October 08, 2008

The Costs of a Messy Desk

How clean your desk at work is is mainly a matter of style — but not entirely. Writing this morning in Fortune, Mina Kimes describes the “clean desk policy” at Audi, which parallels that of dozens of other corporate workplaces. The reason for a clean desk? “We want to create a sophisticated atmosphere,” says executive vice president Johan de Nysschen. “It’s conducive towards organization.” But appearing competent and sophisticated is not the only argument in favor of a relatively organized office desk.

As Kimes reports, “Studies estimate that the average desk jockey now piles about 36 hours of work on his workspace at any one time,” and that is about a one-week backlog. The risks of keeping such a large backlog on the desk surface are considerable. Tasks can get lost or mixed together. Worse, secret information could be stolen. In my work in banking, the main reason for keeping desks neat is to keep customer data from falling into the wrong hands.

A one-week active backlog of work is probably not realistic anyway. If you can’t finish most of your pending work by the end of the day, and organize the rest so that you know what it is when you come back to it, then imagining that you are really going to finish it all is just wishful thinking. In business, priorities change before the week is over, so you are just being realistic by preventing the backlog “heap” from extending that far.

Of course, filing everything away, then forgetting about it, is even worse. And you don’t want to force yourself into a workflow that goes against your nature. The key to desk success is being aware of what is in, on, and around your desk, so that you can get rid of things as they become obsolete or irrelevant. When your desk is free of clutter, you are looking at your actual work — and that can only make you more productive.

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