Don’t Work in a Goat’s Stomach

It’s spring again! With all the vim and verve that accompanies that idea, for many of us, this ends up looking a lot like spring cleaning. All of which brought to mind a story from my nine-to-five days:

When I was working in the nine-to-five world, there was a gentleman down the hall whose office inevitably looked like it had been stirred up with a stick: a desk loaded with piles of paper, dirty cups, takeout containers, a Magic 8 Ball, and a keyboard that looked like you’d be better off wearing a hazmat suit when you touched it…One day, our boss walked by and said, “That office looks like the inside of a goat’s stomach.”

Not surprisingly, the occupant of the messy office wasn’t with the company much longer.

What I’ve learned since then is that my colleague had created a Petri dish of the three kinds of recognized office clutter: these are (as identified by psychologist Sam Gosling) “identity clutter”: photos of family, friends, pets, etc, which are designed to remind us we have a life outside the office; “thought and feeling regulators” which are chosen to change our mood: so, squeezable stress balls, miniature Zen gardens, daily affirmation calendars; and “behavior residues”: old coffee cups, food wrappers, post-its stuck to the keyboard, etc.

The trouble with having a disproportionate number of these items in and around your office sends a message to those around you that you are out of control. As one of my CEO clients said to me after we walked past his junior report’s disastrously messy office on our way to his company’s conference room, “Doesn’t she realize I notice—and care?” 

Now, I’m not saying you can’t have a few personal items. (And I am certainly not going to mandate, as one of my clients has done, what kinds of flowers you are allowed to receive—in their office, your loved ones can send you a white orchid. That’s it.) However, I am saying it’s important to choose carefully, cull frequently, and clean daily.

In an effort to help you decide what stays and what goes, I have put together two lists: Remove Immediately and Keep Selectively. Given its urgency, let’s first look at those items I’d prefer you remove immediately:

Remove Immediately:

  • Leftover food, food wrappers, dirty cups, plates, or silverware.

While this may seem self-evident, I imagine more than a few of you have found yourself at five o’clock, speaking to your co-workers from amidst a small forest of half-empty coffee cups. These must go.

When you do remove them, please don’t simply dump them in the sink of the shared kitchen down the hall. I know of one office that based their recent decision as to which of two equally qualified and experienced people was laid off on who was more prone to leaving their dirty dishes in the communal kitchen.

  • Dead flowers/plants:

The roses your ex gave you last Valentine’s Day shouldn’t become a dried flower arrangement on the shelf. The shedding Ficus tree will be much happier if given to a friend with a green thumb.

  • Stuffed animals/”Whimsical” toys (such as the above-mentioned Magic 8 Ball).

While these can be helpful should your—or your boss’s—kids come to the office, day-to-day, they have the potential to undermine others’ perceptions of the professionalism you bring to your work.

Keep Selectively:

  • Grooming products:

Hair brushes, toothbrushes/paste, shaving and nail paraphernalia can all be handy to have on hand. Please don’t, however, leave them in plain sight—or perform any personal maintenance in front of others.

  • Extra pairs of shoes/a shirt.

Again, both are useful on days when you have an unexpectedly important meeting, or uncooperative weather. They should, however, be stowed out of others’ sightlines.

  • Photos of family/friends.

While these are lovely reminders of your life outside the office, and can be great conversation starters, please do make sure everyone in each photo is fully clothed and behaving appropriately…

All this said, I do know that an office has to be worked in—and that worrying about keeping it pristine can, ultimately, detract from focusing on what you need to accomplish. For this reason, it can help to set aside fifteen minutes at the middle and end of each day to clear your desk/chairs/floor of any accumulated clutter. A principle applied by airlines and luxury bus lines, these intermittent sweeps help keep things from piling up.

Having dealt with personal items, I’d like to speak briefly about the ways in which people organize their work, because while some people find it easy to keep their “to do” list on one sheet of paper, their In and Out boxes tidy, and their piles of papers (loosely) aligned, others are sparked by visual reminders of what needs to get done: resulting in multiple post-its affixed to desk tops and computer screens, project folders piled on the corners of their desks, and stacks of papers on the floor around them like a trail of Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs.

For these people, putting things in drawers is, in fact, disastrous as it’s “out of sight, out of mind.” If this is the case for you, I would recommend buying two wire rack step files for your desk: one for current projects and one for “to do” items. This keeps the things you need in plain sight but ensures the top of your desk isn’t chaotic. You might also organize two rows of items on one side of your desk with those that are most time sensitive at the front.

As you can see, the phrase “look good, feel good,” is one that can and should be applied to your office as well as your person, and although it can be troubling in a wholly different way to see a row of color-coded thumb tacks aligned on someone’s bulletin board, if you’re presenting a chaotic, dirty shop front to the world, it’s hard for those around you to believe in the quality of the work you can, or will, produce.


P.S. If you are wondering about the photo accompanying this post, it is me in ‘cow pose’.  I chose it as cows have 4 stomachs—and there is no ‘goat pose’.