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"The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity
March 20, 2002 6:52 AM   Subscribe

"The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity ...what we see when we look at the piles on our desks is, in a sense, the contents of our brains." I do feel better.
posted by Voyageman (31 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
This isn't exactly new: I was reading research papers about it over ten years ago. Nicely written article for the lay person though. The most extreme example I saw was a guy who used to work in speech and pattern recognition. He had a larger than average office, and the flat surfaces were coated two feet thick with paper mounds. I think the cleaner should have been given danger money, in case of a heart condition. However, this guy could pull out a single sheet of paper from something he had been working on ten years ago, within a minute or two of someone asking. His entire career was dependent on the layout of that room. I only hope he never had to move office.
posted by walrus at 7:12 AM on March 20, 2002


No BS, I have just spilt a cup of coffee over my desk. I have a cluttered desk. This is not funny.

I want to kill someone.
posted by Frasermoo at 7:39 AM on March 20, 2002


What I find more interesting about the referenced link is the idea of a paperless office and why it's proven to be impossible for most companies over the years. In my experience with computer oriented service industries, they send throttling amounts of email back and forth daily, much of which was frivolous and sometimes even threatened to take down the server.

Several times a day someone in middle management, in an attempt to be proactive and prove their value and worth to their direct superiors, would take some digitally created workfile from a computer, and they'd send it down the hall to one of the company printers. Sometimes this digitally created workfile was made by them personally, but more often it was something passed around via email between several middle management types, and almost every time they were assured that THIS file, whatever it was, would become THE thing that was once and for all going to solve all the problems they perceived were happening with the subordinates who were actually doing the real work.

After one copy of this file was committed to paper, they'd spend a half hour or so toiling over a printer to make several copies of this digital file into paper form - one for each of the underlings who were actually doing the real work.

The middle management people would make way too many copies, either staple them together or put them in binders, and then pass them out to those of us who were actually sitting at our desks taking phone calls and otherwise doing our job.

These individuals in the middle management would then take groups of us off the phones to inform us how this information that was once a powerpoint file or something will now improve our productivity. We would then smile and nod, return to our phones after a smoke break, and proceed to completely pretend that new pile of dead trees didn't exist.

A few days or weeks would go by, and no one would have brought the thing up again, so the lump of sliced dead trees (which middle management promised us would revolutionize how those of us who were actually doing the real work were doing the real work) would migrate to a drawer, or become part of the growing footrest under the desk, or it would wind up as scratch paper or even better - File Thirteen.

But I'm not bitter.

Keep in mind, these sliced dead trees were once a power point presentation or a DOC file. It had already been passed around to people via email, or if it hadn't been passed around in digital format it could have been. This would have allowed those of us actually on the phones not passing mindless pablum about in the company's email network to continue doing our jobs by properly ignoring the silly powerpoint presentations created by middle management. And no trees would have to die.

It is possible to create a paperless workplace. The first thing that would have to go however, would be middle management.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:14 AM on March 20, 2002


No it isn't new, but it is a very interesting analysis of our use of info.(the parts about anxiety, I dont' buy) I think it also brings up interesting questions for the designer. Is it possible to develop a digital analogue for the way we use paper? Is it even useful. This reminds me of the digital whiteboards out there or of the Cross pen and pad that save what you write on paper and also translate it to a digital file.
I like clutter up to a point and cease to like clutter when I can no longer see the surface of my desk.
posted by ajayb at 8:18 AM on March 20, 2002


Douglas Adams fan will recall the asylum director's desk in Long Dark Teatime of the Soul. I, on the other hand, am freakin' complex, baby.

Unfortunately, so is my wife. Now we have two daughters with very messy, um, make that complex, rooms. Sigh.
posted by tommasz at 8:22 AM on March 20, 2002


The world of the parent has turned upside down this week. First computer games are better than books , now a messy room/messy desk are good for the mind. What's next I want to know? Tootsie Rolls and Bazooka gum are full of nutrients?
posted by Voyageman at 8:35 AM on March 20, 2002


I think the key is the visual and informal cues that paper provide - electronic files (and electronic organizers, for that matter) simply can not provide the graphic and kinesthetic information that paper can. (I.E. doodling or the chocolate buyer files in the article.) We all need to organize our own work in order to be truly efficient based on how we personally think; there is a healthy tension between being too idiosyncratic or complex in our organizational style, and being able to work with others. Right now I'm trying to find an assistant and the real challenge is organizing my own work information so that someone can come in and help me, without the context to understand that each pile and doodle and sticky has a reason for being there.
posted by pomegranate at 8:38 AM on March 20, 2002


Paperless problems are a generational problem. People work better with paper becase that's they way they grew up working. already, at age 30, I am more comfortable on a computer than most people just 10 years older here at my job. All sorts of tasks that could be electronic are done on paper simply because people don't even think about the electronic alternative. Imagine when people who are kids now and computers are part of their lives from the get go grow up. Then paper will really stop being so prevelant.
posted by bob bisquick at 8:49 AM on March 20, 2002


> this guy could pull out a single sheet of paper from
> something he had been working on ten years ago,
> within a minute or two of someone asking.

