Getting Things Done: Messy Edition

Recent book (authors Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman) on the possible benefits of not maintaining a strictly organised working space.

Have a Messy Desk? Congrats, Youre More Productive

Yet messy people are often cast in a negative light. In one study cited by [National Association of Professional Organizers], two-thirds of respondents believed workers with messy desks were seen as less career-driven than their neater colleagues.

Haven’t read the book and, as academics, we should probably be wary of “research findings” by NAPO or by Abrahamson and Freedman. But that Reuters piece does make some insightful points about people, like me, who find alternative ways to organise their lives.

As per the quote above, there is a stigma about us. At least, there is a stigma in the “general population.” There is plenty of stigmatisation of “messy people” in advertisement, among office workers, and in popular books. The whole “reflection of your inner self” ideology. “You can’t organise your life if your desk is cluttered.” “Clear your mind by putting things in neatly labeled boxes.” “You’ll never be able to finish any project if you have such a mess on your hands.”

But such a stigma is much less prevalent among academics or, even, among many members of the “geek crowd.” Those of us who handle most of our work-related material through computers (either on hard drives or online) know that it’s extremely easy to find information very quickly without the need of folder hierarchies. Hence Spotlight in Mac OS X and Google Desktop Search on Windows XP and Vista.

In my case, a messy desktop has often been my “workspace” while folders were mostly meant as archives. The same applies to my online accounts these days. Gmail as a centralised location for some of my important data. Browser tabs as “modes.” Search replacing “filing cabinets.” Outlining as a second step after note-taking/brainstorming.

Like many others, I have “a lot of things going on at the same time” and am solely responsible for all of these “projects.” Project management strategies typically make little sense to my individual work though they can work really well for collaboration with others. In other words, I need my “desk” to be messy so that I can do the kind of work I do well.

This all relates to Jess’s points about social bookmarking, of course. I’m also reminded of Edward T. Hall’s ideas about “polychronic time” in Dance of Life. As it so happens, DoL is one of the first books I have read that was written by an anthropologist. Hall has been known for a few things in the field of cultural anthropology (mostly to do with gestural behaviour) but he has always been something of a maverick. Not that I want to rehabilitate his work but I do think there’s some valuable insight to be found in this specific book. Hall has been one of relatively few anthropologists of the time to think about the perception of time, something which many people are doing now using Schutz has their basis. It might well be that a “polychronic time” may be quite compatible with the current tendency for a “multi-tasking mode,” among human beings. In such a mode, neat organisation may be less desirable.


Author: enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “Getting Things Done: Messy Edition”

  1. Interesting comment about private property.
    There’s been a couple attempts at making books the stuff of chance encounters. Leave a book on a bench, with some note in it. Dunno if those attempts have been very successful but I’ve always liked the “message in a bottle” idea.
    Thing is, though, I tend to live more and more exclusively on my computer. Partly the effect of moving so many times, I guess. But, also, it’s so much fun to not have to worry about finding things.
    And speaking of Endnote. is a Web-based citation manager, often offered to all members of a campus. Don’t know about UdeM but we have it at Concordia. It’s really quite useful, for many reasons.

  2. I say Cheers! for messy disorganized people like you and me. I still learn most phone numbers by heart instead of writing them somewhere. I still use my memory as an agenda / calendar ( with a few missteps, I am still overwhelmingly on time and have rarely missed an appointment ( except the doctor’s ;p). When I organize stuff, I never see them again and I forget that I have them, Where as when they are compiled on my desk, they exist and have a history accordng to where they are on my pile of papers. I love doodling in my books and so photocopy articles from library books so I can comment and doodle arrows and curves as I go ( it is just as efficient as endnote data bases without the enormous time lost writing down every citation in some data base. My library is beautifully disorganized except for the fiction non fiction divide which I have managed to keep. I do things at the last minute, loose my stuff every once in a while ( but I manage to lose them in places where I can still find them later) and I love it, when I’m writing to be surrounded by interesting books open on different pages here and there, it’s like sharing the table with my favourite authors. Whatever book has the misfortune of being put in the library gets forgotten for at least a couple of months. And just to conclude, this is my favourite citation o all:

    Je lis des vieux livres parce que les pages tournées de nombreuses fois et marquées par les doigts ont plus de poids pour les yeux, parce que chaque exemplaire d’un livre peut appartenir à plusieurs vies. Les livres devraient rester sans surveillance dans les endroits publics pour se déplacer avec les passants qui les emporteraient un moment avec eux, puis ils devraient mourir comme eux, usés par les malheurs, contaminés, noyés en tombant d’un pont avec les suicidés, fourrés dans un poêle l’hiver, déchirés par les enfants pour en faire des petits bateaux, bref ils devraient mourir n’importe comment sauf d’ennui et de propriété privée, condamnés à vie à l’étagère.

    Erri De Luca, Trois chevaux, 1999.

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