Empty desk = nothing to do?
April 25, 2006 9:48 PM   Subscribe

Am I running any sort of risk by keeping my desk at work clean and empty, when every other person in this government office keeps theirs piled to the ceiling?

As part of my adoption of GTD, I incorporated most of Martin Ternouth's desktop workflow system. This pairing leads to a couple things, most notably a desk with only one project on it at a time and a completely in-to-empty workspace at the end of the day.

This has had a massively beneficial effect on my productivity and general mental well-being. However, I'm afraid it's the my-office equivalent of showing up painted pink with a peacock stuffed in my ass, as the other 199 people at work leave everything out to a sometimes ridiculous degree.

I know that one critical tenet of slacking is to have stuff all over your desk to look like you're working, so I'm curious if MeFi thinks I might be risking giving the opposite impression. I happen to sit immediately adjacent to a real craven backstabbing SOB, and I could easily see him making snide comments about how "I must not have anything to do" or etc. There's almost no chance that my direct superiors would ever doubt my work, but I worry about people that don't know me as well.
posted by BruceL to Work & Money (27 answers total)
Spend some time trolling ThinkGeek and collect yourself some pointless gadgets and toys. Your desk won't be 'clean' but it also won't be covered with distracting other projects (i know nothing of this Martin Ternouth's desktop workflow system of which you speak.)

A second alternative would be to add lots of work related books. Technical manuals and the like. Stick some sheets of paper in them (to look like notes/ projects) and people will view it as clutter even if it's nothing. [Half Price Books is your friend here...]

If all else fails, go to Office Despot and pick up some binders, fill them with blank/ junk pages and leave them on your desk. You know it's nonsense and can ignore it, others view it as your workload.

Or just tell the guy behind you to fuck off and appreciate the zen that is a clean desk.
posted by quin at 10:01 PM on April 25, 2006

How about creating a folder in which you collect copies of important-looking documents related to projects you work on? At the end of each day, or when you go out on break, strategically place these things about your desk. When you return, place them back in the folder.

Ah, the theatre of the workplace.

(On preview, the books suggestion sounds good and practical.)
posted by weston at 10:04 PM on April 25, 2006

Hey, appearances are important in this world, so let's not kid ourselves. It's a thin line, but you certainly can make your desk full without making it messy. I don't know how the GTD system or the workflow system work, but you'll just have to adapt them to your needs somehow. Paper trays, books, notebooks, office supplies, etc, can all take up space without being as distracting as materials for your other projects. And keep it nice and unempty at the end of the day too.
posted by apple scruff at 10:06 PM on April 25, 2006

And as i post this, the thought occurs that you could go a bit darker and adorn your desk with a piece of Cherished Sporting Memorabilia/ weapon and get yourself a signed baseball bat (golf club/ cricket bat works too). Whenever the SOB behind you acts up just pick it up and stare at him in a meaningful way.

/seriously not trying to get you fired.
posted by quin at 10:10 PM on April 25, 2006

Your boss would have to be seriously a bit weird for that to matter.

Sometimes, seeing these sorts of questions and stories, I'm glad I'm employed by adults, who think their employees should deliver, but know that there are many ways to a result, and accept that we have lives and have personalities.
posted by wilful at 10:20 PM on April 25, 2006

One thing that makes you look like you're working is file folders stuffed with papers on your desk. They never have to be changed. They can just sit there day after day. My SO works for the government and your concern is valid. I find it deeply demoralizing that our government is run like this, but it's true.
posted by generic230 at 11:06 PM on April 25, 2006

I've always been told that I should keep my desk messy. I've always ignored this nonsense. I've never received any more or less work than my peers or suffered any other negative repercussion.
posted by mullacc at 11:15 PM on April 25, 2006

Put up a little plaque or sign that makes a comment about order. cleanliness, and organization. Something along the lines of "cleanliness is next to godliness" crossed with a motivational poster slogan. Then everyone who sees it will think you're a neat freak instead of a slacker.
posted by shanevsevil at 11:22 PM on April 25, 2006

Or even better, go with the flow and make a joke about yourself. How about a sign that says, "A clean desk is the sign of a sick mind"?

