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April 25, 2012 1:09 AM   Subscribe

How can I curb the (rather desperate) urge to tidy up?

I am a very neat and organized person whose default mode is almost always "gotta tidy up". From now until summer I'll be working in an environment that is very disorganized and sometimes chaotic. On the first day, my respect for my new boss was enough to stop me from interfering with the overall workspace. Today I found it impossible to resist cleaning up a little because I could not get work done otherwise. I did my best to return everything I'd moved around to where it was before but this bemused/frustrated my boss to no end because she had already gotten used to the new piles and didn't know where anything was again. I am the type of person that needs to put things away before I move on to a new task. My boss is not.

In the near future I will be taking over this workspace and in order to do my job as effectively as I can, I know I will need the environment to be as orderly as possible. As it is, stuff is left on the floor, in piles all over every surface, and things are left askance and askew in ways that hinder movement and productive interaction. I have to inquire after the location of needed materials every day because they are not in the same place consistently.

I do not want to offend my boss by rearranging their domain. This is who my boss is, and they are very good at what they do. How can I attain a middle ground so I am respectful of the environment around me, but also do what I need to do in order to be as successful at my job as possible?
posted by These Birds of a Feather to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Ask your boss if you can organize the office as a project. Ask for input and maybe some furniture or storage containers. Many messy people would love it if someone else would organize their mess! (Me.)

Why not ask? The worst they could do is say no, and you'd know where you stand.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 1:16 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your relationship with your new boss is friendly, just have a light-hearted conversation about this. Everybody knows that some people are a bit chaotic, whilst others are obsessively neat. Sometimes untidy people (I include myself) would actually welcome a bit of order in their workspace, but find that once it reaches a certain point, it becomes something they avoid.

I'd have a conversation like this: "Hey boss, I just need to warn you that I'm a bit of an 'organiser' and tend to tidy up after people. If it starts to annoy you, just let me know and I'll try to keep a lid on it. Otherwise, don't be alarmed if things start forming neat piles ordered by colour and alphabetical order."
posted by pipeski at 1:20 AM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Absolutely ask if you can make it a project to organise the office - if your relationship is friendly then I would straight up say "I really want to be able to do the best job possible here. I think that the best way to do this would be to really organise this office so everything is in a consistent place, filed properly, etc, etc so that I can be productive and efficient doing this job. Would this be okay?" Won't hurt to ask!
posted by latch24 at 1:40 AM on April 25, 2012

I have actually stopped a high-pressured project for half a day when taking over as a projectleader to get rid of stacks of paper, old pizza boxes, cola bottles and the grime of 10 untidy programmers. That place was a health hazard. The initial scorn turned into relief afterwards.
Tidyness beats chaos always. You can also use Bagdad Cafe as inspiration, which has some hilarious scenes regarding precisely this type of conflict.
posted by Eltulipan at 2:22 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: What should I do if this boss/mentor has expressed sincere attachment to the way this workspace operates, looks, exists, etc? In case this wasn't clear in my OP, my first attempts to bring order temporarily were met with embarrassment and protests on the part of my boss. I am worried about embarrassing them more if I ask them directly about starting organization projects. To do so may be perceived as challenging this person whose work I admire and respect a lot. I am acting as an ambassador from a school and I cannot jeopardize this burgeoning partnership at all.

posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:38 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your boss is genuinely attached to working in the midst of chaos, and since you've said you'll only be there until the summer, it's fairly clear that you should just keep quiet and leave things as they are. By all means be tidy in your own areas or responsibility, but it's unfair to try to impose that on your boss when they've expressed fairly clearly that that's not what they want. Learn to live and let live, and sabe up all that tidying-energy for when you get home. Adapting to your work environment and not treading on toes is a valuable skill.
posted by pipeski at 2:56 AM on April 25, 2012 [11 favorites]

Guess you'll have to learn to be productive in the chaos then. That sounds flippant but chances are that you will have to work with lots of people in your life that do not maintain the standards of organisation and neatness that you would prefer. And the sooner you learn to let these things go if they are not absolutely mission critical the better.

