Paperwork: I’ve noticed that ‘genius’ can start to stack up over time

Warning: Do not mess with my mess.

That is my job. Never yours.

Now and then I force myself to clear the clutter in my home office.

Not because my wife refuses to enter the room. It just needs to be done and actually feels good.

I look around, take a deep breath and exhale with a new calmness. The chaos has vanished.

And then I panic. “Where is everything?” I begin to wonder.

I am organized. I have files, trays and drawers, the chair – all proper places for stuff. Stuff is stored but ... out of sight is out of mind. Frozen in time and soon forgotten.

I keep all my “stuff” scattered about so I won’t forget it’s there. At the same time, I admit this display adds stress.

I am surrounded by little scraps of paper, news clips, documents, books and the litter of my writing life. It all merges into a chorus of whispers and shouts.

“Hey, I’m waiting. Hey, over here. Hey, let’s get this done – now.”

Each cluster of clutter is a little hand raised, waving about for attention. I sit there, dazed, wondering where to begin. And that means I have gone full circle.

A circle that begins with a file or note to myself. It’s all part of the writing process – that takes more than one day. Or two days. Or ... whatever.

I write until it’s time to quit. I leave what’s relevant out on the desk. Scattered nearby, within easy reach. I can easily pick up the next day from where I had stopped.

But life interrupts with other demands. Pay some bills. Open mail. Pull out other files. Save articles from the paper. The stack around me gets taller.

Then I realize I can’t find what I am looking for. I’m holding a file but its contents are scattered about.

Welcome to my circle of life: Stack, stack, stack, then reorganize and file, panic, and then stack, stack, stack.

I try to fight the flooding, the tidal wave of paperwork. Really.

I have several books and articles that deal with this problem. They offer good advice.

One thing is clear, though. This is my problem to fix. No one else can mess with my mess.

This lesson was illustrated nicely by Shelly Palmer, a professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing.

I follow his helpful tech insights online.

He wrote about algorithms used to sort data for easy access. He laid this info over what his “meticulously neat wife” did to his home office while he was away.

She applied an “insertion sort.” That means she sorted all his papers alphabetically and then grouped them by letter and put them into hanging folders in his file drawer.

“While my desk was devoid of paper, was dust free, and looked great, all of my papers were now tucked away in a file drawer organized for first-letter alphabetic search,” Palmer said.

“There was no respect or attention paid to frequency of the data usage or temporal constraints (such as an invoice with a due date). Sorting data by an arbitrary criterion may satisfy your aesthetic sensibility, but it may make no sense in a data-driven world.”

He noted his messy desk uses the perfect algorithm known as LRU or Least Recently Used. This is based on the notion that the most recently used items are most likely to be used again.

“So the optimal way to deal with papers on your desk is to put the paper you just finished working with on the top of the pile,” he explained.

“If you follow this algorithm (which requires no thought at all), the math says the maximum time you will spend searching for anything in the pile will never be more than twice the time you would have spent if you were clairvoyant.

“Messy desks are perfectly optimized,” he concluded.

Now there’s a sign I could put on my office door: “This office is perfectly optimized.”

By the way, there have been research studies on this that back up what Palmer is saying. And plenty of articles detail this messy truth. (I’ve saved some ... they’re around here somewhere.)

And you’ve probably seen those photos of famous “genius” people sitting at their desks — Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain and Albert Einstein.

Einstein made it a point to say, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

That’s right. That’s right. You tell ‘em, Al.

So now I’ll say it again, with a bit more bravado: Don’t mess with my mess. Ever.

LONNY CAIN, retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa, also was a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet in the 1970s. Email or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.