Tidydeskaphobia – does your desk reflect how your brain works?

A bit of a light-hearted post before I go on holiday.

Twice a year, once just before Christmas and the other just before I go on my summer holiday, I develop an urge to tidy my desk.  This takes two forms, first I attempt to reduce the in-box of my email account to zero, including, if possible, my folder called AAAA-pending and second, the physical process  of attempting to put a semblance of order to my somewhat cluttered desk.


This also includes my overflow desk, theoretically my meeting table, but in reality a bit of a mess.


This is a bit of a strange compulsion because I don’t actually feel comfortable with a tidy desk and have a deep suspicion of those folk who habitually have tidy desks and as for those with empty desks, well it raises the hairs on the back of my neck just thinking about it.  I am just not comfortable working in such a barren environment.  In fact, in that short period of time that my desk exists in its alien tidy state I have great difficulty finding things.  On the plus side, I do get one bonus when I do my twice-yearly desk tidy – my collection of ball-point pens and pencils increases in size dramatically 😉

Desk tidy

There is a popular myth that says that the state of your desk reflects how your brain works; that someone with a desk like mine exists in a world of chaos and multiple jobs on the go, regarded by many as a very inefficient way to operate. I  must confess that in that in one respect, the myth in my case is based in fact, I do have a huge number of tasks on the go at once, but I like to think I am quite efficient and complete them all in good time. The opposite side of the coin of course, states that a tidy desk reflects a tidy, well organised mind; a person who starts a job and finishes it before embarking on their next task.  Me, I like to go with Albert Einstein who supposedly said “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”  [apparently apocryphal – see comments].  This, is in  my opinion, somewhat insulting to those of you with empty desks; to each their own is my motto.

Do I consider myself to have a cluttered mind?  Well actually, in other parts of my life, working and otherwise, I am, to say the least, rather anal.  My library at home, some 11,000 books plus*, is arranged by subject area and alphabetically within subject, and in my general fiction section, even by nationality of author.  My extensive reprint collection, numbering 10021 as of 10th July 2013, all of which I have read,  are carefully filed away in my filing cabinets, by subject and author, and also entered in EndNote™.  Note that as an added sophistication, the keywords are my own, not from the author’s list; plus I have a back-up system of good old-fashioned record cards!

Filing cabinets  Card index boxes

More record cards again  More record cards

I also have my student’s PhD theses lined up in chronological order, although I confess that sometimes I feel the urge to arrange them by colour and of course the hard copies of my data-sets are also arranged perfectly, although the box-files don’t match!

PhD theses Sycamore data

So what about my brain?  How do I think it is arranged?  Strange to say, or perhaps not, I tend to visualise my brain as a system of card index boxes, and thus when I try to recall something, I mentally riffle through the record cards until I find the relevant fact(s).  So my desk does not, at least in my opinion, reflect my brain, although perhaps the rest of the office and my brain do have a lot in common.  Incidentally, mine is not the messiest desk/office I have come across.  Two of my former colleagues at Silwood Park, now both retired, outdid me in the cluttered office stakes by a very long way.  At least you can get more than one person at a time in my office.

And just to prove that I have actually tidied my desk…….

Tidy desk

*Note if you wondered why I don’t know exactly how many books I have.  I did once have all my books catalogued and listed on record cards, together with a star-rating system, but in the process of an acrimonious divorce, my card catalogue system was destroyed (don’t ask) and I just didn’t have the heart or time, to start all over again.  I now rely on my back-up notebooks to help me remember which books I own.   I will also confess that when on holiday, I arrange all the books in the rented villas we stay in alphabetically by author, although I do manage to resist the temptation to arrange them by subject area 😉


Filed under The Bloggy Blog, Uncategorized

8 responses to “Tidydeskaphobia – does your desk reflect how your brain works?

  1. I can empathise on so many levels! But like most of the quotes attributed to Einstein (including the one about bees) it’s not true: he never actually said anything about desks, cluttered or otherwise – see: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein


  2. DrHG

    Reblogged this on The Culture of Enthusiasm and commented:
    See, folks, I’m not the only one thinking about desks… superb post here from my entomology tweep, @EntoProf. Here’s a link to my post on the subject: http://hilarygeoghegan.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/what-does-your-desk-say-about-you-the-geography-of-desks/


  3. Fascinating, my desk (in an partially open plan post-grad office) is for most of the time messy, not only with paper but food, however I am also rather anal about filing. Indeed I often get worried seeing articles or piles of files which I have taken about and left around perhaps only for a few hours, because I think some of them will go ‘missing’ or get ‘muddled’ even if I have not touched them. I don’t at all mind living in a mess and often with paper all over the place it does feel comforting sometimes to be surrounded by a mass of things having gone through or to get through. When I do tidy up I am somewhat OCD and the smallest speck of cornflake or something else must be dealt with. There are three other desks near me unoccupied and these have been pulled into service for various tasks, at the moment one is being used to prepare a piece on my archival work as my proper desk is crammed with bits of ‘small furniture’; cabinet with stuffed stoat, flower pots and several other things which make this task somewhat difficult. Another one has been used for the same reason at the moment I have another desk no 4, a private office where I do some reading to get away from the computer.


  4. Emma

    MY HERO.

    I once read a piece in a “how to study” guide which suggested that having >20% of the desk covered would lead to a severe lack of productivity. I phoned my father (definite genetic trait) and we laughed for about 5 mins at the idea of having as much as 20% clear. Archaeological layers are definitely a strength in such a system, which is why clearing up can be a ‘mare, IMHO.

    Also liking the rental book wrangling. Me, I tend to leave the books be in others’ properties, but I straighten pictures in the vague hope that no-one will notice, and I’ll be able to sleep at night. 🙂

    Personal books, I have still to address. I have a vague idea of going with ISBN at some point, but only when I have enough shelving to bypass difficulties with height variation. How many metres of shelves do you NEED for 11k books, though? With your squadron of offspring, did they have the right to their own bookshelves, or did you annex their walls too?


    • Simon Leather

      thanks Emma – one other bugbear I have is when publishers change the size of books in a series; actually I hate all variations in book dimensions – it would really help if there was a standard size for paperbacks and hardbacks. Kids do have their own shelving. Having filled the dining room, sitting rooms, study, our bedroom and the upstairs landing, I had to start using the loft space.


      • Emma

        Yes on the dimensions in a series, definitely, ditto on the ridiculous habit of sometimes printing a large paperback before a standard size one. And if the French could be persuaded to start printing spine titles the right way round, that would be helpful too!


  5. Pingback: A lost opportunity – why you should back up your data, even if it is on paper | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.