Messy desk = ordered mind, expert says

Is a cluttered desk a sign of genius or just hopeless disorganization?

I had plenty of opportunity to ponder this question during a recent office move that involved packing multiple (I dare not say how many for fear the storage police will come after me) boxes of back files.

Now a certain Jay Brand has unwittingly come to my rescue and allowed me to save face among my colleagues who were able to fit all their office belongings into two allotted "hot files" for the move.

Brand, a former psychology professor, is now a "cognitive engineer" at office furniture giant Haworth Inc. in Holland, Mich.

He says, and I quote: "A clean desk isn't always the sign of a productive employee."


"In fact, a clean desk can hinder worker efficiency."

I love this guy.

The premise is that people use their desk space as an extension of their minds.

"The human mind, specifically short-term memory, has a limited capacity," Brand said. "It has seven, plus or minus two, 'chunks' available for storing things.

"Since most people are doing seven things at once, they tax the capacity of their working memory almost immediately."

They need a place to "offload" some information from working memory into the environment.

Information placed into the environment this way is known as a "cognitive artifact."

"It expands a person's capacity to think," Brand said. "You're using the environment to think as well."

Companies that promote, or require, clean desk policies are in essence giving their workers "environmental lobotomies," he said.

"Essentially, you're required to destroy the context of your work every night and recreate it the next morning. It's wasted time."

Each time people clean their desks, they lose the embedded cues that their cognitive artifacts provide, Brand said. "Workers in such environments can sometimes feel like they spend more time getting organized each day than working on actual projects."

Brand himself confesses his work group -- the industrial design division at Haworth -- has a reputation for being difficult to clean up around.

Everyone has a different working style, he said. As long as people's piles mean something, they're useful.

People think differently. Some people lay out their projects left to right. Others use a top down method.

Piles may be organized by topic, chronologically, or some highly idiosyncratic system. Different strategies work for different people, Brand said. Using space to think, however, is not an excuse for being a pack rat, he said.


"I don't advocate people be messy as an end in itself," he said. "You have to have some method to your madness."

Most people never use 80 percent of the stuff they file away, and 60 percent of the stuff on their desks.

Current projects tend to attract all kinds of paper. But once a project is finished, cull through the file, then put the rest in storage, Brand said.

Other tips include using multiple surfaces to layer information. Shelves can help separate information so ideas don't get lost.

Moving things around in the piles also helps refresh their significance, he said. "Post-it notes, pictures, magazine articles, lists and charts lose their meaning and become virtually invisible if left alone."

Also, keep your most important projects and priority items within your personal "strike zone."

Retailers have long known that people's attention is most often focused on items placed in view between their shoulders and their hips. Anything higher or lower is less likely to get noticed. You can apply the same strategy to the papers in your work environment.

The concept that my desk with its drifts of paper, and stacks of things I can't bear to toss may be an extension of my inner brain is a scary thought.

Then again, a clean desk is a blank slate.

And that's an even scarier one.

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