ll never watch again.

And you know what?

Those less cluttered bookshelves started to give me a profound sense of relief.

It was time to turn to… my messy office?!

When we moved across the country to our current house about 10 years ago, I carted along 40+ boxes of papers.

Since then, I slowly winnowed those down to 30 boxes, and then 20, and finally about 15. But then I got stuck.

This time, I’m serious. Working in fits and starts between client projects, I’ve organized all my office paper and clutter into a few categories:

  • Kid’s art and memories
  • Recent client files (just one year’s worth)
  • Notes on business and marketing
  • Office supplies
  • Work samples

I cleared off my desk and set up two filing cabinets with essential files. I sold off an air conditioner I never used. I put up some new shelves in the basement and started to cart down boxes. So far I have six boxes down there and another half dozen four left in my office.

My goal is to have everything down to a few boxes in the basement by Labor Day, with no clutter anywhere, and everything in its place.

In other words, to create an office that brings me joy, allows my creativity to soar…. and doesn’t nag at me to spend untold hours shuffling the clutter.

I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours

And that’s why I started That Messy Office Contest 2016: to encourage other people to clean up their workspace too.

If I can do it, you can do it!

You’ve seen my Before picture above. And I’m determined to take a glorious After picture of my renewed office and publish it here.

So let’s work together to clean up our worlds. And please send me a photo of what you’re dealing with. You might even win a prize!

Remember, that contest entry is here. And the deadline is midnight September 6, 2016.

Update: my tidy office!

So here’s an actual unretouched photo-collage of my new, improved office after  my major cleanup.

As you know, it’s hard to show an entire room in one photo, so I took a bunch and just pieced them together.

Notice the clean desks, the visible floor, the comfy seating, and the tidy bookshelves.

Now my office invites me to walk in and be productive. It gives me some welcome relief from the stress of a non-stop stream of projects. My two uncluttered desks provide room to spread out notes and papers.

And best of all, my tidy office actually gives me joy every day.

I hope yours does, too!


Collage of GG's office after his cleanup

Do you have any favorite tips on how to organize your office? Will you join us in the challenge to clean up your messy office? Please leave your comments below.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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