by Esther Schindler

Messy Desk, Organized Computer. And Vice Versa.

Mar 10, 20083 mins

It seems as though everyone I know who’s a neatnik has a completely disorganized computer system. And those of us whose physical desktops are piled high with paper have computer systems with carefully designed folders, and every document neatly stored away.

This is just my anecdotal experience, mind you; I wouldn’t even know where to go to look for official research on the subject.

However, my office has scared people. There are piles of books, reports, CDs and paper on my desk so deep that they are measured in geologic strata. I haven’t filed my bills in years (I am not speaking hypothetically), just flung them onto a big stack in the fond hope that a Filing Fairy will come along one night to sort them into my custom-built file cabinets.

Yet, you’d never know any of that from looking at my computer. It’s ridiculously organized, with every project in its own folder, every e-mail message carefully stored away in the most find-able structure I can come up with (everything from “Expense Reports” to “article on Women in IT”) and hand-crafted e-mail filters automating most of the deluge into 100+ folders.

In contrast, Jen, an old friend and boss, never leaves her office until the desk is cleared off. I’m convinced that she’d take the time to clean her desk even in the middle of an earthquake (so it’s fortunate she lives in Indianapolis). Yet, her Windows desktop has dozens of icons, and I think she stuffs everything, everything into My Documents.

Another über-neatnik I know cannot get the concept of a structured website into her head. She keeps trying to make her (professional, retail) site into one long page. Post a summary with a “read more” link? Barbara just doesn’t get it.

It’s odd; wouldn’t you expect that someone who’s super-organized in person would also be structured online? But in my experience, it’s just the opposite.

The only explanation I can come up with—and admittedly it “excuses” my apparent sloppiness—is that I only look disorganized to others. My “random” piles actually do reflect a conceptual organization, even if outsiders don’t see it. If you asked me to, say, lay my hands on the receipts from my trip last week, I could do so in a flash. The pile of books in front of the monitor is my “to review on Amazon” stack. And so on. So maybe my online “neatness” shows that I can rely on conceptual structures rather than needing physical ones. (Or maybe I’m just too darned lazy to clean up my office. Nah, that couldn’t be it.)

I’ve never seen a formal study on this. But perhaps, if you chime in, we can collect more anecdotal data on it here. Is this just a strange observation of my own, or do you see a similar disconnection?