So learn what things you really do need to have organised for you to be able to do your job as opposed to what is offensive to your aesthetics and causes you inefficiencies like having to look for things. Organise the essentials, ignore the rest and get on with your job.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:34 AM on April 25, 2012

Your order is her chaos. I have nightmares about people moving my stuff. I just had one of these moments with a neighbor- I missed a UPS package, so I signed the little tag and put it back on the window next to the door so the driver would leave the package the next day. One of my "helpful" neighbors decided this was untidy, removed it from the window and stuck it on my mailbox. (5 feet away, but inaccessible by the UPS driver) Now I've got to drive to the UPS office and pick my shit up.

Don't mess with stuff that isn't yours. If the messiness is actually making you unproductive, then have a conversation with the boss about how to share the workspace effectively. Which piles you can move, which countertops you can tidy up, etc.
posted by gjc at 5:52 AM on April 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

I am like your boss. I have what I like to call positional memory. My lab bench looks like a holy mess, but when someone comes in and moves something I still notice and it pisses me off to no end because I remember where everything is supposed to be. I even do lazy things like picking up things from where they should be without looking and if it is moved I can end up getting the wrong thing, not a big deal when talking about a pen, but when someone has switched my hexane bottle with my methanol bottle and I am running a column then the entire column is ruined and I need to start over because someone thought they were being helpful and tidying up. See it as a task to try and memorize where everything is in these piles and embrace what looks like chaos to you.
posted by koolkat at 6:08 AM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

You might find it psychologically easier if you have some sort of "private" space to keep immaculately organized. "Hey, boss, is it OK if I take over a couple of desk drawers, or shelves, or a single table? I'll move your stuff over here, if that's good." Maybe it's even something you bring with you and take home each day, like a tool bag or a large purse. If you can keep all the things you need for your work organized in that private space, at least you don't have to be digging through your boss' clutter to find the scissors, or a flash drive, or whatever.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:09 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, pretty much what koahiatamadl said. I try and keep my workspace from devolving into chaos, and I do tidy it from time to time, but I have to be the one doing the tidying myself. If anyone else moves my stuff around (my mom did this constantly when I was growing up and my husband still sometimes does) then I can spend hours freaking out trying to find something because it isn't where I left it. It's incredibly disruptive and can throw off my entire day.

I think it's totally fair for you to ask to have a small subsection of the shared workspace that's entirely your own, and for you to request that other people not clutter it up. But that's about all you can do. Ask them when you need something that you can't find, ask them when you're putting something back and you're not sure where it goes, and just try and make do with a less-than-ideal work environment.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:16 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another perspective: Even though being organized is thought of as a characteristic of effective high-powered people, organizing someone else's stuff is an activity that doesn't earn you any professional points: that's for "the secretary", one step above cleaning staff, or the unfortunate female who doesn't stand up for her expertise and takes on the role of "office mom". If you want respect, leave the boss's stuff alone. Especially in technical fields, there's a certain cachet to being too much of a genius to bother with being organized, too involved in the end result to have a sorted filing cabinet. If that's your boss's perspective, you'll get a good reference if you do your project, not if you "fix" the office.

You're coming in as a new person, toward the bottom of the ladder. When you say "school ambassador" I'm not sure whether that's more like a professor on sabbatical giving expert consultation, or a student/intern type position. Especially if it's the latter, you should forget about office tasks and throw yourself into the purpose of the job.
posted by aimedwander at 6:57 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I feel for you, because I can't deal with other peoples' clutter/mess. However, I am usually fine in my own, and I don't like stuff being moved. You get used to something being in one place, and it's annoying/stressful when it's all of a sudden not there.
posted by radioamy at 6:58 AM on April 25, 2012

Remember this?
He also thinks nothing of rearranging different aspects of my car to suit him if I come to visit because he thinks his way is the best,.
The solution here is obviously to negotiate for your own workspace, in a corner of the office or something.

Ultimately, I think aemedwander has this right, and you're encountering a bit of a culture clash. The solution here is to acknowledge your role as the "office eccentric" and see if you can get a place that helps you work in a manner you're comfortable with without coming across as trying to change everyone else's work routine.
posted by deanc at 7:19 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How can I attain a middle ground so I am respectful of the environment around me, but also do what I need to do in order to be as successful at my job as possible? What should I do if this boss/mentor has expressed sincere attachment to the way this workspace operates, looks, exists, etc?

