So many reasons to neaten up, but it's too imposing

PHILADELPHIA -- Every lost piece of paper costs a business $120. Imagine that.

In fact, 15 percent of all paper handled in businesses is lost, according to the Delphi Group, a Boston consultancy, and 30 percent of all employees' time is spent trying to find lost documents.

If what the consultants say is true, messy desks, messy computers, and messy calendars are messing up the economy.

In 2000, consultants for the Connecticut-based Gartner Group -- the same folks who reported the lost-paper cost -- estimated that, by 2003, the average professional would waste 30 percent to 40 percent of his time on ''document-related nonvalue-added tasks," i.e., paper shuffling. Now some of that wasted time has moved from paper to electronics, with the volume of e-mail projected to rise 30 percent a year through 2008.

From a personal perspective, it's worse. Disorganization on the job makes people stressed, according to another study from office supply company Esselte Ltd.

''You can be immensely depressed by the piles of work," said David Lewis, a British business psychologist who has made a career of mess, stress, and information overload.

Lewis analyzed a survey of 2,544 office workers in the United States and several European countries for his client Esselte, which owns Pendaflex, the hanging file company.

Three out of four workers surveyed worldwide agreed with this statement: ''I find myself becoming more stressed when everything is a mess and I can't find important documents when needed."

Forty-three percent of the 504 Americans surveyed described themselves as disorganized, and 21 percent have missed crucial work deadlines. Nearly half say disorganization causes them to work late at least two to three times a week.

Lewis said: ''I've gone into offices where they've had piles and piles on their desk, and they say: 'Don't touch anything. I can find it.'

''They may be able to put their hands on that invoice, but they are using a huge amount of their memory to keep track of where everything is," he added. ''That is brain power which they could use for another purpose."

Business psychologist Ross DeSimone finds, too often, ''people look busy, but they are not getting anything done. There are things in our work lives that we feel less comfortable and confident about, so we mask these insecurities by being busy in areas that we do feel comfortable."

''When people feel a time crunch, it can make them more brusque," said DeSimone, a principal at Corporate Psychological Resource Center in Royersford, Pa. This behavior can annoy their co-workers, who may refuse to help them out of a jam.

DeSimone laid out another pattern, which is a little closer to what I feel. ''When people feel blue, they lose energy," he said. ''When they lose energy, they do less, and then they are down on themselves, and that's a cycle.

''That cycle needs to be broken, somehow," he said. ''The first thing they'll do is clean their desk . . . but that doesn't change the behavior. In fact, organizing is about creating priorities that make sense."

There are piles on my desk, on my floor, and in the center of my cubicle. I have an overflowing bookshelf, plus three knee-high stacks on the floor. I have eight full file drawers, which I rarely open. My e-mail in-box has 4,044 items, 870 unread.

And there's a parallel situation at home. These messes stress and depress me. I need help. So on behalf of the messy masses, I'm going to explore the world of the organized. Here are my motivations: Our paper may be sold. What if I lose my job? I better learn some of this technology stuff and fast. Get my contacts straightened out.

Also, I make myself nuts -- too many stray phone numbers on scraps of paper, too many good ideas to prioritize. . . . Does it really take 30 percent to 40 percent of my time? I exhaust myself.

But most important is another point made by Lori Hock of the northeast office of Adecco Staffing: Productivity is pleasurable in its own right, and I yearn for that. I want to be efficient because I love my work, and I want to do this job using all the abilities I am lucky enough to have.

Oh, yeah, and I would like to see my family, too.