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Are you a digital pack rat?

Maybe it’s time you found out.

A recent Dun & Bradstreet survey showed that 90 percent of all small-business failures can be traced to poor management resulting from a lack of knowledge. The survey didn’t say what kind of knowledge, but based on anecdotal data, one of the biggest causes seems to be a lack of organization.

Many SOHOers can’t get organized because they can’t see over the stacks of paper on their desks. Consequently, they resort to a firehouse management style that puts out the most pressing fires, but doesn’t always lead to success. According to an article in Credit Union Executive, a typical manager spends more than 150 hours per year searching for lost information. When you spread this fact across the entire economy–even given the sad state of today’s Dow Jones–it translates into billions of dollars annually in lost productivity.

While some SOHOers wear messiness as a badge of honor, not being able to find something a client needs right now costs time and money. People with messy desks often have messy computers too. I’m not talking about coffee-stained mouse pads or cigarette ashes on the keyboard, but how the digital files on your computer’s hard drive are organized. Even a casual computer user’s SOHO files can number in the thousands, so there’s data scattered everywhere. Any misfiled information that’s not easily retrieved simply doesn’t exist.

Never fear, the Big Synapser is here. While surfing the Web, I found a freeware diagnostic tool that helps you determine how well you’re keeping data where it can be found. On ZDNet Deutschland (but in English) you’ll find a Messiness Index program that evaluates your computer’s level of organization. The Messiness Index measures “digital clutter,” such as the tendency to create more files, file names, or file folders than are necessary for efficiently navigating a hard drive or network.

Messiness Index measures the proliferation of folders, files and other hard drive flotsam and jetsam, then issues a rating number between 200 and 1,000. The more organized you are, the lower your Messiness Index rating will be. If you score between 0 and 200, you have exemplary computing work habits. A ranking between 200 and 400 means you are substantially more organized than most of us, while 400 to 600 indicates your straight-ahead nature is battling with your inner slob and it’s a tie. At 600 to 800, you’re a digital pack rat and might want to think about hauling out the trash. A score of 800 to 1000 shows you’re wasting time looking for information that should be at your fingertips.

Just as time is lost searching for missing paper documents, digital clutter takes its toll on productivity. Most computer users trust their computer to sort and organize their data, but you can’t expect it to do all of the work. The old rule for keeping your desk organized is that once you touch a sheet of paper; make sure it’s filed in the appropriate place. You should use this same approach with the files on your hard disk.

Contributing Editor Joe Farace is the author of more than 1000 magazine articles and 23 books, and while he tries to be neat in his office, personal appearance, and computing, his Messiness Index score was 540.

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