There's a famous scene in one of the W. C. Fields comedies scripted exactly this way. W. C. gets fired for keeping a disastrously messy office, then they have to re-hire him to find a single critical piece of paper. Fields strolls into the office (it's a characature of the standard messy office, monster piles of paper everywhere); glances around, leans over, extends thumb and forefinger, delicately plucks piece of paper out of paper avalanch, holds paper aloft, triumph.
posted by jfuller at 8:57 AM on March 20, 2002


Bob Bisquick, I'm not so sure that's the case. I'm the same age you are, but my job requires a great deal of paper and always will. (I'm a recruiter/HR person.) We tried to go paperless, but it just created more/different problems. On the other side of the same argument, I've seen lots of electronic filing systems that were *highly* idiosyncratic & "disorganized", just not visually so. Have you ever tried to untangle someone else's HTML? Looked for something in someone else's Outlook files? The root issue is personal organizational styles, and paper or plastic is just one avenue of that issue.
posted by pomegranate at 9:19 AM on March 20, 2002


Albert Einstein once said:
"If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk?"
posted by johnjreeve at 9:33 AM on March 20, 2002 [1 favorite]


My "personal" desk on a clean day...I'm still rather timid to reveal my "working" desk.

I generate a lot of paper as well in my legal type job. The computer is my friend and I would be lost without it now that I've gained an addiction to it but I need paper to "hold" on to...makes me feel more secure in my surroundings.

Thanks J. Fuller...the W.C. story makes me laugh.

W. C. gets fired for keeping a disastrously messy office, then they have to re-hire him to find a single critical piece of paper.

heh...plus the job security feels good. :)
posted by oh posey at 9:56 AM on March 20, 2002


"I think the key is the visual and informal cues that paper provide - electronic files (and electronic organizers, for that matter) simply can not provide the graphic and kinesthetic information that paper can."

Exactly. Mixed channel input is what we humans do best. Computers are great for some things. Right now, I have a potential supervisor asking me to do serious contact management for 50 contacts / week, without the aid of a computer. This is nuts.
posted by sheauga at 10:10 AM on March 20, 2002


Interesting points, but sometimes a messy desk is nothing more than the sign of a sloppy person.

Bob Bisquick: I agree with your generational theory, but I have a story to add: At my former job, there was an admin (30's) who would print out emails and give copies to individuals in their mail boxes. Yes, all individuals had email. We had a lot of trouble explaining simple logic tasks to this invididual.

Oftentimes, corporate culture and norms dictate the amount of paper utilized. I can't think of anyone in our IT area that utilizes paper if they don't absolutely have to.
posted by xena at 10:11 AM on March 20, 2002


I prefer a clean organized desk but I don't keep mine that way. After many years of repeated experimentation I have found I get more done in the long run if I consolidate organization/cleaning up duties to once or twice a month and just let everything hang loose until that time. It is amazing how much time can be nickel-and-dimed into the toilet just doing organizational maintenance to keep a clean working environment.
posted by plaino at 10:21 AM on March 20, 2002


what does it say when your website is the cleanest thing that you have?
posted by moz at 10:31 AM on March 20, 2002


I came up with my own theory some while back on why the "paperless" office wasn't. Most of the paper I have on my desk is stuff that I have on my PC, but have printed out. Why? Simple. I have 8+ square feet of horizontal desk space, plus another couple of vertical square feet where I can post stickies. My monitor screen is about 1 square foot. Working strictly from my terminal would be equivalent to working on a desk the size of 1 & 1/2 sheets of paper. All my current work would have to go in the same pile & I couldn't view two full-size documents side by side. When my company gives me a monitor screen that's 10 square feet (and preferably wraps around the way my desk does) then I'll quit printing everything out and working from hardcopy.
posted by tdismukes at 10:42 AM on March 20, 2002


tdismukes: I read some interesting stuff whilst at college, about integrating computer display into big, touch sensitive desktops, so that you could move documents about, scribble on them, "pile" them, share them with your colleagues, etc. You'd have to have somewhere else to put your coffee, presumably. I don't know if anyone's still working on this idea, but it's always made a lot of sense to me.
posted by walrus at 11:09 AM on March 20, 2002


Does this all apply to floors as well?
posted by ParisParamus at 11:13 AM on March 20, 2002


"If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk?"

