Can’t remember how it goes.
Is it cluttered desk = cluttered mind, or empty desk = empty mind?
I’m betting on the latter.
Actually, Albert Einstein said that, and based on the photographic evidence he knows a little something about that.
Albert Einstein’s desk, as seen shortly after he died. It’s really not as bad as I expected; he must have been expecting company.
My old work desk at the newspaper office was definitely pure clutter. Open file folders all over the place. Papers and photos in random piles. Notebooks. Two loose-leaf phone directories of all my sources. Coffee cup. Ashtray (newsrooms used to have such anachronisms back then). Maybe even a computer in there somewhere. My boss (the publisher, not the managing editor) was a real clean freak and kept after me to clean up the mess. Of course, she never wrote a word in her life, which may or may not have anything to do with that. The managing editor, my rival in well-sculpted desktops, decided I was a blood relative.
I think it took some newsroom prankster (maybe the publisher) to drop a broad hint. Something like cordoning off the area with yellow police tape. I took enough of the hint to clean things up a bit, and everyone thought I’d resigned or something. Until I mentioned an amazing discovery:
“Hey, guys, look. I found a desk.”
Now, there were rumors that after the desktop had its massive deep cleaning, everyone saw what I really look like and begged me to start piling papers on the desk again. Of course, that’s just vicious rumor.
Surprisingly enough, everything else was well organized. My physical files — those I wasn’t working on — were stored away in a drawer, alphabetized. I even kept a database of photos, mug shots of all the regular newsmakers. The database — actually an alphabetized text document — directed me to the right envelope where I kept the proper negatives and contact sheets.
OK. Long anecdote. But I saw an article about clean vs. messy desks. Seems your work environment has a lot to do with your creativity and ability to make decisions. And while everyone’s different, the messy desk wins out in most arguments.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota decided to take a look at a long-established principle of human honesty and productivity — keep your work area clean and you will be more likely to work your tail off, stay honest, be generous with your coworkers, and on and on … a messy work environment, the research suggested, can bring out a person’s creativity and lead to the birth of bold, new ideas. In other words, a less- than-perfect work environment can make a person more likely to think out of the box, or at least above the horizon of those neat people in the office.
Yeah, that seeing-above-the-horizon idea makes sense. Just being able to see over my desk is hard enough.
At Disneyland years ago, one tour walked you through the administrative section and Walt Disney’s office. I’m sure it was a mock-up; who can work when a bunch of tourists from Ohio stare at you through a big sheet of glass?
My desk is a wreck, but my computer screen is orderly. Note: No icons.
Disney actually had two offices. One was tidy, forbidding-looking, intimidation dripping from the walls. That was his public office where he’d greet visitors or maybe air out a recalcitrant worker.
His other office, to put it charitably, was a wreck. It was more man cave than office, but that was where he did his actual work. He might have even had an electric fence up to keep the janitors out, but that’s conjecture.
I’ve seen pictures of Albert Einstein at his work, and his desk … well, it was about as well-ordered as his hair.
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who singlehandedly saved the game of baseball after the 1919 World Series gambling scandal (admittedly with draconian tactics), also keopt a scary-looking desk. Piles everywhere.
But he knew where everything was — all of us messy-desk aficianados say the same thing. Longtime manager Leo Durocher, a frequent visitor to Landis’ office on sime disciplinary matter or other, vouched for that in his autobiography. If you lied to the Judge, he’d reach into one of those piles without even looking, and pluck out the very document that nails your hide to the wall.
The grand tour, if you dare
OK. That’s historical stuff; let’s get to the here and now. My own work desk is in a relative state of disorder, though not as bad as it once was. And like Judge Landis, I know exactly where everything is.
- Reference works on the top shelf, with a pair of Bose speakers serving as bookends.
- Office supplies on a hanging shelf to the left.
- Files, stereo and pencil cup to the right.
- Random stuff to the left of the computer: Sunglasses, flashlight, dry-erase markers, last week’s mail, an 11/16-inch socket from my tool drawer, a wadded-up bandanna for erasing my white boards, decommissioned cell phones, another rolled-up bandanna to rest my wrist on when using the computer mouse, which was on the desk last time I looked.
- File drawer is fairly orderly, but don’t ask about the open cubbyhole on top of that. It seems some creature has taken up residence there. Not sure what it is, but it has glowing red eyes and only comes out at night.
But my computer screen is fairly clear. No icons — I hate them anyway. One terminal window to open programs, because I don’t use drop-down menus very much either. A couple of open documents. Some notes elsewhere on the screen, in another terminal window.
Very orderly. Or not.
Of course I’m going to have my hypothosis, even though there’s nothing scientific about it. But a messy desk may force you to adapt, to think your way around corners, to come up with something amazing even if conditions say you should go back to bed. OK, maybe I’m justifying my own bad behavior, so take that into consideration.
Here’s my challenge. Grab a bunch of random papers and kitsch, and dump it on your desk. Rent a front-end loader if you have to. Slap a couple of HAZMAT decals on the pile to keep everything in sync with government regulations. See if that helps with your creativity.
If it doesn’t work, you can always light a match and get rid of the piles with no lapse in continuity.
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What say you? Can you still see over your desk? Let’s talk about it in the comments.