You said it - this is the way your boss's brain is wired. I've worked for "horizontal filers" before (and I'm occasionally working for one now) and to work with them, it's probably best to take a day or two to step back and really notice their "system". Because they do have a system, it's just in their brain where tidy people can't see it easily. Watch what they do, and that will guide you. Once you've figured out how your boss' brain works, you can then figure out your work-arounds. Your powers of observation are your best friend.

Here are examples I've worked for:

Currently, I'm working for "Gretel" in two different capacities, though sometimes as a supply in another. She leaves trails behind her. If I hand her a bulldog-clipped sheaf of papers, say, about which kids need their vaccinations updated, she'll unclip it, and start to move - so I follow. She looks at the fax on top from the Public Health Nurse, and leaves it on the counter as she walks to her office, where she wanders around the big round table she works on, peeling papers that had been sorted by which kids are in school, which ones we have already sent first or second reminder letters home with etc., and soon the stack of papers she only needed to flip through is scattered all over her office like freshly fallen snow. So I learned: Call her over to the admin. desk, make a cover sheet with everything she needs to do highlighted, tell her it will take less than a minute and could she do it on the spot, please, and staple the shit out of things that shouldn't be separated. I fold coloured pieces of copy paper around things if I can, so I can look on the floor and see the hot pink and know that's the stack I need. I made the mistake of handing her keys the other night, and watched her put them in her pocket and start to wander instead of in the slot two feet to her left, where they belonged - so I thought to ask to use them again so I could put them back myself. She answers emails in order, not by priority - so I do everything in person. She's a person who needs to move when she's thinking, and half her mind is always elsewhere. So I need to watch her actions. There is no trusting that I can send her something, that it will be acted upon and that she'll get back to me.

I worked for the "Nest-Featherer." This person would not move from one spot, and everything would be piled in a semi-circle around her. I'd have to figure out which layer was which week, and which day was at which elbow. I'd ask for what I needed, take it away and do all the moving and doing, and then hand everything back to the Nest-Featherer.

I worked for "Dorothy", who carried everything in baskets and totes and bins. She'd pile everything in a basket that she had to do that day and work from it all day long. If she was taking something home, in the basket it would go. She had dozens and dozens of containers, and so I'd have to notice which one she used on which day, and what was in it. If, say, a lot of jewellery had been picked up from the appraiser that morning, and she was going to spend the day pricing it and it was my job to make the tags, I'd try to make sure I knew which jewellery was in that basket so I could say "The sapphire bracelet was just in your taupe striped tote this past Tuesday." If I had projects to work on, like testing the metal on all the stick pins and re-labeling and pricing them, I would also keep my work in a bin because she respected containers. I had to deal in her currency if I wanted to function well.

I worked with "the Glacier", whose work creeped over into my space constantly. I had to make Les Nessman tape lines on the shared work table.

I worked with "Effluvium", who was filthy - in a place where we had mouse problems, every time I picked up paper from her desk, little turds would roll off and clouds of dust would emanate and her ten coffee cups would have moldy discs of rotted cream at the bottom. It wasn't until I freaked out my co-workers with my jeweller's black light to show them it wasn't just that, but the mouse pee everywhere, and the trails all over our own desks that was super gross, that we spoke to management about an exterminator; plus we determined that as a company, once a month we'd stay late, order pizza, and clean our desks. The boss was willing to cover that for the sake of peace in the ranks and nobody was singled out as working in a sty.

I worked for "the Museum", who was incredibly organized and everything was filed properly and laid out perfectly for anyone to be able to follow up on -- but she loved the tchotchkes, and the visual clutter was incredible. So, I'd have a surface, like a small table, where if I needed to work on something I'd do it there. I'd bring what I needed to the clear space, rather than trying to slot myself into her charming but cluttery arrangement of decorative things. I'm hugely irritated by butt-brushing and bump factors and can't focus with visual distractions, so removing myself was the thing to do rather than asking her to downsize her collection. My current desk for working from home faces a blank wall and a curtain.