(25 years ago I kept a small sign on my desk that said, "Trespassers will be violated." Unfortunately, eventually someone stole it.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:26 PM on April 25, 2006

from the perspective of a small business owner, i can tell you that it stresses me out greatly to see employees with desks that are a mess. i always consider a neat and empty desk to be the sign of someone who has their shit together
posted by 5bux at 12:09 AM on April 26, 2006

I think in this situation you really need to analyse your own job and decide whether having stuff on your desk is really important.

For instance, I'm a university lecturer and, for me, my workload is not measured by what's on my desk. It's measured by how well I teach, how quickly I get my marking done and also those wonderful student evaluations! I'm sure that the boss could see my desk clear, but as long as I was in class and getting the marking back on time, he would be fine with that.

On the other hand, the girl(s) that handle student admin have a much more direct relationship with their desk. I think you can judge their current workload by how many student files are on their desk. If I went past and they had NO student files on their desk, I'd think they didn't have much to do currently (ie. no open files).

If you job is more like the second than the first, then maybe some of the suggestions here help, but don't get too hung up on it, analyse your organisations culture first!
posted by ranglin at 12:12 AM on April 26, 2006

You don't have to clean your actual desk to have a clean mental desktop. When you finish a project, let some shit lie there, off to the side but not out of sight. My desk is a fire hazard but none of the clutter has anything to do with current projects. I don't really use my desk at all except as a place to hold my PC and cup and to catch the paper debris of projects under construction.
posted by pracowity at 12:15 AM on April 26, 2006

Why not leave a few summaries of Martin Ternouth's desktop workflow system (Free--Take One) on your desk, for the quidnuncs.
It might be contagious.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:23 AM on April 26, 2006

As someone who has a messy desk and aspires to an empty one, I'm with 5bux.
posted by SpacemanRed at 1:35 AM on April 26, 2006

Government employee with clean desk here. Fuck 'em. There is a disturbing trait in Government employees, a sort of OCD, that causes them to hoard paper. This is an unfortunate side effect of the prevailing CYA mentality. When things go wrong, which they inevitably will, these hoarders pull out their papers to demonstrate their innocence.

I've been on a project the last five years with a large consulting firm that will remain nameless but who might have once been called Andersen Consulting. At one of the earliest meetings we had, they sent out 'read ahead' materials and were somewhat surprised to see almost 100% of the Government employees in the room show up clutching this sad PowerPoint deck. I told them that it gives a Government worker a warm fuzzy feeling to hold papers in their hands. We're spending 900 million on a new procurement system, which has as one of its core elements an 'electronic contract folder.' This is the latest attempt at the paperless office. All the contract documents are on-line. Of course, no one trusts it so they have boxes full of crap under, on, and near their desks.

But you are better than that.
posted by fixedgear at 2:20 AM on April 26, 2006

"If a cluttered desk is the sign of a clutteed mind, what is the sign of an empty desk?"

Do it your way. There is serenity in order.
posted by Goofyy at 3:16 AM on April 26, 2006

If you're going to fill the area with dummy folders and the like, why not make sure they're all one colour? Then when you look at your desk you don't see lots of work and panic. Instead you can look at it and filter, saying "Now, the blue things are all decoration. So my desk is empty/only has my current project!" Might help maintain the reward and comfort of the empty desk.
posted by alasdair at 3:26 AM on April 26, 2006

If the prick next to you emits any snark at all, rise up like unto an avenging angel, sweep everything off HIS desk with one mighty sweep of your mighty arm, and scream "I am so SICK of being SURROUNDED by all this CRAP" at the top of your lungs.

Or at least get a giggle out of imagining doing so.
posted by flabdablet at 3:56 AM on April 26, 2006

Second shanevsevil's recommendation: you need to be proactive with you cleanliness. Make everyone else's messiness a problem, instead of the norm, and all of a suddent you're the good guy, and they're the fuck-ups.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:09 AM on April 26, 2006

What Goofyy said.

