America’s most disorganized home offices

Lisa Kanarek

If You Thought Your Office Was a Mess, Check Out Our Contest Winners

Is it an honor to be disorganized? Our Grand Prize winner Art Shay, shown here, thinks so. Thousands of other people around the country agree. They pushed aside their pride, bared their souls, sharpened their wit, loaded their cameras (if they could find them), located their stationery, and shamelessly presented their messy offices to HOME OFFICE COMPUTING. The entries for the Most Disorganized Home Office Contest, most of which miraculously arrived on time, were thigh-slapping reads. Contestants, of course, did everything they could to prove they were disorganized. One entrant couldn’t send a photo because he couldn’t find his camera. He drew a picture instead. Several people couldn’t find their computers buried somewhere in their offices, so they handwrote their essays. While some were lucky to find paper and pen, others were less fortunate. Two wrote their entries on toilet paper (“This is the only clean piece of paper I could find, but I didn’t want to run it through my laser printer”); two others used crayons.

Many men (and we received more entries from men than women) confessed that their wives were going to divorce them if they didn’t get organized. One claimed his wife already had left him because of his office mess. A bachelor wrote that his mess was a result of the curse of the witches in Macbeth. Others didn’t have to enter–their spouses did it for them–taking undercover photos of their offices. Two infants entered their dads (with a little help from mom), by explaining the effect a disorganized home office was having on their growth and development.

With the exception of a few serious term paper-like presentations, the vast majority took the humorous road in an effort to cajole and persuade the judges. Humor, of course, means different things to different people. A surprising number thought their pets were funny. Some photographed them in business situations; one described losing a puppy in the paper mess and then attaching a bell to its collar so as to prevent future separations; another snapped a cat searching through a box with a caption that read, “Now where is that file!”

One gentleman, fearing we would get bored reading his entry, provided us with a cassette tape of the song “California Girls” complete with printed lyrics. Another wrote “The Home Office Blues,” arranged to the tune of “Nine to Five” (with apologies to Dolly Parton).

We got reams of poetry, much of it sticking to meter and rhyme well enough, but in the end it was mostly doggerel.

One poem was titled, “On the 12th Day in My Office, I Looked Around to See.” Another: “Stopping by the Most Disorganized Office” (without apologies to Robert Frost).

Many entrants addressed the issue of honesty. They swore that they didn’t “stage their photo” or “mess up” their office for the contest. One entry included a page with two witnesses’ signatures. Danger and safety were recurring themes. A man who slipped on the papers on his floor fell against the edge of his desk and broke a rib. One woman claimed she nearly broke her leg after a five-foot stack of magazines fell on it. Many talked in jungle terms about brush-cutting navigable paths through their offices to reach certain files or shelves.

As the contest deadline approached, we assumed the number of entries would dwindle. We were wrong. Hopeful and determined entrants hand-delivered their entries to the magazine’s office by 5:00 p.m. on the last day of the contest. Those who sent their entries early, but forgot to include their photo or essay, sent the second half with a note of apology. They also stressed that their inability to send everything at once should prove how disorganized they are.

As we read the essays, scrutinized the photos, and ranked the entries, we found it difficult to distinguish one mess from another. How could we be sure that guy didn’t fake it? What’s worse–broken ribs (Fourth Prize winner Charles Leonard) or losing three checks from clients (Fourth Prize winner, Charlotte King)? Given two equally bad photos, we turned to the essays. Given two equally creative and persuasive essays, we turned to the photos. In the end, we were most awestruck by Art Shay, our Grand Prize winner. But we’re publishing the photos and essays from the top three winners so you can judge the messes for yourself.

Now that this contest is over, one entrant’s comment sticks in the back of my mind. He wrote, “If people were truly disorganized, they would have missed the entry deadline because they would have lost the magazine the day they received it.” He didn’t win, but he had a good point.

Looking at my shameful self-portrait, I remember myriad time-wasting searches–for vital receipts, slides, agreements. I understand how the archaeologist Schliemann felt digging through layers to find the buried city of ancient Troy. There’s my old 300-baud Kaypro modem–but who bought my Kaypro? The Q&A 4.0 Instruction Book! Four copies of my 1977 Time cover. Strew-filed!

As a writer-photographer operating from this disorganized nexus, I’ve (almost) filelessly produced 79 books, 25,000 pictures for Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Business Week, and the National Portrait Gallery.

Wallowing in my self-inflicted chaos, I shakily did 1,000 covers, ads, articles, or annual reports for the likes of Motorola, 3M, National Can, and Ford. And 800 baseball cards for Post Cereal. I’ve misplaced those copyrighted Kodachromes now prized by collectors. Maybe Post never returned them. “Pull out your contract,” advises my CD-ROMish lawyer.

