When your podmates have named an ever-growing stack of papers after you ("Mount Sturrock" — very funny, guys), you know you've passed the limits of an acceptably messy desk.
And that's just the spot I found myself in — a spot made smaller and smaller by the encroaching paperwork that surrounded me.
After months of excuses, the claustrophobia finally became unbearable, even to me — someone who grew up in a home carpeted with clutter. Once again, I contacted my friendly neighborhood drill sergeant, er, professional organizer, Marlene Ashdown of South Palm Beach's Organize This Inc.
A few months earlier, Marlene had helped me rediscover my spare bedroom under years of accumulated junk. She'd also rearranged my kitchen cabinets and set up a workable filing system for my personal records.
She had seen me at my worst, I figured. But then she saw my cubicle, and for the first time, I spotted a glimmer of alarm in Marlene's eyes.
It really was as bad, if not worse, than I had described over the phone.
But she's a let's-get-down-to-business type, so out came the trash bags as she delivered her first directive: For the love of God, clean up this floor!
Here's what else she suggested:
1. Throw it (or give it) away: The floor was carpeted with magazine articles and piles of fashion and beauty freebies. The swag eventually finds its way into our company's semi-annual charity auction, but it was backlogged in my cubicle because I thought it more efficient to fill several bins before carting them over to the auction chairwoman's office, a whopping 30 feet away.
Wrong! Marlene said. Don't let stuff stack up. Once I'm certain the freebie bottles of shampoo and boxes of cosmetics won't be photographed for a story, I am to immediately march them out of my cubicle. "Let it go," Marlene advised.
I felt a little bad for arriving at the office of the auction chairwoman with a delivery of four heaping boxes of graft —but not bad enough to turn around.
2. Manage the paper flow: Cubicle Issue No. 2 involved the juggling of simultaneous projects, a situation faced by most office workers.
"You're working on many articles at one time, but you don't know which one will be the next to be published, so the most important materials are constantly switching around," Marlene correctly surmised.
She recommended I keep only the most pertinent papers on my desk or — better yet — in a file cabinet below.
When a project is complete, I move my piles of research to another file drawer outside of my cubicle (I had plenty of dedicated storage space, as it turned out — I just didn't know how to make the best use of it!). "Once a year, the outside cabinet can be purged," Marlene said.
3. Maximize space: Marlene also helped me set up a small drawer for personal belongings: my stash of afternoon snacks, toothbrush and toothpaste, a small umbrella, stamps and address labels... Letting these things eat up space is a common problem for office workers, Marlene said. Either they have no drawer," she said, "or they have a giant drawer half-empty with their personal stuff in it."
4. Put things in their place: More than four thoroughly exhausting hours later, I was loading up my car with: a mirror destined for my living room (a friend had found it in a local thrift shop and lugged it up to my cubicle — two years earlier); multiple boxes of personal belongings that had languished in the dark corners of my cube; and bags containing my Rolodex and hundreds of unfiled business cards (nothing like taking work home, but I knew, rather obviously, that I'd never take the time to organize them at my desk).
If it weren't for Marlene's persistence, I would have surrendered much earlier. Of all my organization projects, this one was toughest — and made me nauseous from the stress. "I find that generally people can't handle much more than three hours without that feeling," Marlene said. "It's getting rid of guilt and relieving your body of all that 'stuff' we attach to our job." How true.
These days, it's been absolutely sublime to walk into my cubicle without fear of knocking over a teetering pile of possessions or slipping on glossy magazines underfoot. To be able to locate a phone number while the boss looks on. Or, best, of all, to know that I not only scaled Mount Sturrock, I leveled it with my bare hands and a dozen trash bags.
Marlene Simmons of Organize This Inc. can be reached at (561) 315-4232.