I worked for "the Dumptruck", who'd go around and brainstorm and collect and do and hoard and acquire things - then show up one day and pile them all on me to sort out. Asking her to tell me the top three priorities was how I'd start to figure it out, and then I'd have to tell her to trust me to deal with the rest.

So, I had this lightbulb moment some time ago because of my current boss: Sometimes, my job is not to do my job, but to just work for this person. It does not matter to her that I am a functional, professional adult who is entirely capable of doing this work no matter who is supervising me. She needs me to do what she wants me to do, and anything else I get done that I'm supposed to do is a bonus. This may be the case with the person you're working for now - your actual job is to work with her, not just to do the actual work. To put it badly: more id, less ego -- and even less super-ego. It doesn't sound like it's a forever situation; it's a learning experience.

I'm saying that you'll have to see how your puzzle pieces fit together. You may need, if the boss can adapt to there being new piles, to make one space where you can function and then take what you need and keep it there and she can remember that this is the "These Birds of a Feather" area (or basket, or surface). Since it sound like your job is to fit in with her, rather than it being a case of a mutual melding of spaces and habits, just think of yourself as spray-foam insulation that has to ooze around and in where you can, then solidify and hold your boundaries after more time passes. It's actually kind of a fun challenge. (Full disclosure: I'm now a bit of a "Dorothy" myself - I found that really works for me for current projects.)
posted by peagood at 7:25 AM on April 25, 2012 [28 favorites]

Response by poster: Deanc: Boy, do I ever! That post was my guiding light while I was making this one. I know too well what it's like to have someone come in and impose their organizational schema on you, and I don't want to do it to anyone else. (Ironically, with my dad it's a battle of who's the most tidy and how...)

Peagood, I am going to really step back and figure out how my new boss works. FWIW, this new workplace is a classroom, and so it's not so much that I'll be working on projects, but that I'll be teaching, and that's what makes this a little sticky.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:01 AM on April 25, 2012

I think you're asking this question in exactly the right way by looking for ways to find middle ground and curb your urge to tidy up. Because as others have said, there's no one definition of "chaos," so it needs to be about "How do I do my job in an environment that's different from what I would choose?" It's not an objective thing -- if your boss used to know where something was, and you move it, and now your boss has no idea where it is, that's not improving the functionality of the space, even if it improves your comfort level. (I know you said you tried to put everything back, but my advice is the same as everyone else's: Don't touch/move your boss's stuff, no matter how good your intentions are, unless you're directly handling it for the purposes of your own assigned work.)

I'd focus on the materials that you need and use regularly, and see if you can find a common place for those things to live (basket, maybe?), or else figure out the places they're likely to be. Or maybe you can put them in a red folder or binder or something that will be easy to spot? Focus on the things you actually need, and try not to generalize about your need for the workspace in general to feel or look a certain way for you to be able to function. If your boss works best in clutter and you work best with a lack of clutter, somebody has to give, and because the boss is the boss, it is (as you seem to understand) going to be you.

In the end, if you have to ask every time you need something because it's not in the same place, that may turn out to just be how this job is. I understand how it would be frustrating, but every workplace has those things about it that are inefficient but part of the deal.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 8:04 AM on April 25, 2012

I wish you worked with me; I would love to have someone help me organize and file stuff. When not overwhelmed with work, poor health, and other stuff, I'm pretty tidy. Boss may be embarrassed by the mess. IF you are good at organizing, which means good at finding what the stuff is, organizing it in a reasonable way, and filing appropriately, then maybe Boss will get comfortable and let you have at it.
posted by theora55 at 11:59 AM on April 25, 2012

Response by poster: After many, many weeks of patience, Open House provided me with the opportunity I so craved! My teacher took one look around the classroom and was like "oh shit everything looks horrible" and I seized upon that as the moment to say "I AM SUPER GOOD AT ORGANIZING PLEASE LET ME TAKE CARE OF IT".

I thought I was going to die of joy on the spot. Thanks for all your input!
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:20 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

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