Desktop Dilemmas – Clutter or Clear?

One of my first secretarial jobs was working in a medium-sized firm with, among others, a lady whom I’ll call Sylvia. Sylvia’s desk was generally an awe-inspiring sight: it groaned with teetering piles of files, Post-It notes were stuck around the computer screen as well as on the desktop, and there were usually a couple of shorthand notebooks open at pages with to-do lists, scribbled in shorthand that only Sylvia could read back. It looked like chaos to everyone else. But Sylvia was always able to find within a couple of minutes whatever document she needed amongst this apparent jumble, and she never seemed to miss a deadline or prioritise tasks wrongly. 

It taught me that one person’s mess or clutter may be another person’s system of organisation. Lots of experts in the time-and-work management field will advise that “cluttered” or “messy” desks are to be avoided at all costs because they waste time and money. Those experts will often recommend quite drastic – and sometimes impractical – techniques to clear the desktop and keep it that way. But before you embark on a scorched-earth policy for the piles of paper on your desk, it’s worth considering whether those techniques will really work for you. 

There is now a fair amount of research suggesting that the way we operate our desk and cubicle space reflects how our minds work. If you structure your time mainly by using visual cues (Post-It notes and lists in notebooks are good examples), you’ll tend to use your immediate environment as a kind of scratchpad, keeping items connected to the important and high-priority tasks close to you or within your eyeline. In fact, we all work in this way to a greater or lesser extent - it is just that some of us depend a lot more on visual cues than others, and those tend to be the ones with the groaning desks. Others are much more comfortable with a clear desktop but good prompt systems – “upcoming” folders and calendar programs are good examples – to help them organise and prioritise. Neither way of working is right or wrong: each simply reflects the way the individual mind works.  

The key question is whether or not your desk organisation helps you work efficiently. If you’re spending a lot of time burrowing among the stacks of paper to find documents, or you feel so overwhelmed by what’s on top of your desk that you cannot prioritise the day’s tasks, then you have a problem that you must tackle. There are lots of websites and books you can go to for advice, but be prepared to take some of it with a pinch of salt and consider what’s realistic for your job before you adopt it. For example, one organisational expert advocates a “one-touch” rule for any piece of paper which crosses your desk: the rationale is that you aim to hold it once (or as few times as possible) before you act on it, file it, bin it, or pass it on to someone else. It may work like a charm for some; for others, it may not just be contrary to the way their mind operates, but be impossible within the demands of their working day. If you are unsure, think of a suggested technique as an experiment to try out, rather than a permanent change to your working practice. 

If, on the other hand, you’re a Sylvia and even within the maelstrom you can lay your hands on documents at a couple of minutes’ notice and organise yourself well, the primary problem is probably one of perception: colleagues or bosses think your desk looks messy and tell you so. They may also be legitimately concerned about how your workload could be picked up by someone else if you were off work unexpectedly.  It’s a salutary reminder that what is mere clutter to some is a shameful mess to others, and it can be difficult to change their minds. 

While there are obvious places where cluttered desks are not an option – reception desks are one clear example – there’s usually a way of compromising between your need to have items close to hand and any demands from above for a completely clear desk.  If you’re a Post-It fiend, for example, there are lots of web techniques and tips for wall and desktop boards that will herd your notes together, structure them and make them look ordered. If stacks of files are causing a problem, you may be able to keep them neater, but still visible, by using wall shelves or desktop storage modules; if that is impossible, you could try keeping them on hand by adapting a deep desk drawer. You may be able to switch some of your visual cues from your immediate surroundings to your computer by using apps, although this takes more getting used to. 

However you go about it, it’s vital to communicate that “clutter” does not equal “disorganised”, but is simply a different way of organising. You may also (if you dare!) remind them of Albert Einstein’s question: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk a sign?”

© Jocelyn Anderson 2015