Ten years ago, Mel Rappleyea's office was a disaster. Then vice president of human resources at Moovies Inc., Rappleyea could hardly open his door because of the stacks of paper and magazines. "It was kind of like digging through the ground and being able to tell the time frame of when something died," he remembers. "If I was going through a stack of paper, I could say, 'Well, I'm down to last May.' "
Rappleyea had trouble keeping track of the dozens of résumés that he received every day, and he knew that the mess made him seem less than serious. When conducting interviews with prospective employees, he often used the conference room, because he was embarrassed by his disorganization — and, more practically, because there were times when he just couldn't see the other person over the piles of paper on his desk.
Barbara Hemphill felt his pain. "Most people don't want to work in a messy office," says Hemphill, founder of the Hemphill Productivity Institute and the author of Taming the Paper Tiger at Work and Taming the Paper Tiger at Home (Kiplinger Books, 1998). "But either they don't know how to clean it up, they don't have the time, or they don't really want to think about it." Unfortunately, ignoring a messy situation can be costly: The average person spends 150 hours a year looking for misplaced information, according to Hemphill. "Your ability to accomplish any task or goal is directly related to your ability to find the right information at the right time."
But there's hope. In her 24 years as a productivity consultant, Hemphill has shown executives such as Rappleyea and companies such as Allied Van Lines, Hallmark, and 3M that taming the paper tiger isn't as scary as it sounds. Hemphill offers two programs. For groups, there's the "Productivity Quickstart." For individuals, there's the "24-Hour Miracle" (which, despite its provocative name, has nothing to do with weight loss, sex, or hair). In both situations, Hemphill begins by asking key questions: What information is important? What form does it need to be kept in? How long does it need to be kept? Who needs to have access to it?
Once the bigger questions have been answered, Hemphill gets down to the nitty-gritty. "We start with the desktop," she says. "The reason something is on your desk is that you perceive it to be important and you're afraid that if you put it someplace else, you'll forget about it." When weeding through papers, Hemphill uses the FAT system (which, once again, has nothing to do with weight loss): File, act on, or toss every piece.
File and toss are pretty self-explanatory, although Hemphill points out that most people file way more than they need to. The real revelations, says Hemphill, come when paper falls into the act category. As clients discover, paper alone is rarely the problem; what's really at stake are the postponed decisions that the paper represents. "Clients say, 'The reason that I haven't done anything about this piece of paper is because I haven't decided whether I need to hire a new employee,' " says Hemphill, "or, 'It's because I haven't decided whether to upgrade the computer system.' "
Understanding what is behind your mess makes it easier to clean up, as reformed slob Rappleyea, now Qualex's director of strategic staffing and employment, learned the hard way. "It sounds basic," he says, "but it takes a lot of stress out of your life when you don't have to spend hours looking for a piece of paper."
Hemphill agrees that being organized isn't complicated. "For years," she says, "I couldn't believe that people would pay me to do this. But you don't have to go very far in business to see that disorganization is an issue for more people than it isn't."
All of that disorganization has paid big dividends for Hemphill herself. She lives on 70 wooded acres outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. Her second-floor office, with no shortage of tiger paraphernalia, has a 15-person theater where she gives presentations on productivity. "Companies spend millions of dollars every year training employees in time management, teamwork, and customer service," says Hemphill. "Yet the best training in the world doesn't make a difference if you can't find the information you need."
Curtis Sittenfeld (email@example.com) contributes regularly to Fast Company. Visit Barbara Hemphill on the Web (www.productiveenvironment.com).
Sidebar: 5 Myths About Mess
Getting organized isn't hard, says productivity consultant Barbara Hemphill. But there's misinformation about how to do it. Here, she debunks five myths.
1. You're born organized or not. "I grew up on a farm in Nebraska where my family of four shared the second floor of a tenant farmhouse. I didn't have lots of space to collect junk. Being organized isn't innate to me — I can make a mess fast, but I also know how to clean up."
2. The goal is to go paperless. "People who think they can avoid cleaning up by going paperless have missed the point. The problem is identifying how to manage information."
3. As long as you can find everything, you're okay. "Employees say, 'I know where everything is, so who cares if my office is a mess?' To which I say, 'What happens if you're not there?' "
4. When you're getting organized, go in order. "When people try to clean up their office, they start with the old stuff. But then new stuff comes in, and it looks more interesting. I start with what's new. Today's mail is tomorrow's pile."
5. Messiness is a moral issue. "My license plate used to say, 'I ORGNIZ.' But I got so tired of people saying, 'You'd die if you saw my house.' Organization simply means, Does it work for you?"
A version of this article appeared in the August 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.