Each year I lose money and, even worse, irreplaceable creative hours, failing to locate resellable pictures. I hate to think what my three decades of disorganization have cost me.

Basic maladies? Indecisiveness, unneatness. Not immediately deciding how, if, or where to file anything. By the time I do, the pile, like the layers hiding Schliemann’s Troy, has grown. Save me.

It took four hours to find the camera to take these pictures. I’m…uh…proud to say I didn’t have to mess up this office for these photos, as the article suggested. This is how the office looked after two months of work to reduce the clutter.

The article disappeared before I could write the essay, necessitating a trip of The Idaho Statesman to find your address in a back issue.

No matter how hard I try to organize the office, it’s always a mess and has the dispirited air of the Boise City/Ada County Dump. I’ve noticed my husband tries not to enter the office because seeing it raises his blood pressure.

It’s depressing working in a place where everything I need seems to be hiding. It’s why I have the world’s most disorganized home office.

One thing I did when I began self-employment was respond to the market in charting my course through the sea of opportunity. This meant shifting course–doing new things and dropping the old–toward opportunities offering the greatest reward for the least effort.

A result of operating this way is the need to suddenly expand new files while putting the old on hold. But even while a new demand is escalating and paying rich dividends, a newer one may come along that is even more promising, while perhaps an old demand from the past resurfaces with renewed vigor.

To respond, I must slash forward on all fronts to reap the bountiful harvest that awaits, lest a storm of recession hit. In the wake of all this success, paper and product are left in disorganized chaos, yielding my most disorganized home office!


Enjoy these outtakes from entrants who know a mess when they see one.

Long ago, I was butt-hunting in the rubbish. (Don’t nag; I quit.) I discovered a trashed advertisement that held a $1 bill! I was ecstatic, but (gasp!) how many bucks had been thrown away? How many deep-sixed seed packets in magazine centers sprouted beautifully atop refuse dumps? What irresistible offers had been junked? What catalogs had I tossed, not realizing the bargain-of-the-century treasures entombed within? Since then, I have saved everything for examination.

–E. Morgan Stefanske, St. Louis, MO

I will describe the ebb and flow of the biomass on my desk. My four in-and-out baskets are usually all in, with waves of paper overflowing into the dark pit of irresponsibility, the desk surface itself. There are three sacred isles: the mouse pad, the phone, and the coffee cup.

I use the vowel system of paper management: avoid, evade, ignore, outdated, and useless. The progression is obvious. My hard-disk drive needs purging, my files need merging, my updates are urging, my data is lost!

–Ross D. Goldberg, Philadelphia, PA

My home office isn’t really disorganized–it’s sort of in progress. In a converted bedroom decorated in early American garage sale, file cabinets support a tabletop, making the drawer accessible only to professional contortionists. Papers are therefore strategically spread through the office for better availability. Crawling under the desk to access the shelves turns up office items being used as cat toys. A typewriter stand is positioned to break toes in the darkness when shutting down the system with the surge protector, since I often forget the desk lamp also plugs in there.

–Kate Hopkins, Wheeling, IL

The most dreaded words I hear from my clients are, “I’ll drop that off.” I try at a all times and at all costs to make sure I can meet them somewhere other than my office. I take pride in the work I do and the image this office projects to others certainly cannot back up that image.

–Kathi Stewart, Everett, WA

My office is so bad my husband can’t even fit in it with me to take the picture. There are three windows and one door in the approximately 7-by-10-foot room. The only one who can fit in it without walking sideways is one of the cats. The poor old dog can’t even turn around.

–Margaret Vollmer, Whitney Point, NY

Like President Clinton, I keep telling myself to focus on the problem. I am a certified messaholic. What’s a nice person like me doing in a mess like this? If OSHA finds out about me, I’m dead. I’m a safety hazard to myself. Can organizational therapy help me?

–Debbie Melone, Pittsburgh, PA

I shouldn’t be eligible for this contest because I am quite organized. As you can see from my picture, I use the historical approach to filing. The closer to the floor a piece of paper or magazine, the older it is. This is the way the earth is naturally organized.

–David A. Davis, Saline, MI

Hi! My name’s Dave and I’m organizationally impaired. I began using the floor to file and store things in June 1992; I thought I could handle using the floor, but I was wrong. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. I’m ashamed of the time I’ve spent on my knees looking for something an unimpaired person would’ve properly filed. I’d love to one day see the top of my desk. I’m lucky to have the support of friends and family, but I need more help.

–David W. Eggiman, Fort Wayne, IN

COPYRIGHT 1993 Freedom Technology Media Group

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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