Cluttered Desk, Cluttered Mind

By Alexandra DeFelice 

A cluttered desk is not a sign of genius. It's a big flashing indicator of messiness.
 
"Desk space is the highest value real estate in your office and should not be used as a storage station," says Paul Burton, who frequently speaks to accountants and lawyers about the productivity challenges they face.
 
Burton gave a presentation at the Moore Stephens Managing Partners Conference this past fall in Las Vegas and distributed copies of one of his books, Focus Pocus: 24 Tricks for Regaining Command of Your Day. It's a really quick read (I'm talking hours, not days) with tips you can use right now. One of those tips is to "Create a Designated Workspace."
 
This means creating actual space.
 
"Most people have their desks stacked with files, strewn with pictures, covered by inboxes and outboxes," he wrote in his book. "[They] leave only a small space on their desks . . . on which to actually work."
 
I've seen some accountants' desks – especially during tax season – and often, I can barely see the desk, or any area surrounding the desk, for that matter.
 
"Why are the piles on the desk?" he asked me when I broached the subject with him during a recent phone call. "Because people have allowed it." 
 
So what are they supposed to do with all those client files?
 
Put them on the floor.
 
People have 120-degree peripheral vision, so even if they're looking at their monitor or focusing on a particular file, they can still see the other files on the desk, which most likely will take up valuable real estate in their minds when they should be focusing their full attention on that one file or task at hand.
 
Burton has gone so far as to take people's files and place them on the floor. That didn't bode so well, so now when he's coaching them, he instructs them to do so themselves while he's in their office and then observes the results, which point toward better focus.
 
Could there be order in clutter? Certainly. Especially if you've developed a well-oiled filing system that works for you, no matter how chaotic it may seem or look to others. But try storing that clutter somewhere you can't constantly see it.
 
Out of site, temporarily out of mind.
 
Focus Pocus also provides several easily implementable tips about responding to employee and client requests based on your existing schedule, as opposed to "ASAP."
 
But what about those clients who have grown accustomed to immediate responses?
 
"You have a choice as a professional with any client at any time. Do you want to be enslaved to this or in command of it? It's the passive allowance that creates the enslaving environment. If you want to command, you have to act," Burton said.
 
Call up your clients and tell them you want to change the way you do business to be more efficient this season. After all, won't they want you to make the best use of the time you're charging them for? (This is assuming you're billing by the hour, but that's a topic for another article.)
 
"What clients want is a responsive, efficient, and effective professional," Burton said. "If you're running your business in such a way that you're going to die ten years early of an aneurism, should you make a change? Yes. How? Do it and communicate it effectively. Let's change the rules."
 
Start out on the right foot with new clients, too. Set up short conferences to ask them what their expectations are in terms of interacting with you and share your expectations as well.
 
Both inside and outside the office, try managing others better.
 
"Understand the dynamic of your work environment," Burton says. "If you send someone an e-mail three times and they don't answer, try calling them, call their assistant. Find another way." 
 
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Alexandra DeFelice is senior manager of communication and program development for Moore Stephens North America, and a regional member of Moore Stephens International, a network of more than 360 accounting and consulting firms with nearly 650 offices in almost 100 countries. She can be reached at adefelice@msnainc.org.

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