Although truth be told, when I used to work in a fairly low level accounting job, whenever I had an empty desk my boss and her boss often believed that I wasn't given enough to do (which was true, but beside the point). I think keeping a few papers/files on your desk within a controlled environment (where you know exactly what these papers are can can be removed and put away within seconds) is always a good idea.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 5:42 AM on April 26, 2006

There's a balance between "yes, make it messy" and "no, keep it spotless". An old coworker of mine kept a clean desk and it stuck out like a sore thumb, and it gave the impression of "that person is very odd" rather than "that person is productive". And I get the feeling you're worried that you're sending a message you don't want to send.

So, make your desk look like someone productive sits there!

Keep your 43 folders in a file-holder on top of your desk, instead of in a filing cabinet. (That's also a great GTD badge. You'll find out who else at your office knows about GTD quickly.) Keep a couple of files from whatever you've got next actions lined up on out. Fill up space with plants and pictures of family or friends. Keep your coffee mug out. Don't erase whiteboards until you need to use them again. Tack things up on pinboards (like this!)

People say that it shouldn't matter, but little subconscious impressions do have an effect (and even if they don't, there's no harm in trying to avoid the wrong impression). You don't want your boss to think you're ready to jump to another company at a moment's notice or that you think you're about to be laid off. You don't want your coworkers to be angry because they're swamped in work and you, since you're not swamped in papers or since you have time to clean up, are "obviously" underloaded.

(Since I showed my coworker's desk, I might as well show mine: this is overkill, but this is back in the "doesn't stand out" range, I think.)
posted by mendel at 6:39 AM on April 26, 2006

Don't cave in! At the very least, have a friendly chat with your boss. Let him or her know why you've got a clean desk, and how the GTD process has really helped you get your act together. It will probably stand out in his or her mind.

And I seriously love flabdablet's suggestion of sweeping off someone else's desk and screaming.
posted by MrZero at 6:40 AM on April 26, 2006

I've never read GTD, but I understand that I follow some of its precepts anyway.

My desk is always spotless, inbox is empty, etc.

If I was stuck in a cube next to a jackass like you described... I'd probably take to bringing an ipod in, and listening to it, instead of Captain Sloppy.

If you feel the need to "display" work, you can always find a way to organize some of your materials, so they're prominently displayed on your desk... but that seems absurd to me.
posted by I Love Tacos at 6:40 AM on April 26, 2006

and all of a sudden you're the good guy, and they're the fuck-ups.

This doesn't work so well when you have to work with them, y'know. What's the benefit in getting your coworkers annoyed at you for having to do more work? It's like the kid in grade school who reminds the teacher she forgot to assign homework.
posted by mendel at 6:41 AM on April 26, 2006

It's interesting to me that the replies indicate that a messy - or at least busy - desk is now the approved form. When I did all that Time Management crap back in the eighties the well-managed desk - never bearing more than what you need right now, always fully emptied at the end of the day - was held up as the absolute holy grail of personal space and workflow management. Times change.

I could never hack it, because it simply didn't work for me. I had a multi-tasking sort of job including many tasks requiring concurrent access to many documents and other materials. I have always maintained what is known as the "Volcano" desk management system. I probably don't need to explain that.

Anyway, the answer? Horses for courses. Do what works for you, but be prepared to provide evidence that it works best for you if challenged.
posted by Decani at 6:41 AM on April 26, 2006

What fixedgear said. I too work for government, and it really scares me sometimes to see exactly how much personal and sensitive data are left lying around in unstable piles on people's desks...

Do your job well. And if you can do your job well with a clean desk, so much the better!
posted by MaJumelleDiabolique at 12:22 PM on April 26, 2006

For posterity's sake... fixedgear wins the prize, as I have decided that "fuck 'em" is the operating principle for me on this issue. If they know me then they should know better, and if they don't... they should ask.
posted by BruceL at 8:40 PM on May 8, 2006

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