Re-enforcing our own prejudice. A tidy mind is an empty mind! Saturday, January 13, 2007
It's often remarked that we buy newspapers or read material that support positions we believe in/take. It's invariably true, since most people can't be bothered reading material they'd fine intensely annoying.
So, its true of theories.
I'm not a clean desk person and never have been. I'm more in the cluttered desk camp, with lots of my stuff scattered around where I'm working. This often prompts the "cluttered desk, cluttered mind" comments from people who frankly should be off looking for their other brain cell rather than annoying me.
So, back in my University days at Loughborough, I was delighted when a fellow student on a different (and evidently simpler course) wrote his dissertation on cluttered desk. Called the volcano filing system, he "successfully" argued that actually this system was the most sophisticated and efficient filing system in existence. It's key observations were that
- Unimportant stuff moved further away from the centre of the volcano, eventually falling onto the floor where the cleaner would throw it away
- Important stuff stayed in easy reach
- Items could be readily found by reference to other items; their proximity to the centre; and the depth at which they were e.g. I was working on it a few days ago when I was looking at this other thing, so it must be nearby in this pile.
This theory was adopted and developed.
Work by Steve Whittaker and Julia Hirschberg of ATT Labs-Research, suggests that clutter may actually be quite an efficient organising principle. In “The Character, Value and Management of Personal Paper Archives”, they examine the distinction that MIT's Tom Malone draws between “filers” and “pilers”. When filers receive paperwork, they put it away. When pilers get it, they leave it on the desk—not randomly, but in concentric circles. There is a “hot” area, of stuff that the worker is dealing with right now. There is a “warm” area, of stuff that needs to be got through in the next few days: it may be there, in part, as a prompt. And there is a “cold” area, at the edges of the desk, of stuff which could just as well be in an archive (or, often, the bin). Source Economist December 2002.
The biggest danger with such a system is some well meaning idiot trying to tidy it up! [Mothers, wives, secretary's, people looking for stuff]. Many companies also operate a clean desk policy ["please shove everything into your drawer out of sight at the end of each day, so you can spend 15 minutes each morning retrieving & sorting it in an unproductive manner.
Other reasons advanced
- Security concerns? Right, so burglers don't open drawers or pick locks?
- Impact of bombing scattering papers everywhere as happened in Docklands, Bishopsgate.....my biggest concern when a bomb goes off is not going to be what happens to my papers.
The authors also argue that Procrastination makes sense too. America's Marine Corps never makes detailed plans in advance. Leaving important things to the last minute reduces the risk of wasting time on things that may ultimately prove not important at all. Go tell that to the Project Office!!!!
An older article from the Economist in 20o2 advances the same thoughts on the inefficiency of tidiness here, under the title "In Praise of Clutter". My favourite piece is this:
People spread stuff over their desks not because they are too lazy to file it, but because the paper serves as a physical representation of what is going on in their heads—“a temporary holding pattern for ideas and inputs which they cannot yet categorise or even decide how they might use”, as Ms Kidd puts it. The clutter cannot be filed because it has not been categorised. By the time the worker's ideas have taken form, and the clutter could be categorised, it has served its purpose and can therefore be binned. Filing it is a waste of time.
The articles also assert that creative/innovative people tend to be more cluttered because their ideas are often generated by joining seemingly unconnected things together or looking at things from different angles. "Filers", in contrast to "Pilers" only care about the existence of order.