Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Clean Desk Theory

A More Orderly Place, Not Now, 2003

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, what is the significance of a clean desk?”

Laurence Peter, The Peter Principle

I walked into my office the other morning and realized that it was such a mess that I had lost control of what was going on inside it. I’m pretty sure, at least, that no animals are living there, unless you count the terrier that sometimes spends the morning napping on the floor near my feet. But that’s about the only assurance I can give you.

My office serves many purposes. It serves, first and foremost, as the site where I do just about all of my “day job” work. It’s also my photography workshop. It’s also one of the places where I retreat to write. It’s not a tiny room, but that’s still a lot of competing interests. So strenuous is the tension at times that I’ve been known to push it all aside and take a nap on the old couch that lines one wall of the room.

Aside from the furniture and work-related things, this is some of the stuff you’d find on the floor of my office at the moment: two cases of picture frames; fourteen framed photos I don’t know what to do with; a portable oil heater; a stack of 1,200 completed questionnaires from a recent mail survey; assorted dog toys; chords and chargers for a variety of Apple and Nikon products; a pair of running shoes and a pair of boots.

On the desktop you’d find: a photo printer I haven’t used in a year, a potted plant that needs fertilizer, two passes to the Picasso: Guitars 1912 – 1914 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (that I’ll probably not get to); a car title; a Utrecht color wheel; most of my mother’s Medicare paperwork; three books I haven’t read yet; a miniature bronze winged lion of St. Mark from Venice; three copies of the physical survey of the land my house sits on; and a collection of rocks from New England. You’d also find mountains of scribbled notes, ideas for stories, revelations to share with clients, ideas for newspaper op-eds and even outlines for instructional programs.

I used to work for a guy who believed that a clean desk was the sign of an efficient executive. John reported to a CEO whose desktop was always clean and empty. I suppose he thought the CEO might wander into his office at night just to make sure John was adhering to the same efficient manner. He never did, of course. CEOs don’t usually come to you. You go to them. Besides, our office was across the street from the CEO’s office. But John still made a practice of sweeping everything into the top drawers of his desk every night before he went home. Those drawers were anything but neat. But the desktop shined.

I never bought into that idea. I tried it. It just wasn’t me. For me, a desk is a fertile place for ideas. You never know when two pieces of paper with seemingly unrelated things written on them will commingle and give birth to something new and more interesting. But lately they’re sticking together and not coming apart. (That could be because I spilled a glass of iced tea on them last week.)

I’ve had many kinds of desks through the years. For the last twenty-five years or so, though, I’ve preferred tables to desks. If I have drawers I just fill them up with stuff. Better to leave things out so that I have to deal with them.

The price of having no drawers is that things pile up on the top of the table. A professional organizer would have a field day with my office. Just reading this has probably given you some pretty good ideas about what I should be doing with this mess. But if you don’t mind, keep those thoughts to yourself for now. I’m going to let the pile simmer for a few more days before I dive into it.

Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;

Still by himself abused, or disabused;

Created half to rise, and half to fall;

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Alexander Pope, from Essay on Man, Epistle II


  1. My desks have almost never been neat, particularly in my office where I do therapy. I'll admit that it does have a slightly chaotic feel to it, sometimes. But I think it does have a certain organization to it in the same way a more wild garden with a mix of grasses and perennials has an order very different from the manicured English-styled garden. When we go exploring on a psychological or emotional adventure, there are no sign posts pointing to a "proper" direction. That's because we must start from where we are, and that is a very unique place for each of us. Nonetheless, we do find our way.

  2. I work in stacks. No drawers in my office. Use my MacPro desktop in a similar manner. Folders present on the desktop and always within reach.

  3. I'll put my messy desk up against anyone's anyday anytime.......once I win that competition we can move on to garages!

  4. I'm probably one of the minority. I keep a clean desk - not while I'm working however at the end of the day, I organize for the next day and put everything back in its place. It's a Feng Shui thing with me and I'm the same way in the kitchen. In order for me to cook, I have to have a clean kitchen to begin with. During the process, it's a mess. But afterwards the kitchen gets put back together. "Everything in its place and a place for everything." It reminds me of an Eastern Indian anecdote about the mind. When we wake up in the morning and begin thinking we spin out the world from our mind like a spider releasing the thread he uses to spin a web. When we go to sleep at night, we retract the mind into itself just as the spider retracts its silky thread back into itself. I like that analogy and that's what it feels to me whether it's my desk or the kitchen or...But then again, I've always been a little "different." :)

  5. Hahaaa--I'm still laughing at the spilled iced tea and things sticking together. I love seeing what people have on their desks--it shows so much about what people are interested in. I crack up when I look at Joe's desk--it is hilarious. Mine is just a mess, but his is fascinating to me.

  6. ps
    Now, closets--that's another story...

  7. I've actually moved my computers OUT of my office to another desk downstairs. Got to the point where I couldn't even walk around for the piles of stuff on the floor and all surfaces were under other piles. I figure when I overload the space I'm now working in it may be a good reason to retire.

    (I too have two passes to the Picasso: Guitars 1912 – 1914 exhibit. We should make a field trip).

  8. I worked for a guy ( a physicist, actually) who ran a small ad agency years ago, i was the art director, and we had our own big artroom space...
    he loved to wander through and absorb the mess on our drawing boards and desks... he always said, a messy desk is a sign of creativity going on, and I AGREE ! ( I am, of course, a hopeless mess! ;-)