My response is what they say about bald people: A well-traveled road harbors no grass.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:22 AM on March 20, 2002


walrus - If you come across a links or references concerning those display desktops, post them or let me know. I would love to have one of those. (Although realistically I expect it'll be a lot of years & a lot of dollars before they'll be generally available.)
posted by tdismukes at 11:34 AM on March 20, 2002


I usually try and keep my desk clean, so nothing on my desk, except my computer. I take lots of notes, but I use the old mead composition book, and just archive my notebooks.

'Stuff' just builds up so fast, it's easier to keep it clean, if I let it go for a week or two, it takes so long to get everything off of it.
posted by patrickje at 12:44 PM on March 20, 2002


I bought a fancy laser printer when I started doing freelance technical writing. Most months, it sat unused. I don't recall ever printing something out for my own benefit, usually it was stuff I printed out for a client meeting. (Once I did print and bind three copies of a 500-page manual so the client could have it for a trade show the next day. Took me all day, too.)

The other thing I bought early in my career was a pair of 19" monitors. You really can't beat the ability to display four pages at once. These days they're so cheap, I don't understand why everybody doesn't have two or three big CRTs. They will quickly pay for themselves in increased productivity.
posted by kindall at 12:51 PM on March 20, 2002


I don't understand why everybody doesn't have two or three big CRTs.

kindall: What would you do with more than one monitor? How do you use the extra space?
posted by gd779 at 2:43 PM on March 20, 2002


"kindall: What would you do with more than one monitor? How do you use the extra space?"

I believe he said "You really can't beat the ability to display four pages at once."

Of course, you also need two video cards that'll play nice with each other. I'm still working on that, personally.
posted by CrayDrygu at 3:22 PM on March 20, 2002


Actually, I should add to that last post.

I'm trying to get dual monitors working because I love to spread out. I will typically have anywhere between one and twenty windows open on my computer, depending on how many people I'm talking with, if I'm surfing for fun or research, and so on. I set my screen at a high resolution (1152x864) and run nothing full-screen, so I can see at least a part of every window -- and I still feel cramped for space sometimes. Basically, I do the equivalent of "piling" on my computer.

I can extend that analogy even further, actually. The desk piler doesn't pack everything neatly away when they go home, and set it all back out the next morning. Likewise, I've been using the "hibernate" feature of my computer so that when I turn it on, it's like I never turned it off, and all my windows are right where I left them.

Dual monitors, to bring this back around to the first point, would just be that much more room to spread out -- like getting a bigger desk.
posted by CrayDrygu at 3:28 PM on March 20, 2002


kindall: What would you do with more than one monitor? How do you use the extra space?

Well, I tend to keep my documents on one monitor, and put all the other crap (AIM, MP3 player, IE download manager, dock/launcher, toolbars and palettes) on the other. For example, when I run Photoshop, the second monitor gets about half filled-up with palettes. This is because the computer defaults to putting my documents on the main screen and I'm too lazy to move 'em most of the time. However, when necessary, I can spread a document across both, or pull up two or more separate documents side by side.

Of course, you also need two video cards that'll play nice with each other. I'm still working on that, personally.

Is that still a problem on Windows? Sheesh. I mean, now you can buy single video cards with two monitor outputs on them, those have got to be compatible with... er... themselves, right?
posted by kindall at 3:36 PM on March 20, 2002


"Is that still a problem on Windows?"

As opposed to what? A Mac? If you could get the same variety of cards for the Mac as you can for a PC, you'd run into the same problems. Some drivers just don't play nice with each other, some hardware doesn't play nice...

I suppose my problem is I tried to use an ATI card and an nVidia card.
posted by CrayDrygu at 5:57 PM on March 20, 2002


Presumably, on the Mac, all those potential incompatibilities were worked out back in the late '80s, when multi-monitor support first came to the platform. I've literally never even heard of a Mac video card that wasn't compatible with some other Mac video card. If you adhere to the Apple-defined spec, it'll be compatible with everything else that adheres to the spec, and if you want it to work at all, it has to adhere pretty closely to the spec anyway.
posted by kindall at 7:38 AM on March 21, 2002


And likewise, if card manufaturers stuck to Microsoft's specs, there wouldn't be a problem either. But there's a lot of older cards out there, and manufacturers that just don't care. Apple's a lot stricter about making hardware manufacturers play by the rules.
posted by CrayDrygu at 2:04 PM on March 21, 2002


Having multiple monitors is a blast, enough so that I'm willing to put up with occasional quirkiness. I'd gotten really used to "dual-head" systems at work, so I recently bit the bullet to equip my home system with:

- one (large) screen for "active work" (design & development)
- one screen for "distractions" (web, PDFs)
- one screen for "communications" (email, IM)

I really like having these tasks split onto different displays -- I've got each of my critical apps configured to open on the appropriate display.

Multi-monitor resources is a good reference if you're brave enough to try this in Windows (read: wrestle with driver issues).
posted by skyboy at 3:18 PM on March 21, 2002 [1 favorite]


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