The low point in my personal history of on-the-job organization came at a previous magazine gig, back in the dark ages before digital photography. We had had to beg and plead to get a "mugshot" that we needed of someone who wasn't exactly sure she wanted to be in our magazine in the first place.
The photo came in, and I lost it. It simply vanished, disappeared, vaporized. One minute it was there, the next it wasn't. We were staring down a deadline, so I prepared for some serious groveling. I called the subject, apologized and begged her to overnight another photograph. She was not pleased, but she agreed to do so. Sure enough, the next morning the envelope came.
I was so relieved and so excited that I shouted across the office to the art director as I ripped the envelope open. Unfortunately, I also ripped the replacement photo in half.
Once the art director was again able to breathe normally, he remembered that he knew someone who could repair and restore damaged photographs. So after several phone calls, a couple of courier fees, and one rush charge, we had our good-as-new photo in time to send off to the printer with the rest of the magazine.
After the deadline passed, I was sitting at my desk, sifting aimlessly through layers of accumulated papers. All of a sudden, there was the original photo, staring back at me. Of course, I tore it immediately into 8 million pieces and distributed them clandestinely among several different trash receptacles. I also vowed to become better organized - a vow I have generally managed to keep.
I've worked with people whose desks were so littered with papers, notebooks, file folders, memos, magazines, takeout menus, phone books, three-year-old calendars, computer disks, African violets, old coffee cups and stale bagels that even the most hardened OSHA inspector would hyperventilate at the sight. Some of them missed phone calls because they couldn't locate the telephone, missed deadlines because they couldn't find their computers, forgot what their children looked like because they mislaid their photos.
I've had other colleagues who kept their desktops infuriatingly tidy - everything lined up at right angles, paper clips in the paper clip holder, pencils in the pencil holder, all papers filed away out of sight.
Like most of the rest of the world, I now fall somewhere in between those two extremes, having devised a workable if highly personal system that might best be characterized as Trash, Stash and Pile. The first step - and the hardest - is to throw out as much as possible as fast as possible. That's the trash phase.
Now real organization experts, which I most decidedly am not, recommend a deal-with-paperwork-immediately system. That works great in theory but rarely stands up to the cold harsh light of reality. If paper trickled in at a nice, genteel rate of one or two pages an hour, that might be a viable option. But when it comes thundering in by the pound, as it does at any place I've ever worked, it's a little harder to keep up with. I have had to modify the methodology and devise a sort of triage system - need it, don't need it, not sure.
Once those determinations have been made, then it's time to implement the stash and pile phases: Stash it in a file folder in a vertical holder on the left side of the desk, or pile it neatly on the right side.
When I run out of file space or the piles start falling over, it's time for a cleanup. With the help of some yellow sticky notes, the system seems to serve its purpose. On a good day, I can find anything I need within 60 seconds. That's as close to storage-and-retrieval harmony as I am likely to get.
The soft white underbelly of my organizational system is the computer I work on. A colleague who used to compliment me on the efficiency of my vertical files and easy-to-access paper piles once told me that the experience of trying to find a computer file I had asked her to retrieve from my Mac was shattering. I think that was a little too harsh. The file was - and is - exactly where it is supposed to be: in a folder prominently displayed on the computer desktop, clearly labeled "Whatever."
Susan Percy is executive editor of Georgia Trend.