Is a Clean Desk a Blank Slate (part 2)

(Continued from Part 1)

Some brave souls are trying to redefine what a messy desk means.  I still haven’t heard of anyone saying a messy desk is better (yet), but investigating what it signifies is a worthwhile pursuit.  Especially for people like me who generally keep a semi-messy desk.

We all store information different ways, and what works for me doesn’t work for everyone.  But it’s commonly accepted that our short-term memory can be working on around 7 things at once.  And we’re usually at max capacity.  It’s also common knowledge that upwards of 80% of the things we physically file away are never referenced again.  To bridge that gap, many of us keep open projects on our desk, in plain sight, as an extension of our short-term memory.  I do this all the time.  I think, “If I keep it right here, on my desk, I’ll be reminded every day, but I don’t have to tax myself with remembering to do it.”

The picture of my desk from Part 1 is a perfect example.  You can see that I have new BlackBerry software to install, a handful of business cards to file, 5 new books to read, I’m slowly working on a marketing project (manila folder), and I’m measuring the room for new furniture.  What’s out of the picture is a box of books I’m putting together to donate, two other computers I’m figuring out what to do with, and some bills to pay this weekend.

Not one of these projects is urgent, but if I didn’t have them in my face all the time, I wouldn’t make any progress.  If the books were in the bookshelf, I’d forget about them.  If the computers were in the store room downstairs (oh — did I mention this is my home office, not my work office?), it’d be five years before I did anything with them.  Etc., etc., etc., etc.  So I’ve off-loaded the responsibility of remembering these things from my brain to my desk.  Thanks, desk!

These piles of junk are really projects that I need to finish, and I’m storing them in my mid-term memory and using my desk as a visual storage medium.  If I cleaned my desk, I’d lose the embedded cues that these piles of junk cognitive artifacts provide.  Essentially, I’m using my physical environment to help me think.

Here’s a good New Yorker article by Malcom Gladwell about the The Social Life of Paper in the modern office.  Maybe messy desks aren’t that bad after all.

If I need a clean slate to do some creative thinking, I leave the office.  I don’t think having a clean desk will ever replace leaving the environment altogether, so I’m not putting too much focus on maintaining a tidy work surface.  In other words, a clean desk is not the same thing as a blank slate–not to me.  So I’m done worrying about it.  Especially since my messy desk is helping me stay productive!

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2 responses to “Is a Clean Desk a Blank Slate (part 2)

  1. Pingback: Is a Clean Desk a Blank Slate? (part 1) | Get a Leg Up

  2. Exactly….. cognitive artifacts…. and I like it that way!

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