I am a member in good standing of the clean desk club. It’s a long-time habit from a past job where we were dinged by Compliance if anything sensitive was left out on our desks overnight. So, at the end of each day, I clear off my desk, find room in a drawer for all of the paper, and lock it up. Of course, I’ll just pull it out tomorrow and start again, but for a brief moment, my desk is empty and I feel lighter.
A clean desk looks calm, supporting the illusion that there are no demands on me today – but it is fleeting. Inevitably, I’ll arrange the papers around my computer as visual reminders of what I need to deal with that day. People who don’t clear their desks off have a different approach – they find the “stack” method keeps them organized. I might see a teetering tower of paper, but they know exactly where everything is. It’s not a bad approach, if you have enough desktop real estate.
Computers were supposed to relieve us from all this paper, but the true enemy of the clean desk lies within: the email inbox. This is where work lurks, coming in the form of requests, attachments, and oblique messages you’re only copied on but better read anyway. During the course of the day, I try to open, read, and deal with each email. While I can reach the goal of having no unread emails at the end of the day, I don’t achieve the higher standard of “inbox zero,” clearing the inbox of all emails. I’ve dismissed this idea as too ridiculous to consider because I can’t really delete all my work emails. I need to retain messages that state agreements, due dates, and quotes. I make a effort to put emails into subfolders by project, but I can never seem to clear the inbox.
Instead, I view my email as a giant virtual filing cabinet. Everything is in there somewhere, and I only hope I can find it when the time comes. At least we can do a key word search for digital materials. This doesn’t help when trying to locate physical files. Once I heard a librarian say that a mis-shelved book is as good as lost. I have an image of rows and rows of book shelves, and how long it would take to look at each book if we couldn’t rely on the Dewey Decimal System, or alphabetical order.
So I’ll try to do a better job of organizing the virtual and the paper. Sorting into email subfolders once a month doesn’t seem too onerous, and a few paper folders with labels would improve the stack I jam into a drawer each night as I seek that brief clean-feeling moment.